Where: 12a Berkeley Square House, Berkeley Square, London, W1J 6BS, http://www.benaresrestaurant.com/
Cost: Lunch and pre-theatre menus offer diners 2 courses for £29, and 3 courses for £35. The a la carte menu is pricier, with starters at £13-£18 and mains around £30-50. The tasting menu is better value at £78 for 5 courses (plus £55 with wine flight).
About: Benares is 10 years old this year, and yet the feel of the place is right up to date. A recent refurbishment has left it with a slick, low-lit, nightclub-y feel. The bar bustles with after-work traffic, and the street-facing first-floor restaurant is packed. Chef-patron Atul Kochhar clearly has much to celebrate. And he’s doing so with a 10th anniversary tasting menu that features some of his ‘greatest hits’. Because I’d never eaten at the mothership – only at Kochhar’s satellite restaurant Colony (which he opened in partnership in 2010 and left in 2011) – I was determined not to be put off by recent reviews complaining of too much fried fare, some of it greasy. I need not have worried. The tasting menu was a polished procession of well thought out food, executed to a very high standard, each dish offering a deep dive into a complex underworld of spice, heat and aromatic flavour.
But first things first. I began in the bar (as leathery as a luxury car) with a cocktail. A passion-fruit chutney martini – sweet and fulsome on the tongue, but with a cheeky after-bite of chilli. It was delicious, and I could happily have knocked back a second glass. In fact, drinking spicy martinis was just the thing to do at the chef’s table where we were soon seated – a cozy private dining room, with a direct view onto the busy kitchens.
What we ate: My highly amusing bouche was a mini ice-cream cone piped full of cold, super-smooth, terracotta-coloured chicken tikka mousse. It was clever and surprising, without being overwrought.
The only down note of the entire meal was served next. It was Kochhar’s signature crispy soft shell crab, served with Piri-Piri lobster cocktail. Why was it a downer? Well, it was too mildly spiced for starters, the Piri-Piri sauce bland and indistinct. And the soft shell crab was, alas, a little greasy. My problem is that having grown used to genuinely crispy tempura batter, a heavier, less toothsome, and seemingly gram-flour based batter, didn’t really cut it. The best I can say for the dish is that the mild Piri-Piri mayo cut the enthusiastically salted crab.
From here on, the meal was faultless. A smart Asian twist on ‘surf n turf’ married a juicy lump of fennel-infused lamb chop to a fat butterflied prawn, bursting with mustardy, garlicky, yogurt-y zing. A crisp-fried fillet of sea bass, bathed in a spiced coconut sauce, was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and nicely paired with a slightly crunchy mix of vermicelli and cabbage.
The food was so bright on the palate, so light and more-ish, that I didn’t even notice the complete absence of Indian staples such as rice and bread, until the next dish arrived. This was the closest thing to a main course I’ve ever eaten on a tasting menu, and it was great to have something as hearty as lamb, because it turned the meal into something more than a grazing session. And because the previous fare had been so light, I had plenty of room to indulge. This dish just sang. Slices of pan-roasted lamb, still pink, were served alongside a samosa filled with braised shoulder meat, and a hot potato and broad bean mound. To accompany this there was a miniature jug of Rogan Josh sauce and a plate of feather-light naan, agleam with garlicky ghee. Every mouthful of this dish exploded with flavour; rich meatiness, surprisingly sharp Rogan Josh sauce, and comforting buttery naan. Perfection itself. If you’d asked me at the time, I’d have said that I could die happy there and then. But then, writing this now, a couple of weeks later, I’m desperate to eat it again.
Dessert was also sensational. Unpretentiously served in a glass tumbler, it was a layered confection of hibiscus and tea jelly and raspberry puree, topped with a big dollop of steamed yogurt blended with condensed milk (called Bhapa Dhoi) that was infused with rose petals. It was delicate and creamy, with just the right textural lift provided by a freeze-dried raspberry crumb.
What we drank: According to the sommelier, the best wines to drink with Indian food are light and fruity. Or, as was the case here, lighter and fruitier versions of wines normally associated with big flavours. Thus the crab was matched with a crisp and appley Viognier (sold at £46); the bass came with a delightful – and uncloying – Alsatian Gewurztraminer; and the lamb was served with a berry-rich Cotes de Roussillon from the Corbieres region. A bolder pairing matched the Tandoori meats with a 2011 St Laurent, from the Neusiedlersee wine-growing region on the eastern shore of lake Neusiedl, in Austria. It was soft, elegant, fruity, and very smoky on the nose, which worked well with food from the tandoor, and it had a sophisticated, slightly sour aftertaste. This wine was well worth its £52 price tag. With the Bhapa Dhoi we drank a 2009 Chenin Blanc, from the Loire. At £70 this was the priciest wine in the flight, bold, floral, and clean tasting.
Likes: Benares offers a slick and accomplished dining experience with great foodie punch. The unusually thoughtful matching of wines with flair to food of uncompromising character is a real strength.
Dislikes: Occasionally, dishes such as the soft shell crab with Piri-Piri lobster cocktail don’t quite meet expectations.
Verdict: Benares will no doubt be around for another ten years, still serving cutting-edge modern Indian food. But the new tasting menu is only available until September; so if, like me, you’ve been looking for an excuse to visit Benares, this is it.