Longstanding readers to this blog will know that I have a fascination with India and Indian food that stems in part from its exotic and intoxicating flavours and aromas, but also from the fact that I have some Indian heritage within my own family. My love of all things Indian has seen me eat at some of the best Indian restaurants in London, including Gymkhana, Quilon and Babur; however there was one top Indian restaurant that I had yet to visit – Atul Kochhar’s Michelin-starred Benares nestled in the heart of Mayfair on Berkeley Square. Kochhar is a leading light in Indian gastronomy and is a greatly respected figure, he is also a regular on many of the ever-increasing number of TV cooking programmes. How fortunate it was then that my brother and sister-in-law came to stay last weekend looking for somewhere special to celebrate her birthday – we were all in agreement that a trip to Benares for lunch would be ideal.
As you walk in you everything about the restaurant speaks authenticity, from ornate and beautiful wood carvings to the staff who greet you with a “namaste”. The dining room itself is pleasantly situated with a nice spot-light over each of the tables, something that I appreciate as someone who takes photographs of their food – so many restaurants these days go for a trendy dinginess that means that you can barely see your food, let alone take a photograph of it!
We decided that we should start with cocktails whilst we perused the menu. I am obsessed with martinis at the moment and therefore it was no surprise that I went for a James Bond-style “Reverse Vesper” martini which is a recipe taken directly from Casino Royale and features gin and Cocchi Americano vermouth, shaken not stirred, naturally! This is actually pretty much how I make my martinis at home, what impressed me here, however, was the beautiful clarity of the drink – mine always seems to be rather cloudy. I was so enthused by this cocktail that I called over the bar manager, Stefano, and asked him what his secret was! He was a very amiable person and told me that the trick was simply to make the cocktail and then let it settle for a few minutes – voila!
Starter – Tandoori Lemongrass Infused Corn Fed Poussin, Young Leafy Salad
After a couple of rounds of poppadums and chutneys we moved onto the starters. I opted for the Poussin and I was certainly glad that I did; it had a beautifully delicate smokey flavour to it, which was coupled with a zingy freshness from the lemongrass. Being such a young animal, the Poussin was beautifully tender and succulent. The salad alongside it rather paled into insignificance compared with the wonderful Poussin, but featured some nice, fresh elements.
Main Course – Mangalorean Haddock Curry Flavoured with Kokum, Spicy Tapioca Mash
Next up was the main and I thought that I would go for a fish dish. As you will see from the photograph, the dish was piled up nicely with the fillets of haddock taking pride of place (not “plaice”!) at the top of the pile. The skin had been crisped up nicely, whilst the flesh was left flaky and tender. The sauce, as well as providing a rather vivid colour to the dish gave it a real depth – I thought there was quite a strong fenugreek flavour to it, as well as a nice heat. This, for me, was exactly what top-end Indian cuisine is all about, quality cooking techniques married with richly complex flavours. Wonderful stuff.
The Wine – 2014 J. J. Prüm Wehlehner Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett (Mosel, Germany)
Matching wines to go with Indian food is always a tricky business, fortunately at an establishment like Benares they have a well thought out wine list to cater for this. I tend to opt for German wines in these kinds of situations (actually in most situations, to be fair) and this was no exception. Prüm is one of my favourite producers from the Mosel and I have always found their wines to possess an elegance and precision about them. The nose of this wine was characterised by apricots, along with some honey and jasmine. On the mouth it had a nice zingy acidity to it, which reminded me of lemons and limes. The tartness was a good foil for the spices in the food and allowed it to cut through and avoid getting lost, which a lesser wine would have done. I was very pleased with this selection.
Dessert – Tandoor Roasted Pineapple Soup, Star Anise Infused Coconut Foam
I was contemplating not getting a dessert as I was due to have a big meal in the evening too (just call me Mr Creosote), however I found myself tempted by the description of this dish. It was quite an interesting concept with the pineapple and coconut flavours combining to remind me of a Pina Colada, but without the rum. In truth I think this dish lacked a little bit, I couldn’t really taste the Star Anise and would have liked to have had something else in there to give it a more exotic or unusual profile. Perhaps it could have done with that rum?! However, as it was it provided a nice, sweet ending to the dinner without being overly heavy (which I would be grateful for later that day!).
We ended the meal by taking tea (what could be more Indian than that?), I chose a Masala tea which had a pleasing combination of spices within it including cardamom and mace. I don’t usually take any sugar in my tea, but the addition of a little cube of sugar just made this heavenly.
This was a very pleasant meal, enjoyed with great company, over excellent food. I must also take a moment to note the service of the waiting team, headed up by Ali, who were truly excellent. They engaged us with witty banter and interesting details about the food, which augmented the whole dining experience. I allowed myself to cast my eye at their Tasting Menu, which looks divine – I may just have to go back to try the full range of Kochhar’s cooking out.