The minute I step out of the taxi in the Elysian's courtyard entrance, I know I am in for a refreshingly different hotel experience: a doorwoman in a black suit whisks my suitcases out of the car and says "Welcome, Ms Gannon." (Clever - she must have checked my baggage tags.) At reception, Nadim, who checks me in, tells me he was born in Dubai. He walks me through the restaurant and spa options and suggests the Chicago Tribune for my newspaper. He then shows me to my room, and when another woman arrives with my suitcases, she politely turns down my tip: "It's not necessary," she says. "It's our service."
I later find out that everyone in the hotel refuses tips, although service charges are included in the spa and restaurants. What a revelation: how relaxing it is not to fumble around for bills in a foreign currency every five minutes. Similarly, wireless and local calls are free.
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The Elysian is in the well-heeled Gold Coast neighbourhood at the north end of the Magnificent Mile, aka Michigan Avenue. Most of the Magnificent Mile's shopping destinations are within walking distance: Marc Jacobs is located in the hotel, while stores such as Barneys New York and Prada are a block away. And while you'll find plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from, Millennium Park, the new heart of Chicago, is a short taxi ride away.
Everyone I encounter at the Elysian, from the people opening doors to the reception staff, from the IT fixers to the waiters, from the concierge to the spa attendants, are chatty and familiar. "Got it," is an expression I hear a lot over the phone. "Yay!" the concierge claps. But they are all also very serious about service. Everything is executed with clockwork precision. Room service arrives precisely when promised (25 minutes); a technician shows up with a spare laptop when I can't get wireless on my iPad just in case he can't fix the problem (he does); and not only does the front desk call local grocery stores to track down Vienna beef wieners, a Chicago staple, a gift for my friend, but the hotel's courtesy Lexus also whisks me away to buy them.
The decor is modern yet classically elegant, with taupe walls and white and black furnishings, and a bed with 460-thread-count Italian linen so comfortable I forget I exist when I fall asleep. My executive suite has a terrace and a gas fireplace, although I'm told most of the 188 rooms do. There's a large flatscreen television in the living room and bedroom, as well as another backlit one behind the bathroom mirror. The fancy all-on/off switches actually work. A Bowers & Wilkins iPod dock provides higher-than-usual sound quality in the bedroom.
For breakfast in my room I order a granola parfait with organic whole milk yogurt and home-made fruit preserves (US$10; Dh37), freshly squeezed grapefruit juice ($7; Dh26) and French press coffee ($7; Dh26). Unexpectedly for a "healthy" breakfast, the granola is freshly crunchy and the fruit is bursting with flavour. Again, I opt for room service for dinner in front of my gas fireplace, choosing a thin-crusted, rich, cheesy pizza called tarte flambée ($19; Dh70). Balsan, the main restaurant, offers a three-course "Sunday supper" ($29; Dh107). On the Sunday I'm there, the menu consists of wood-oven roasted beets and hiramasa crudo (sashimi) for an appetiser; chicken fricassee, potato risotto, creamed spinach and paella, all served in little pots, for the main, and Meyer lemon sorbet cups with poppy-seed shortbread for dessert. RIA, the seafood restaurant, just received two Michelin gold stars; unfortunately it's closed on Sunday.
Although the bar and restaurants at the weekend are packed with well-dressed revellers engaged in exuberant banter, most of the guests who quietly come and go are stylish yet discreet: think dot-com business travellers, mothers/daughters out shopping and beautiful couples.
The little details are a delight: the room has a freshly stocked ice drawer, magazines such as Vanity Fair and smart stationery cards labelled "Before I forget". And then there is the hotel's decor, by the Chicago firm Simeone Deary. The lobby feels like an art gallery, all white marble punctuated by modern Grecian busts and a painting that bursts with jade green behind the front desk, lit by a chandelier inspired by a Chanel brooch. Lastly, the cosy gas fireplace on a cold Chicago day makes it hard to ever leave.
The Elysian makes itself bulletproof when it comes to criticism. My only regret was not being able to get a private Pilates session at the last minute on the weekend.
The brains and money behind this brand hope to expand; I'll follow the Elysian around the world, if it stays true to its artistic design and simple-yet-efficient service philosophy.
The bottom line
Double rooms cost from $456 (Dh1,675) per night, including taxes.The Elysian, 11 East Walton, Chicago (www.elysianhotels.com; 800 500 8511).