Thursday, 14 August 2014

A Review of Iniala Beach House, Phang Nga - Big Luxury in Little Paradise

So there I was, sitting at the back of my airport pickup from Phuket International and snacking on a caviar tin full of chilled passionfruit spherifications topped with a dainty mint leaf, when my friendly driver makes a throwaway remark.  "Oh Khun Julian, you are so lucky that you didn't fly in last night.  Last night, the police wrongly arrested a local village man for rape, so the villagers started demonstrating and blocked the bridge.  You wouldn't have been able to come to the resort!"

Bridge?  What bridge?

I was in Phuket to pen a review of the luxurious new Iniala Beach House and its flagship restaurant Aziamendi (the Thai outpost of three-Michelin-starred Basque chef Ineko Atxa) for one of Singapore's leading lifestyle magazines.  And it was only when my driver piped up that I realised I wouldn't actually be staying in Phuket.  Iniala, the boutique super-resort set up by social entrepreneur Mark Weingard, was instead situated in Phang Nga on the Thai mainland, across the Sarasin Bridge from Phuket Island.  I am normally prepared and researched to the point of being anal.  Now, feeling queasily uneasy at my clear lack of preparation, all I could do was enjoy the small talk and the passionfruit caviar, chilled and refreshing on this muggy late April day.

The sight that greets you on arrival.

When we pull up at Iniala's manicured lawns, the welcome party, including GM Danny Drinkwater and Executive Chef Sandro Aguilera, is there just for me, as I am the only guest arriving that day.  This is a personal welcome extended to every guest at Iniala, and it is perhaps to be expected when you look at the room rates: in low season, three-bedroom villas start from US$3,250++ per night.  My Penthouse, 415 square metres intended for the use of a couple, goes for a sweet US$2,500++ per night in low season.

The Bedroom at the Iniala Penthouse

The Penthouse, and so much of Iniala, is a sensualist's idea of heaven.  If Captain Picard was a bit of a player, I can see him spending his annual vacations in the futuristic Penthouse.  Even the floor is layered rubber and wool, so it is remarkably comfortable on my weary feet.  It's barely 9.30 am, so Drinkwater invites me out to the terrace for breakfast.  Before me, I find a spread of ridiculously good pastries from Pastry Chef David Inglada, who once held the title of Spain's Best Pastry Chef.  He leaves me alone to contemplate my repast, which is just as well because he would probably have been mortally embarrassed to see me scarf it up like a ravenous wolf.


But Man shall not live on bread alone, so along with my carbo-riffic smorgasbord, I am offered a tortilla (Spanish omelette), made with jamon serrano and finished off with some delightfully herbaceous extra virgin olive oil.  I sit back on the sun-filled terrace, watching the Andaman Sea lapping gently against the glorious Natai shores.


***

I hear Drinkwater's footsteps as he races up the stairs to the Penthouse.  It's time for our tour of the premises, followed by, you guessed it, lunch!

Iniala is a monument to artisans in design, art and gastronomy.  Downstairs, directly beneath my Penthouse, is Aziamendi, on which I will report in full later.  Iniala itself consists of three villas and the Penthouse.  Each of these was allocated to a designer (in the case of the Collectors' Villa, three designers) who was given absolute carte blanche in expressing their aesthetic.  I suspect that Iniala's owner Mark Weingard could not have attracted the same level of talent to collaborate on his project, but for the fact that Iniala was set up (in part, at least) to raise funds for Weingard's Inspirasia Foundation, which combines philanthropy with private sector expertise and rigour to optimise the results achieved.  Iniala currently donates 10% of all revenues (as opposed to profit) to Inspirasia.

Like food, like wine, like art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Some of the work here is breathtaking.  My Penthouse, by locally-based British designer Graham Lamb, is practical and supremely comfortable.  Joseph Walsh's Enignum Bedroom, part of the Collectors'  Villa, is simply breathtaking with its fluid, flowing lines.


