Monday, January 31, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch: To Taj or Not to Taj.....

Okay, I admit it! I am a curmudgeon.  Everyone in our group was intent on seeing the Taj Majal and were really excited about going to Agra.  I on the other hand was the Marquis de Blasé, a big white mausoleum, wooohooo.  Frankly, I just didn’t get it.   Its not like there was a Chanel outlet inside it.  I’d seen plenty of photos and what more could you get from it live?
So, when I was told we would be getting up before the crack of dawn in order to be at the Taj Mahal for sunrise, I almost told everyone “have fun, I’ll be sleeping”.  Then again, as I had traveled halfway around the world, I figured I should at least go along and see what all the fuss was about.

We arrived at the Taj Mahal while it was still dark out and waited in line outside. It was very cold that morning and I found myself shuffling back and forth to try to keep warm and asking myself what I was doing here so early in the morning.  I mean I hadn’t even had a coffee yet.  Finally, just before 7AM, they opened the entrance and we passed through security.  We made our way through a courtyard and then through a building that served as a gate to the Taj Mahal.   As the sun began to rise, the Taj became visible through fog, which was particularly heavy at the base, giving it the illusion of floating in the clouds.  It was almost dream like, something you would see in a fairytale, not quite real.  The magnificence of the Taj and its allure were finally clear to me.  You really did have to be there in person to really appreciate it.  We made our way through the complex, in and out of the Taj itself and into the buildings that flank either side of it.  Up close, the craftsmanship and artistry of the Taj was quite stunning.  The pure white marble is inlaid with semi-precious stones creating floral and geometric patterns at the entrances and inside the Taj.  

The Taj is a monument to love, having been built by Shah Jahan, emperor of the Mughal Empire, after his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth. The grief stricken emperor began building the mausoleum for his wife in 1632 and it was complete in 1648, with the surrounding buildings and gardens completed by 1653.  It is in this context and seeing it in person that you truly get the majesty of the Taj and the romanticism that it elicits.  I admit that I got totally caught up in the romantic element. 

After spending several hours appreciating this masterpiece, we had a quick breakfast and then went shopping for the one item that Agra is most famous for: inlaid marble.  There are a few companies that produce inlaid marble pieces in Agra, but of the ones that we saw, Akbar International was the best.  Using the same technique that was used to decorate the marble at the Taj Mahal, white marble is inlaid with semi-precious stones to create beautiful floral and geometric patterns.  Small pieces start in the low hundreds and go up in price based on size, intricacy of design and number of stones used.  For larger pieces, they include shipping to your home destination. A great souvenir of your trip to Agra, it can’t help but remind you of the Taj Mahal and the romantic experience that it conjured up for you.

So, this curmudgeon was won over.  I truly get it and am thankful that I was goaded into making the visit.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch: A Long Day's Journey into Jaipur!

Having only been in Delhi for 2 days, we were off on a 3 day trip that would take us to Jaipur, Agra and back to Delhi.  Since I had only just scratched the surface of Delhi, I wondered what I would find on our journeys to other areas of the country.

We zoomed out of Delhi as the sun began to rise.  The buildings and congestion slowly gave way to open fields filled with the bright yellow flowers of mustard plants.  Intensely colored saris dotted the landscape of the small towns that we drove through and in the fields of the countryside, creating a rich visual experience.  

As we got further away from Delhi, the make-up of the traffic changed, adding in to the mix carts driven by oxen and most surprisingly for me, carts driven by camels!  Somehow I had never thought of camels being in India, an animal that I most associated with the Middle East.  But there they were, hauling loads, an integral part of transportation in these regions.  The traffic became even more interesting as we entered the streets of Jaipur, with all of the motorized vehicles, rickshaws, camels and oxen converging together to tangle up traffic in impossible to get out of knots.  Our driver Dinesh was unfazed by it all and even in the most bottlenecked areas was able to maneuver through it to our destination.

We picked up a city guide and went to our first stop, the Amber Fort.      Construction began in 1592 under Raja Man Singh I, army commander of Emperor Akbar, and completed by his descendant Jai Singh I. The fort houses the palace complex and is a beautiful fusion of Mughal and Hindu architecture, built of red sandstone and white marble.  When gazing out from the ramparts of the fort, the first thing that strikes you is the fortified wall that serpentines up and over the surrounding hills, very much like the Great Wall of China and Maotha Lake below, a picturesque view to say the least. Elephants walk through the great palace courtyard, depositing riders from below at the entrance to the palace.  We easily spent several hours in the fort, going from room to room, exploring the different sections of the palace and the Shila Mata Temple housed within it.  The palace itself has no furnishings, leaving you to focus on the architecture, although I somehow wished that there was some type of furnishing to give you an idea of how the people who inhabited this great space lived.

From the Amber Fort, we dashed across town for lunch at The Copper Chimney restaurant.  In the center of the restaurant stands an actual copper chimney, thus the name.  We dined on a mix of Mushroom Mattar, Paneer Tikka, Vegetable Biryani, Chicken Tandoori and Murgh Makhani (Butter Chicken) along with the requisite Garlic and Plain Naan.  The surroundings were pleasant, the service excellent and the food was delicious.  A nice respite from the bustle outside, we had a pleasant lunch here and I would recommend it heartily to other travelers coming to Jaipur.

