WHEN Giorgio Armani ate for the first time at Ristorante in his new eponymous hotel in Dubai, apparently he dubbed it “the best restaurant in Milan”. Aside from heady praise for good food, it’s a telling summation of the intrinsic Italian style of the Armani Hotel.
From the slim black suits, T-shirts, casual loose pants and pencil skirts that pass as various styles of uniform (staff are better dressed than most guests) to an outpost of Milan’s 125-year-old Peck Deli and Armani Dolci confectionery and biscotti boutique, this property is like a carefree little Italian colony lightly tethered to the homeland.
The 160-room hotel, which opened in April in the designated Downtown Dubai district, is the first Armani property (others are in the pipeline; one in Milan is scheduled to open next) and occupies floors ground to eight and levels 38 and 39 of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. It’s a joint venture with the developer Emaar Properties, whose chairman, Mohamed Alabbar, describes the location as “one of the most prestigious” on earth. There are also Armani Residences for sale, for jetsetters with cool millions to spare, on levels nine to 16. As Dubai slowly recovers from its debt crisis, the hotel’s opening is evidence of renewed investment confidence in a destination frequently derided for its bling-a-ding fakery.
A comprehensive strategy of Armani branding extends to monogrammed towels in the grey stone bathrooms and sugar cubes stamped with a blocky capital A. Mr Armani (call him Giorgio at your peril) is no fan of hectic colours and even wanted black soap but there was “a design problem” I am told. Instead, after months of trials in (perhaps) special soap clinics, Armani Savon is rusty red and in the irregular form of volcanic stones from Sicily’s Pantelleria Island, where he keeps a holiday villa. This splash of colour – and the scarlet-trimmed chairs and bunched flowers in Hashi, the hotel’s Japanese restaurant – are the few vibrant exceptions in a studiously sober property where black, white, grey and beige rule unopposed.
It all seems very un-Dubai; there isn’t a framed picture to be seen, no curlicues or chandeliers. The only gold leaf adorns the hand-sculpted desserts at Ristorante. If he could, surely Mr Armani would turn down the brash desert sun scorching the Burj Khalifa’s massive glass walls.
The soaring lobby, with a faux-cathedral installation of interlocking bronzed arches, has no reception desk but Lifestyle Managers, all faultless in their grooming and shiny smiles, waft about like runway models. These members of staff are assigned to specific guests (each handles about 20 rooms) and make personal contact by email as soon as a booking is made; you can have your stay tailor-made according to your preferences. It’s a hands-on approach (“360-degree service,” says my Lifestyle Manager) that enhances the carefully managed and clubby nature of the hotel but won’t suit every traveller; there’s a feeling of trying just a bit too hard to please that could border on the intrusive.
The corridors are so streamlined and intriguingly lit that opening a handle-free guestroom door requires confidence and techno-cred (fumble, as I do, and a gleaming Lifestyle Manager may just pop up on cue, like an uncorked genie). There are 11 room categories, from studios to signature suites, all with curved walls and columns, and super-sleek decor. “Minimalist opulence” is the official tag and Mr Armani apparently spent five years overseeing the materials used throughout the property.
There are Eramosa stone floors in the lobby, zebrawood panelling and spongy, tatami-like flooring in corridors, walls covered in Florentine leather and satin-weave fabrics, all extremely plush and tactile. The level of detailing and regard for comfort is very high. The shiny black guestroom desks, which look like honky-tonk pianos, are even fitted with black pencils and sharpeners, while at turndown, black Armani slippers and candied nuts appear, the latter in Armani-branded boxes.
“Mr Armani’s favourite flower is the white rose,” a Lifestyle Manager tells me in hushed tones as we pause at Armani Fiori, a mini-florist off the lobby where all the blooms are indeed white, from unblemished roses and hyacinths to flouncy hydrangeas. “Only one type of flower in each arrangement, of course,” she whispers.
Dining: Excellent breakfasts (scrumptious Sicilian honey and marmellata) and buffet meals at Mediterraneo on the first floor; there’s fancy Indian at Amal; and sashimi, noodles and teppanyaki dishes at Hashi, which has sit-up counters and a sake bar as well as more formal seating. But the stand-out option is Ristorante where executive chef Emiliano Bernasconi and his all-Italian brigade work in a central open kitchen, performing as if on a stage.
Ristorante is softly lit with arching lights, there are circular tables with sink-into lounges and the imaginative pastas, saffron or black ink risottos and Mediterranean classics are terrific. Do try the signature dessert, a blown-sugar cone that looks like a Faberge egg and encases vanilla bavarois, violet-flavoured cream and cassis sorbet. “It is made by the same method as glass-blowers use on the island of Murano in Venice,” Bernasconi tells me. He’s not bragging; it’s just another moment of Italian operatics, Armani-style.
Hot tip: Check the late-night action (to 3am) at the Armani Prive lounge with its backlit onyx booths and international DJs. It is the place to be seen in Dubai this northern summer — and Planet Dubai, with its myriad groovy places catering to the expat push, is not short of show-off venues. Be sure to try the Armani Spa where you book a time slot (say, 90 minutes) and therapists design a series of treatments to suit. These are “bespoke sensory experiences”, if we are to stick to the hotel parlance; it’s a different take on choosing from a standard spa menu and the atmosphere wafts with (naturally) fragrant Armani oils and dainty aromas of hibiscus and lemongrass teas. There’s also a gym, outdoor pool and a thermal suite of hydro-therapy gizmos, ice fountains, saunas and steamrooms.
Stepping out: Next door is the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping centre, which is enhanced by the planet’s biggest dancing fountain (they don’t go in for anything squib-sized in the United Arab Emirates). The mall has more than 1200 retail outlets, a gold souk and branches of Bloomingdale’s and Galeries Lafayette department stores. There’s private access from the Armani Hotel for guests but, oddly, not a direct route or priority entry to Burj Khalifa’s observation deck on gasp-inducing level 124.
Everyone’s talking about: The in-room technology includes a remote controller with camera that allows you to see who’s at your door and then unlock it without leaving your bed or sofa. A vestibule entrance to each guestroom has double doors in deference to female Muslim guests who can have room-service meals delivered and left in this entryway, ensuring no contact with male staff. As a further nod to cultural sensibilities in the UAE, the complimentary mini-bars in each guestroom contain no alcohol. But cocktails and the like are served at all outlets in the hotel and Italian wines by the glass are a feature, as are the most fashionably presented espressos in Dubai.
Essentials Emirates first-class passengers flying to or from Dubai are entitled to a complimentary two-night stay with breakfasts at the Armani Hotel, valid to August 31. More: 1300 303 777; emirates.com/au. Studio rooms from about 2000 UAE dirhams ($640), depending on the season. More: dubai.armanihotels.com.