A couple of others, for me, show a breathtaking lapse in taste.  In the Games Room, there is a pool table studded with half-a-million Swarovski crystals.  And if you are a habitue of the Kardashian Khronicles, you might have recently seen Kim hanging around in an absurdly lavish emerald green suite set off with golden chandeliers, also in the Collectors'  Villa.  I won't post pictures of these last two because I fear it might pollute my blog's aesthetic.  But as I said, taste is subjective, and doubtless there are people in this world who like that kind of thing.

One thing that I really love about Iniala, is the Kids' Hotel, the work of famous US designer (of course!) Chris Jones.  The Kids' Hotel is a hotel in its own right, intended to be a diversion while the adults get up to whatever adults get up to.  It comes with full sleeping quarters, a specialist kitchen to cook bespoke kiddie treats, costumes for them to play dress-up and activities conceptualised by the Iniala staff.  And it's open, and tended, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

***

The Penthouse

The Penthouse is the jewel in the Iniala crown.  It includes all the requisite mod-cons for a super high-end resort, including an Ad Notam mirror TV which doubles as your computer display (just in case you feel the need to connect while you are in paradise).  A sunken lounge lined with white leather cushions begs for a group of your best friends and a few dozen bottles of good champagne.  It even comes with a fully-equipped kitchen, although this is not meant for guests' use.  And as for the cylindrical shower "cubicle", what it lacks in privacy, it makes up in its appeal to one's latent exhibitionist streak.


The Penthouse has a massive sundeck, accessible from both the lounge and the bedroom area.  Aside from the private pool, the deck is a great place for breakfast, whether you are watching your weight with a tropical fruit plate, or indulging in Inglada's ethereal pastries.  I don't want to massage Inglada's ego any, but I am the worst kind of bread / pastry snob, and his are easily the best I have had in Asia.  So there was no question  what I would bring back as a present for my patient, long-suffering wife.  The gentleman he is, Drinkwater refuses my repeated offer to pay for the pastry basket that he has put together.

Fitness and Spa

For me, the spa is the one possible weakness in Iniala's offering.  Not that the offering is in any way inferior or its menu limited.  However, because Iniala's concept is to provide a self-contained holiday within each Villa, due to space limitations, it does not feature some more esoteric pieces of equipment such as Vichy showers, post-treatment rockpools and the like.

The gym is fully-equipped, and comes with a small boxing ring for sparring sessions.  Specialist personal trainers and muay thai coaches are available for one-on-one appointments.  On my second morning, I hit the pads for a hard 45-minute Muay Thai session, before hitting Inglada's pastries even harder.

Gastronomy

Aziamendi hogs Iniala's gastronomic headlines, and for good reason.  It features a high-powered cast, including Daniel Boulud alumus Alex Burger heading the kitchen, and maitre d' Behzad Davarkia and sommelier Fabien Etienne in the front, both previously senior staff in the Heston Blumenthal empire.  The results, as you would expect, are spectacular.  I will post a fuller review of Aziamendi in time.

But for guests at Iniala, the gastronomic engine room typically is not Aziamendi, but Iniala Dining, a bespoke service served in-house in each Villa.  During high season, when Iniala takes only all-week bookings, the spa and gastronomy package features only two dinners at Aziamendi, the other nineteen regular meals (and various snacks in between if desired) are produced by Iniala Dining, led by Aguilera and his sous chef Phubase Chuprakong.

Before I know it, it's lunchtime, and Drinkwater invites me to lunch at the dining area of the Villa Siam.  Each Villa and the Penthouse is a self-contained resort with bedrooms, bathrooms, dining areas, private pools and even spa therapy areas, so its guests' privacy is virtually assured.

Because I am in Thailand, and I know I will be having a Spanish-inflected European dinner at Aziamendi, I ask for a Thai lunch.  Khun Phubase and I agree on a menu, a classic tom yum goong, grilled beef salad and mango sticky rice.