After our satisfying lunch, we continued on to  the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds.  It is mostly a facade that was built in 1799 for the ladies of the royal household to enjoy the breeze and to look out upon processions in the street below, without showing themselves to the people below.  Although the facade is beautiful, I highly suggest that you go inside, as the structure is quite interesting and I loved gazing out from the screened windows and imagining what it would have been like for the women of the royal court.

Then we went on to the Jantar Mantar, a observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh II, ruler of Jaipur from 1699-1743 and a learned astronomer. The purpose of the observatory was to precisely fix the astrological dates, important to the Hindu people as these dates governed their lives.  The observatory consists of oversized instruments that to this day accurately tell time and determine dates.

We then proceeded to a view of the Jal Mahal, or Lake Palace, built in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, a man made lake created in the 16th century after the construction of a dam.  The 5 story palace was a getaway spot for the royalty and from the shore seems to beautifully float upon the water.

As we made our way to our hotel, we made one last stop at a hill that had a beautiful view of the city at dusk.  We climbed a section of the Jaipur wall to get the best vantage point and shared the view with numerous monkeys.

We finally arrived at our hotel, the Shahpura House.  Built in traditional Rajput architectural style, a mix of Mughal and Hindu, the hotel was a pleasant end to a vey long day.  As we registered, the manager brought us glasses of a hot tomato based soup to sip and then we were taken to our rooms.  The marble floored rooms were quite pleasant and interesting in that they gave a true feeling to the culture of the area, as opposed to a generic hotel that we might have stayed at.  We had a light dinner at the rooftop restaurant, where we were entertained by local musicians and dancers throughout the meal.  As we were all exhausted by that point, we turned in early in anticipation of our next day’s journey to Agra and the famed Taj Mahal.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch: MANGO is not just a Fruit!

Fresh on the heels of her Best Actress Tony Award for the revival of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge", Scarlett Johansson returns as the face of MANGO for the fourth consecutive season!

The setting for the photo shoot was La Ricarda House, a dramatic modernist house in Barcelona.  Photographed by Mario Sorrenti, the shoot was styled by Jane How, with hair by Oribe and make-up by Aaron de May.  In recent years, Ms. Johansson has usually gone after the old Hollywood Glamour look, but in this ad campaign, they have created a look that is much younger, sophisticated and modern, befitting the location and the MANGO label.

Ms. Johansson commented on her relationship with the brand and on the shoot by saying, "Yes, it has been great working with MANGO. I loved working with the whole team – I think between Mario, the makeup and hairdressing teams and the stylist, we have created something special."

The new MANGO collection, called Modernist Resort, aims for a clean, modernist approach with a focus on simple lines and minimalist silhouettes that use bright colours and graphic contrasts in the stripes to add energy. The longer skirts move towards pencil styles and slightly fuller forms, adding movement and sensuality.

The colour palette of the collection is a mix of bright lemons, mint green, and watermelon with nude and tan shades giving the colour story a feeling of sophistication.  Accents of bright reds, oranges and yellows give depth to the beige tones and blue shades are used to create a retro sailor look.

Starting out in Barcelona in 1984, the company has grown to over 1,700 stores worldwide.  I personally have been in their stores in most major American cities and as far away as Bangkok. Providing chic fashion trends at affordable prices, the company's growing success is no surprise and Scarlett Johansson is the perfect face to convey MANGO's message.

Photos Courtesy of MANGO

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch: Ravi Bajaj Men's Wear

Upon arriving at the GK1 N-Block Market in New Delhi, way before I found Fabindia and all of the other treasures there, a boutique on the corner grabbed my attention.  In the window was a nicely tailored jacket paired with an eye-catching pair of pants in a buttery paisley print.  The paisley fabric was gorgeous and just subtle enough to make a statement without being ridiculous.  Intrigued, I had to enter the boutique.

The boutique, named for the owner/designer, Ravi Bajaj, houses a wonderful collection of men’s wear in elegant fabrics.  Aside from beautiful fabrics and exquisite tailoring, the most remarkable element of the collection is Mr. Bajaj’s skill at blending western wear with updated traditional Indian garments.  Lapeled jackets, Nehru jackets, sherwani, kurtas, and stylish pants make up a collection that I found irresistible.  Granted these are designer level prices, but you get what you pay for and these clothes are worth it.


Ravi Bajaj, a native of Delhi, attended the American Colege of Applied Arts in London before launching his label in 1987.  His line has grown over the years and it has understandably become a favorite of many of Bollywood’s leading men.

Since Ravi Bajaj has yet to appear in the American market, I know that I will be going to his stores in India whenever I am visiting Delhi or Mumbai.  Being a picky fashionista, it is hard for me to find clothes for myself that truly excite me and Ravi Bajaj’s line does just that.  Any plans to come to the western market?  I would welcome it!

Photos Courtesy of Ravi Bajaj

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch: Fast Food Confessional!

