Benares seems to divide food bloggers. I’ve seen the odd grumble from the blogosphere – people complaining that they can get the same standard of food at their local curry house. Well, if you go to a restaurant like this and order a lamb rogan josh (as one blogger did), you don’t have much grounds for complaint. What were you expecting? Chunks of foie gras in your “ruby”? It’s a strange food blogger who goes to a restaurant and orders the dullest dishes on the menu. Thankfully, dull dishes are few and far between on the menu at Benares. I’m pretty sure that the small section on the menu entitled “Benares Classics” (which include Biryani and Rogan Josh) is there to appease the “vindaloo brigade”. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the “vindaloo brigade” – I am a card-carrying member…)
Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star, serves creative Indian food, presented in a refined European style. The menu includes delicacies such as “Soft-shell crab with apple-crab millefeuille” and “Grilled pigeon with pickled mango and beetroot-vanilla chutney”. Fantastic. What struck me about the dishes I tasted at Benares was the subtlety of the spicing. Every dish was fragrant and subtly spiced, but there was none of the pungency one would normally associate with Indian food. It would be a shame to overwhelm such delicate flavours with too much chilli. I couldn’t help thinking back to BBC’s Great British Menu competition where the chefs heaped praise upon Kochhars mastery of spicing.
I was absolutely intrigued by the vast array of cocktails on offer here. The choices are pretty unique, many of which contain exotic flavourings. I opted to kick things off with a “Silver Spice” – a mix of fresh red chilli, tequila, Vya Sweet, pink grapefruit, fresh lime and agave syrup. The menu describes this cocktail thus: “Eating Indian tonight? Then this is your perfect pre-dinner drink”. It was drinkable, but it seemed off-balance to me. Heavy-handed use of the chilli completely killed every other flavour in the glass. A “Passion fruit Chutney Martini” was much better – a combination of vodka, passion fruit chutney, lime juice, egg white and fresh passion fruit. Superb.
I was pleased to see the customary poppadoms and dips arrive at the table. Some traditions should never be dispensed with! The selection of dips, however, were not your run-of-the-mill curry house selections. They comprised apple, gooseberry and tomato & onion seed. All were excellent, particularly the sharp gooseberry which was the more pungent of the three.
Tandoor Roasted Rabbit in a Spicy Crust, Marinated with Hot Plum Chutney - the stand out course of the meal for me was this tandoori rabbit. Chunks of bunny, marinated in yoghurt and spices were roasted until charred on the outside, but incredibly moist within. This may have been my first experience of eating food cooked in a proper tandoor. The flock wallpaper restaurants I’m familiar with must use a gas-powered tandoor which does not give you the same smoky flavours that the charcoal version does. But I’m just guessing here…
Potato Cakes with Ginger, Crisp Pastry and Wheat Puff - a simple dish, but served in a “fine-dining” style. A vegetable samosa with tamarind chutney, potato cake with chickpea curry, wheat puff was served with a shot glass of tamarind water. I didn’t get an option to sample much of this (thanks missus!), but what I did taste was excellent.
Grilled Fallow Deer Fillet with Yellow Pumpkin Kedgeree and Pear Chutney - cooked perfectly rare, my venison was accompanied by a soft and lightly-spiced kedgeree. Kedgeree is a throwback to the days of the British raj, often served at breakfast. It is traditionally made with rice, lentils and smoked haddock. I was pleased to discover that the gamey flavour of the venison shone through the rich pear chutney. Another triumph.
Tandoor Grilled Monkfish Tail with Sweet & Sour Green Neelgiri Korma Sauce - Like my rabbit starter, The Wife’s monkfish was roasted in the tandoor, taking on that lightly charred crust and complex smoky flavour. The green sauce was tangy and had plenty of heat coming from fresh green chillies. This was outstanding.
Purely in the interests of research, we also ordered some sides. Anticipating some delicious sauces and gravies, we ordered a roti, which is a slightly thicker version of chapati bread, also made with wholemeal “atta” flour. The standout dish, indeed the stand out dish of meal, was the not-so-snappily-titled “Black or Yellow Lentil Preparation”. Our waiter recommended the black variety which turned out to be a “dal mahkani” – lentils with butter. The waiter explained the cooking process to us – whole urid lentils are stewed overnight in the tandoor along with garlic, ginger, tomatoes, chilli, cream, butter and some gentle spices. The fragrant dal also took on a faintly smoky flavour from the tandoor oven. The result was earthy, rich and quite easily the most delicious thing on our table. I would have gladly buried my face in it. Atul, you should bottle this stuff. I know I’d buy it. We also sampled an excellent baked pulao rice, but nothing out of the ordinary there. (Expect a recipe for dal makhani on this blog soon!!)
I’ve never understood the tricky task of pairing wine with Indian food. For me, a cold beer is the best match for spicy dishes. However, with such lightness of touch in the kitchen, I discovered that a good sommelier can recommend excellent wines to accompany Indian dishes. An Argentinian Chardonnay “Catena Alte” made a nice sharp accompaniment to my rabbit dish but an Australian Merlot “Craneford” was an even better accompaniment to my venison. A perfect balance of flavours.
Valrhona 56% Le Noir Cardamom Fondant with Guava Granité - Anything that contains Valrhona, I want in. I was expecting the fondant to be very delicately perfumed with the warm cardamom, but the flavour was pleasingly assertive. Unsurprisingly, the fondant was cooked perfectly, with an almost liquid centre. Magic.
Trio of “Kulfis” - The Wife was a little full at this stage and opted for the somewhat lighter option of kulfi – a cardamom-scented ice cream. The varieties on offer here were pistachio, mango and coconut. I tasted all three, surprise surprise – they were all delightful. The Wife, who rightfully declares herself to be something of an expert when it comes to ice-cream, declared the mango to be the best. I can’t argue with that…
Very satisfied at this stage, we noticed that a few tables over, a small party of “suits” were getting increasingly drunk and vocal so we decided to take our masala tea and petit fours in the lounge bar.
To sum up, the food was fantastic, something a little bit different for fans of fine dining. Unfortunately, for a restaurant of this calibre, we felt that the standard of service was just average. It took far too long to place an order for pre-dinner drinks. So much so, that by the time the drinks had arrived we had been sitting in the bar area for nearly twenty minutes. So we asked for the cocktails to be brought directly to the dinner table. The head waiter also made a boo-boo in description of one of our dishes but this was hastily taken care of.
I do have one other criticism of Benares, however. In this price bracket, I had expected all manner of amuse bouches and pre-desserts, none of which materialised. The procession of small, “show-off” dishes is all part of eating in a “starred” establishment and makes the hefty price tag a little more bearable. A black mark there, in my opinion.
Incidentally, at one point during the meal, after tipping a subtle wink to The Wife, I asked the Maître D’ if “Atul himself was cooking tonight?”. He replied in the negative.
Humph. They never are, are they…?