 

Despite Khun Phubase not being a career Thai cuisine chef, his dishes are quite well-balanced and fresh-tasting, with the trademark heat and tartness of good Thai food.  He also has a quite modern, dare I say it Western-influenced, approach to his native cuisine.  A good example of this is the addition of coconut ice-cream to the mango sticky rice, given the intense heat and humidity outside.  My favourite dish of the lunch is not pictured above, a delicious Chinese-inspired local fish which was simply pan-fried, garnished with deep-fried ginger shreds and seasoned perfectly with a light soy sauce.  At no time was I left in any doubt that the fish was the hero of the dish, clean-tasting and fresh.  I wish I could take that dish and show it to the staff at Char Darwin as an exemplar of how fried fish in soy sauce should taste.

Aguilera cooks me lunch on my second day.  As he tells me, "there is a menu in every villa but no one uses it".  Instead, he is one of the first faces to welcome guests personally to Iniala, and will sit down with them to plan their menu for the week.  Talking to him about this creative process, you get excited yourself.  This is a man who has clearly rediscovered his passion for customer service and cooking, away from the concerns of being an executive chef at a large luxury hotel (he was previously at Phuket's Centara Grande, as were Phubase and Inglada).

Again, his style is quite product-focused and light, very suited to the local climate.  To start, seared tuna is wrapped in a potato "cannelloni" and topped with olive tapenade, a very light preparation despite the amount of potato in the dish.  Challans duck breast pairs beautifully with couscous studded with dried fruits, and a lemon sorbet is all I can fit in before a trip to the beach.


The Beach

Now I can't give Drinkwater and his high-calibre team credit for this, but I have to say that Natai Beach is absolutely stunning.  Perhaps it was the fact that we were no longer in peak season, but there were literally eight people on the entire two kilometre stretch.  There are no drinks vendors here, no beachside masseuses plying their trade.  Apart from Villa Sundara next door, which is a low-density property, I walk along the gorgeous white sands, enjoying the quiet and the sun and breeze.  I can see, looking at the never-ending, uninterrupted horizon, how the Boxing Day Tsunami wreaked such havoc on this area.

But it is not for nothing that I mention the tsunami, because Weingard was at his old villa here on Natai Beach when the tsunami struck back in 2004.  Climbing onto the roof to avoid being swept away by the monster wave, he later returned to demolish his villa.  Iniala now stands where that old villa did, almost a decade ago.

Conclusion

One of the things I admire the most is balls (OK, that didn't come out right, but you know what I mean), and Weingard must have cojones the size of durians to make a project like Iniala come to life.

I made a comment a couple of months ago that Morton's Singapore was, in its approach if not its execution, a restaurant designed for the 1%.  If that is true, then Iniala is a playground for the 0.01%.  After all, how many of us can afford to pay US$29,000 for a week's accommodation?  But a stay here is truly an unforgettable experience, put together for people who want the finest in life, by people who know instinctively how to deliver it.

Iniala is also a tale of reinvention.  For a time back in the mid-2000s, Drinkwater was one of my favourite chefs in Sydney when he was cooking at the Park Hyatt (perhaps not coincidentally, another hotel in spectacular surroundings).  In the last decade or so, he has reinvented himself as a very capable GM, and now the steward of one of the world's most luxurious boutique resorts.  Mark Weingard's old villa has been reinvented to become that very resort.  Now time will tell if the massive ambition of Iniala, powered by its five engines of luxury, art, design, philanthropy and gastronomy, can reinvent tired old Phuket.

Except, of course, that it actually isn't in Phuket.

INIALA BEACH HOUSE
40/14 Moo 6 Baan Natai
T. Khokkloi A. Takuathung
Phang-Nga 82140 Thailand
+66 (0) 76 451 456

reservations@iniala.com
www.iniala.com

2 comments:

  1. Any drinks with the lunch?

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  2. Hi Danny,

    Just a couple with the Thai lunch. I can't remember exactly what they were now, but one of them was from a txakoli from Gorka Izagirre, which is owned by Chef Eneko Atxa's uncle, and the second was a blend from Monsoon Valley in Thailand, I believe of Colombard and Chenin Blanc.

    Both were very different, with the Thai wine having a fair lick of residual sugar. Neither are exclamation marks in the wine world, but they were both very refreshing and welcome in the April humidity!

    ReplyDelete