Benares

Glass of Journey's End Chardonnay 2006, South AfricaAs a treat for turning another year older, my other half took me to Atul Kochhar’s Michelin-starred Benares on Berkeley Square. Benares offers Indian cuisine of the finest order, with recipes taking their inspiration from all over the sub continent, and although Kochhar’s latest venture Colony has come in for quite a lot of stick, the flagship Benares is somewhere I’ve been dying to try ever since Atul was a guest lecturer back at Leiths Cookery School.

The restaurant is as luxurious and chic as one would expect from somewhere occupying a piece of prime Mayfair real estate, and the servers are typically polite and particularly well informed. Arriving at the very beginning of evening service, the staff were impeccable for the first half of our meal, but slowed to a tiresome level by the end as the restaurant filled up – having to repeatedly chase waiters for my coffee is not something I would expect to have to do here, but it happened. We will forgive them, however, as the meal itself was one of the most flawless I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying, and amply demonstrated why Kochhar is so respected amongst his peers.

Poppadoms & Chutneys
To start, we were treated to that mainstay of any British Indian restaurant – poppadoms and chutneys. I’m not normally a fan of poppadoms, seeing them as a tasteless vehicle for excessive amounts of lime pickle, but these mini versions were a complete delight – light, crunchy, utterly grease free and with real wheaty flavour. The chutneys were all fabulous – gooseberry was the surprise savoury-sweet-sharp winner, and the tomato relish was bursting with fresh cherry tom flavour paired with a distinct musky spice taste – exactly how I imagine the word ‘bosky’ tastes.

Amuse Bouche - Lamb patty on yoghurt raita, tamarind sauce & mint chutneyAmuse bouche came in the form of a tiny ball of minced lamb injected with mint chutney, and resting on yoghurt raita and a rich reduced tamarind sauce. The texture was dry, almost falafal-like, but the chutneys and raita balanced it with moisture perfectly, and the spices were perfectly balanced.

Our starter trio was a salad of prawn pickled with Indian five spice; terrine of confit duck leg; and curry leaf and tarragon-infused lobster rillet, all served with fennel seed naan glazed with honey and saffron. The prawn had a great chilli heat and was squeakily fresh; the highly spiced duck collapsed into shards of meltingly tender meat heavy with cardamom and five spice and was topped with a refreshing quenelle of apple and aniseed puree.

1st Starter TrioThe lobster rillet was tender shellfish wrapped up in a creamy, herby sauce that perfectly complimented the lobster without masking it. Without a doubt it was the best seafood dish either of us have ever had. Etiquette went out of the window as we tore off hunks of the delicious naan and wiped the plate clean of every last morsel. Garnishes tend towards the pointless in my opinion, but the plates we were served were dusted with a mystery powder of deep intensity, and a hint of almost porky savouriness – which the waiter revealed to be black salt and toasted cumin – and we mopped up every last crumb.

For our ‘second’ course we both had tandoor-roasted quail in red chilli and yoghurt marinade, and spiced minced lamb skewer, both of which were tasty but very salty, although a bitter mint chutney cut through it well, and the accompanying “La Rocca” Soave refreshed the mouth between bites so it wasn’t overwhelming. The quail was lightly crusted in chilli infused breadcrumbs and was powerfully spicy. The kitchen had managed to take this nearly fatless bird and cook it to crisp on the outside and stunningly tender and juicy within, it was a mini feast of bone-gnawing and finger-licking. B’s third dish in the trio was mustard monkfish tail with tamarind glaze, which had a real ‘by the bone’ meaty flavour, with a rich reduced tamarind sauce that worked a treat. My third element was a tandoori chicken, not mind-blowing, but interestingly done with saffron rather than red chilli, so it had a completely different flavour profile to the earlier quail.

3rd Main Course TrioOur last savoury course was corn-fed chicken supreme with a ginger sauce, and roasted rump of lamb on rosemary chickpeas. B’s third element was goujons of john dory in a crisp gram flour batter, which looked so good I almost regretted opting for a mystery alternative until my plate was put before me, containing the largest prawn I have ever seen, big enough to masquerade as a lobster tail, and served with a spicy onion sauce. This course came the closest to disappointing, as the lamb was so rare it was a struggle to cut with the regular table knife provided and there was a hefty strip of raw tendon in mine. The pilaff the chicken was served on had been overcooked or over stirred so the rice grains had broken up too much. These mere textural issues failed to spoil the meal however, as the flavours were still outstanding. The lamb was gorgeously crusted, and went amazingly well with the rosemary chickpeas, and the rice was flavoured with a delicious sauce of fresh tomatoes. B’s John Dory was a real triumph of Anglo-Indian fusion food – it was essentially fish and chips, but done with a colonial twist – the gram flour in the batter gave a glorious flavour, as well as a superb crispness, and the goujons came on a bed of aromatic peas, both intact and crushed.

Dessert trio At this point in the meal we were starting to struggle with fullness, so it was a relief that the first dish in the trio of desserts was a light sorbet – classic mango, a sweet chilling mouthful to carve space for the next two dishes. The second was an allspice-infused dark chocolate brownie, which was dense and fudgy, heavy with cocoa solids and a complex mixture of spices. The final dessert was so good it suddenly threatened the first course lobster for the title of best dish of the evening. It was described as a Lavender scented steamed yoghurt ‘cake’, but it was more like a dense mousse, topped with a bubble of lemon foam, and was by far the most dreamy and divine dessert I’ve ever had.

Coffee & Amuse Bouche Coffee came with a little plate of petit fours – a sweet blackcurrant jelly, an icing-sugar coated biscuit of pistachio and cardamom, a tiny brazil-nut caramel, and a superb baby profiterole with a mango-infused cream centre. None were exactly mind-blowing, but they didn’t need to be, we were so full at this point! An Indian meal would not feel quite right without a gloriously soothing hot towel, and at Benares they deliver these as a little party piece – two white pellets on a tiny plate were brought to our table, smelling deeply of lavender and violet. A jug of steaming water is poured onto the pellets, and they erupt upwards like razorclams extruding from their shells – completely unnecessary but all the more amusing and diverting for that.

We had the ‘grazing’ menu, with accompanying wines to match – four courses of three dishes each, plus amuse bouche and coffee/petit fours, with one wine for each course. At £99 each for the meal and wines it was great value for money (if you’re allowed to say such a thing of a Michelin-starred meal). They have a superb sounding a la carte and bar menu too and a delicious cocktail menu, although with average prices of around £15-20 per drink this is not the cheapest way to enjoy Kochhar’s superb way with flavours. So, overall, run – don’t walk – to Benares, if you have the slightest appetite for Indian cuisine. The a la carte menu is probably not as good value as the outstanding grazing, but it is choc full of delicious meals.

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One thought on “Benares

  1. that sounds like a treat and yes, i do think it is good value for money. i never made it to benares, unfortunately, the list of restaurants i wanted to go to before we relocate was just too long… next time, for sure!

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