An Indian Michelin
|Bite-size poppadoms with gooseberry, tomato|
and pineapple dips.
I like to keep an eye out for Indian fine dining recommendations. The cuisine is often similar to Bangladesh's, and I like the idea of being able have a special occasion meal that isn't European. I was in London last month, and decided to drop by for lunch at Benares for a mini-celebration. I admit my choice of restaurant was mostly based on its proximity to a prior appointment, but I should also say that the Benares lunch menu was more interesting than the nearby Gymkhana's. £35 for three courses and some extras seemed perfectly reasonable for gourmet cuisine around central London, and there were Bengali style fish cakes on the menu that I felt I really should judge for authenticity!
|Coming up the stairs to the dining area|
I arrived around 12.30 PM with a friend, and we ventured inside to a rather large and dimly lit reception area. We didn't have a booking, but for some reason staff at the desk took my name before showing us up to a cavernous bar and dining area. The dimly lit theme continued in black, brown, beige and white - with the odd splash of colour from a few Indian ornaments dotted about. I wasn't a fan, mostly because it was very dark and seemed to be a waste of the perfect summery sunshine outside. Sadly the restaurant has no windows to take advantage of the sun, but I suppose the space is aimed towards evening meals free of outside interruptions. A waiter showed us to our table, and asked if we wanted water or any other drinks as he sat us down and offered us menus. We opted for tap water, which another waiter brought to our table along with poppadoms and dips shortly after. We also asked for the non-alcoholic drinks list, but skipped through it all given the £10 per glass price tag, and ordered our food before turning our attention to our pre-appetiser. The poppadoms were conveniently bite sized and the dips, made from tomato, pineapple and gooseberry, were all fresh and interesting. As ever, these are not the kind of accompaniments to poppadoms I'd have back home, but I've learned not to mind, especially as they were free and we got a refill as we waited for our food.
|Bengali style fish cakes with tropical fruit chutney|
The wait between ordering and being served our starters honestly wasn't that long - it just so happened we were very hungry and we'd worked through the poppadoms very quickly. My fish cakes, I'm happy to report, were perfect. They were made from a mix of salmon, sea bass, bream and potatoes. The spices used were different from what I use myself, but everyone I know who cooks this varies their ingredients according to taste - and I have to say the chef's combination here was very good. Normally, a fish cake would be a side dish eaten with rice, so it was odd for it to be accompanied by chutney. However, given the Western format of the meal, I appreciated it as a sauce of sorts. I was so engrossed with my dish that I completely forgot to try my friend's aubergine salad, though he informed me that he liked it enough to happily go for seconds.
|Spiced quail supreme, summer vegetable biryani, |
quail egg and raita
It was another short wait before our mains arrived. I'd ordered the vegetable biriyani, accompanied by spiced quail supreme, a quail egg and raita. I'd like to point out that the quail and biriyani are separate dishes combined to serve, rather than a quail biriyani, where the meat and rice would be cooked together. Regardless of this detail, the dish was fantastic. The biriyani was robustly flavoured, as was the quail, which I thought was a surprising achievement given the meat itself remained slightly pink and soft. The dish was certainly up there amongst the best biriyanis I've had in Europe, though I won't draw direct comparisons as technically it wasn't a meat biriyani. I was only slightly infuriated at the impractical dish it was served in, a karai too small and too high to get my fork and knife into properly. My wrists ached as I finished off my portion, and I really think the chef should consider alternative ways to serve the dish. The accompanying raita was slightly superfluous - I've never understood the need for it with good biriyani - but it was rich and creamy, and made for a delicious dip for my friend's left over naan.
|Beetroot kofta, broad beans and black quinoa, Rajasthani kadi|
Speaking of my friend, he'd ordered the beetroot kofta with broad beans and black quinoa, accompanied by Rajasthani kadi. As a newly minted vegeterian, he was very impressed with the beetroot kofta, and we both wondered how a vegetable could be turned into something with such a meaty bite. The kadi, which I've now looked up to be thickened and spiced yoghurt, worked very well as an accompanying sauce. The dish came with small servings of rice, daal and naan. The naan wasn't buttered, a lacking my friend mourned but I didn't really mind. The daal was a classic, cooked to be quite light with a simple sambar. Interestingly, I quite liked it as it's how my family cooks daal, whereas my friend - also Bangladeshi - would have preferred a heavier, spicy version. We took our time with the mains, dipping naan into daal and raita long after everything else was finished. I think we rather confused our waiters, who hovered uncertainly to check whether they should clear our plates or not. I did note they stopped filling our water at this point, which surprised me and I had to ask for a refill as we ordered dessert.
|Rasmalai with strawberry salad|
On the left, my friend's chilli chocolate tart.
On the right, petit fours: chocolate ganache, pistachio, mandarin jelly
All three options on the menu were enticing, though unfortunately we could only try two between us. My friend opted for the chilli chocolate tart, which annoyingly arrived at the table de-constructed. It was nice enough, but lacked any discernible kick of chilli as far as I was concerned. I preferred my restaurant-style rasmalai (i.e. the milk wasn't thickened and the dish wasn't very sweet), though I'd initially been sceptical of the strawberry salad it was served with. The salad was in fact slivers of fresh strawberry and strawberry jelly, and the flavour and textures worked quite well with the lighter variety of rasmalai. I did wish all of the strawberries were sweet or at least not bland, but I suppose this can't be helped as we near the end of the season.
We asked for the bill just as we finished dessert, which the waiter brought to our table along with some petit fours. They were a nice touch at the end of meal, which cost us the set £35 per head and an optional 10% service charge. I would consider this good value given the calibre of the food and the extras, but the score below reflects the mark up for the full menu and the surprisingly high cost of non-alcoholic cocktails. The relatively high final score is mostly down to the food, which was thoroughly excellent. Unfortunately - and perhaps I'm being a little unfair here - a lot of what I had is also food that I've grown up on, and I know an abundance of people who can cook it just as well if not better. I offer this as note of caution to anyone with a similar background, though I would happily come back to Benares again as a special treat or for a celebration.
Final Score: 7.5/10
A: 12a Berkeley Square House, Mayfair, London W1J 6BS
T: +44 (0)20 7629 8886
T: +44 (0)20 7629 8886
NB. The final score, while influenced by the sub-scores, is a qualitative reflection of my overall impression the establishment.