Travel News

Opposites attract

Pat Nourse has seen the future of luxury hotels, and it’s in Beijing. Opposite by name, contrary by nature, The Opposite House swims against the stream to deliver a fresh take on upmarket lodgings.

What's your hotel check-in drill? Off with the shoes, on with the tube and open with the Tanqueray? On with the 'Do Not Disturb', off with the lights? Up with the WiFi and out with the inbox? It may be outing me as a member of the Big Nerd Clan, but pretty much the first thing I want to do is plug in the computer, dock the iPod and get some music on. I'm delighted to see that I'm not alone in this, something I learned upon checking into The Opposite House, Beijing's hottest (and indeed priciest) new address. I whack the Mac down on a bench and start looking for somewhere to hook it up. Nothing, nada, zip. This place takes minimal to new extremes. Potential exasperation turns quickly to fully fledged joy when I yank the first drawer open. It's not a drawer at all, but a flip-out bank of universal power points and jacks to accommodate everything from connections for the hidden speakers to the HDMI hook-up for the monster plasma screen. Drawer number two reveals all the cables you need to make the most of this stuff, tied in neat bundles. If this stuff isn't your bag, of course, you could go your whole stay without even noticing it's there. Easy for those who look for it, invisible to those who don't. It's that sort of place.
Rewinding a few minutes to your arrival at the grand glass box that is The Opposite House and you're struck by another absence. You walk through the doors to be greeted by a lobby that soars the height of the building. Contemporary Asian art dots the room. Part of the floor rises into a black, burbling pond. A dividing wall many, many cubits high is constructed of drawers. (I opened one: it was full of dolls.) What there isn't is a desk stocked with gelled and brocaded receptionists and concierges. In fact, there's no desk at all, just a small army of very helpful and neatly kitted-out 'hosts'.
There seems to have been a top-down decision taken somewhere along the line to unstitch the stuffiness of the hotel experience, putting guests in touch with their own good time as directly as possible. If Hedi Slimane transformed men's tailoring for Dior by pulling out all the stuff and nonsense and reducing the suit to its elegant necessities, this is what the Swire Group, the London-based transnational that also owns Cathay Pacific Airways, in its first purpose-built small-luxury property, has done for hotels with The Opposite House. You sit on a daybed in your suite while your details are taken promptly by a staffer equipped with a digital clipboard. Passport, zap, credit card, zap, and it's done. By the time your bags are brought up, you're free to enjoy your room at leisure, no fuss, no muss.
A friend's wife used to hide in the bathroom until the bellboy had gone, such was her horror of having to stand around while they demonstrated how the airconditioning works. There's none of that here - unless you want it. Your host will walk you through everything, from the way the taps work (you turn them) to the thread-count of the Egyptian cotton sheets (a cool 400) on the whopper of a bed, but only if you ask. If you want maximum hand-holding, you've got it. But the rooms are quietly studded with so much cool stuff that exploring them yourself is a big part of the fun. Where scratching beneath the veneer in too many hotels punctures the illusion, opening each door here reveals another 'Aha!' moment, whether it's the Coopers Pale next to the Tsingtao in the fridge, or the fact that the stereo is wired through to the shower. (Thorough sound-proofing, I hasten to add, means that your neighbour can give their stereo all it's got and you'll be none the wiser.) Everything is plug-and-play and everything works the first time you try it. 
This sort of approach only works, of course, if things are laid out in a manner that doesn't need explaining. There's help available at the press of a button if you need it, but otherwise intuition rules. And it works. Gone are the consoles bearing scores of switches but never the one you want to turn off the lights. Gone are the piles of hotel collateral, the brochures, cardboard cut-outs and sheafs of whatever you want to dump in a glossy pile of glittering generalities behind the couch. Instead, it's expanses of hardwood and acres of linen. And space. So very much space.
More than half of the 99 rooms occupy 70 square metres or more. In layman's terms, that means they're really big, with loft-like open-plan designs. On paper, the idea of unadorned panels of concrete, wraparound glass and timber floors might come across as being cold or airless, but the effect is precisely the opposite. Walk barefoot from bed to bath and you understand the true genius of the design. It's all about texture. There's an almost-but-not-quite rough quality to the broad American white oak floorboards and, this being Beijing of the cold, cold winter, they're also heated when the need arises. The timber theme continues in the (reclaimed) red pine of the beautifully lit hallways. If you like the cultural references in your accommodation to be overt, meanwhile, this might not be the place for you. Chinoiserie does not abound. There's the odd lacquered chest, but that's pretty much it. It's a confident move.