A long long time ago, in a land far away, I was fortunate to be able to work at Nina Ricci Haute Couture.  While in that venerable house, I was truly blessed to work along side the craftsman of the art of Haute Couture.  Some of them had been at Nina Ricci as far back as the 1950’s and it was an awesome experience to absorb all of the knowledge that they had to offer.
While thread tracing a pattern or hemming a gown, we would all chat and me being a wise guy would always tease the ladies that I worked with about never having been to McDonald’s.  Not that I was a big fan of McDonald’s, I just liked pretending to be a big fan and extolling its virtues just to see their reactions. Being proper French women, they would turn their noses in the air, saying that they would never eat that junk.  So one day, I took them all to lunch at McDonald’s, just so they could experience it at least once and form an educated opinion.  As I suspected, they thought the burgers were “just okay”, nothing you would want to eat often, but they all agreed that the fries were exceptional and conceded that they might in the future pop in just for fries.  I agreed, the fries being my one fave thing at McDonald’s.

The Scene of the Crime on the Champs Elysées
When I finally became 100% vegetarian.  i thought well at least I can still eat MickeyD’s fries. Wrongo Buffy!  I found out that in the USA, McDonald’s processes their fries using beef fat.  Bummer, I would have to live without their fries.  I have, but I still miss them.
Fast forward to my recent trip to India.  The cow is sacred in India, so you won’t find any hamburgers at the McDonald’s that are opening across the country.  That being said, the fries in India are 100% vegetarian!!  Okay, I know it is sick that I was traveling to this exotic country and I was looking forward to McDonald’s fries, but there you have it!
On my first day in Delhi, we popped into a McDonald’s for a snack and I wanted to try everything that they had that was vegetarian.  My meatatarian companions tried out the non veggie menu.  The non veggie menu consisted of a Chicken Maharaja Mac (Basically a Big Mac made with chicken patties), Filet-oFish, Chicken McNuggets, McChicken, Chicken McGrill and a Chicken Mexican Wrap.  They thought that other than not offering any beef hamburgers, the only really different item from the US menu was the Chicken Maharaja Mac.

I dove into the veggie menu and tried the McAloo Tikki, a breaded patty consisting of potatoes, peas and Indian spices with a spicy mayonaise type condiment, tomatoes and onion.  It is kind of like having a samosa on a bun.  I had been very curious to try it and actually liked it very much!  My non veg companions weren’t too into it, but it hit the spot for me.  I also tried the Paneer Salsa Wrap, not at all what I expected.  The wrap was definitely a take on Mexican food and even though I enjoyed it, I preferred the McAloo Tikki.  I ate copious amounts of fries and they were as good as I remembered them.  Don’t understand why they need to have beef fat in them in the US, as everyone agreed that they could not tell the difference.

On the rest of my journey through India, I did not visit McDonald’s again.  Way too many good Indian restaurants to try and experience the different regional dishes!

However, as I was at the airport in Delhi for my return flight to the States, I did hit the airport McDonald’s for a try of their McVeggie burger, which was not vey different from the McAloo Tikki other than having shredded lettuce and mayonaise on it!  Of course I did indulge in more fries.  I mean, I wouldn’t have them again for who knows how long! At least another year until I would return to India!  Interesting how I have to leave the Fast Food Capitol of the world in order to actually have fast food!  Only problem is that now I am craving a McAloo Tikki while State side.  Drats!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch: New Delhi Fab Shopping & Fabindia!

GK-1 N-Block Market
Having spent the previous day in Old Delhi exploring the Chandni Chowk Market, I was ready to discover what New Delhi had to offer.  I wouldn’t have missed the experience of going through the ancient market for the world, but as you must know by now, I am constantly in need of a chic shopping experience.  I was sure that New Delhi must have an abundance of such venues, but how does one find them?  I asked some folks at the US Embassy and they pointed me in the direction of my first destination: Greater Kailash.

Greater Kailash is a section of South Delhi that houses some of the most affluent residential areas and shopping districts in all of Delhi.  Geographically it is divided into four zones and they are referred to as GK-I, GK-II, GK-III, & GK-IV.  The shopping areas are identified by block letters, with the M-Block market boasting such famous brands as Esprit, Sisley, Benneton, Addidas, LaCoste, etc.  I was more interested in finding shopping that would be less generic and more representative of India, so we headed over to the N-Block Market in GK-1.

I was looking for chic Indian shopping and by jove I’d found it!  The N-Block Market is home to a cluster of shops and restaurants that will give you that much needed shopping therapy!  Stunning silver giftware can be found at Episode, home furnishings and wine glasses at Tarini, designer clothing at the boutique of Indian designer Ravi Bajaj, and contemporary designs using traditional textile craft at Anokhi can all be found here.  You can also grab a bite to eat at the chic group of Kasbah Restaurants, which offer Indian or Italian Cuisine.  For lighter meals, you can grab a bite at Café Turtle or some dessert at Kasa Gelato.  And if you are looking for that drink to end the day (or begin your evening!) Head over to Mannekin Bar & lounge or to Shalom for Lebanese Cuisine and hookahs!