Bathrooms, they say, are how hotel rooms are truly judged. The duckboard floors in the showers are nice, as are the huge showerheads and the dual timber basins. They're nothing, though, in the face of the bath. The oak bath - or, to give it its due, the freestanding deep-soaking tub - might not comfortably accommodate an entire Yao Ming, but by golly it would come close. Any regular-sized, non-basketball-playing human should find it more than adequate: it's long, it's deep, and there'll be no withdrawal. If it were possible to form an emotional attachment to a bathtub, this one would be a prime candidate.
Beijing's an awesome town for eating out, but you'd almost be forgiven for never leaving your hotel room. David Laris is part of the problem, of course. Best known for his restaurant at Shanghai's Three on the Bund complex, Laris consults on the food-and-bev side of the operation, which comprises Bei, a modern Asian restaurant, the more casual, Mediterranean-themed Sureño, plus the basement Punk nightclub and lobbyside Mesh wine bar. He also oversees The Village Café, a breakfast-to-supper place in the heart of the hotel. Its menu doubles as room service, and it could've been lifted from a low-key Mod Oz café anywhere in Australia - from the Thai beef salad to the meat pie to the Vietnamese rolls. There's something comforting about finding beetroot in your burger 'with the lot', while the pavlova with strawberries, passionfruit and vanilla ice-cream does Mum proud. Forget the clothed trolleys, too - all this stuff appears in the rooms in little picnic hampers replete with flasks of watermelon juice, a favoured local tipple. It's cute, but it's also functional.
Sureño, the Mediterranean restaurant, is fine, and lists an interesting watermelon Negroni among its signature drinks, but it's Bei that provides the clearest incentive to dine in the hotel. It operates as a stand-alone venture, and its offer would be compelling here or in the UK or US. Chef Max Levy is a young American who sharpened his sushi skills under traditional masters in Japan and worked with some notable names in New York. The menu at Bei is not specifically Japanese. Bei means 'north', as in Beijing, 'the northern capital', so the brief here incorporates flavours from across the same latitude, combining elements of Korean, Japanese and northern Chinese food in a series of set mod-Asian menus. But the fresh wasabi offered at the table with a sharkskin grater suggests that Japanese is Levy's preferred métier. Grilled Japanese wagyu, served with a bowl of rice and fresh bamboo, is graceful in its simplicity, and the man can do no wrong as far as eel is concerned. The sushi, perhaps unsurprisingly, is nothing short of exquisite. But there are other strings to the Bei bow: Levy's chicken dishes, such as the densely flavoursome thigh on scrambled eggs enlivened with roast tomato kimchi, speak as much to his New Orleans heritage as they do to his adopted cuisine. The chocolate consommé, poured from a warm ceramic pot, will tempt the most committed chocophobes. There's a palpable buzz to the place, and it makes for a potent package.
"The sophisticated traveller is looking for more depth and reality in the way they spend their restaurant and bar dollar," says Laris. "Our target market is always real diners, not just in-house guests." 
Bei overlooks what might just be the edgiest-looking swimming pool of recent memory. It's inside, so don't go planning on working on your tan - this is Beijing, after all - but the stainless-steel expanse is mood-lit by walls of colour, like Rothko on an up-day, and the effect is quite magical. Above the pool hang thousands of crystalline points of light, suspended in the black of the ceiling. The staff have nicknamed this constellation The Matrix with good reason.
This, you're thinking, is what hotels should be about. This, you're thinking, sounds great. All the fun with none of the fluffy valances, ugly paintings, overbearing flunkies or pillow-minting. And you're right. The setting is perfect. Sanlitun is just north-east of the Forbidden City - the heart of today's Beijing. It houses old embassies and new shops. Sanlitun Road used to be known as Bar Street, and indeed scores of very ordinary, rather touristy dives cluster down Workers' Stadium Road's north end. The neighbourhood is home to the horrendous Yashow clothing market, your one-stop shop for Pawl Smith, Dieserl and Hugo Bose, but it's also the site of The Village at Sanlitun, with its whopping great Apple, Adidas and Puma (yes, the real ones) concept stores, brimming with wide-eyed newly minted capitalists. It's full of contrasts and seductive flux, and in the middle of it all is The Opposite House, linked but separate, discreet but standing proud. It's on the cutting edge of the new designer China and the cusp of the latest look of luxe, wising the West up to the very Eastern idea that what you leave out counts as much as what you put in. Amen.