Volare, dum dum dum dum. Cantare, la la la la. You know that song which, way back in 1958 was the Italian entry into the Eurovision song contest, and that has since been performed by literally everyone? Let me tell you, it is not remotely helpful to have it spooking around my head while I am trying to write a review on a very fine double Michelin starred Indian restaurant in London. But it works, doesnt it? Benares, dum dum dum dum, Benares, la la la la. Thought so. Now it’s spooking around your head too. Let’s try to get back on track here, shall we?
Okay, first things first. Benares is, in fact, the other name for the holy city of Varanasi, situated on the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh in the North East of India. Legend has it that the city was founded by the God Shiva, Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation and Buddha is said to have held his first sermon here. In November/December Varanasi holds its Ganga Mahotsav or Ganges festival, when the Ganges is visited by thousands of pilgrims who release lighted lamps to float in the river. We’re talking seriously holy here!
It’s also famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture, so it’s also a place of beautiful exotic treasures as well. And this brings us smoothly around to the culinary treasures of the restaurant Benares in Mayfair, London.
Even as we arrive at its smart address on Berkeley Square, it becomes instantly apparent by its location right beside the Rolls Royce and Bentley showrooms and with a Versace van parked directly outside, that here you are entering the world of opulence, money and exclusivity. Far, far removed from India and it’s holy men, from the corpses and lights floating down the river Ganges, the street stalls, the poverty , the dirt and the colours of Varanasi, here we have the London gourmet palace of Atul Kochar, the first Indian chef ever to receive a Michelin star in his own right, with another for his restaurant to follow shortly after.
Its reputation precedes it. For years it has been one of London’s top eateries, so popular and highly regarded, that booking well in advance is essential. The website tells us that Atul Kochar has a unique talent for changing the way people perceive and experience Indian cuisine. Taking his inspiration from his native India, while continuously researching regional dishes, and marrying tradition with daring modernity, he combines his heritage with his love of British ingredients to create an innovative and contemporary Indian menu. So let’s see, shall we?
The golden portal of Benares, reminiscent of a temple entrance and ideal for being flanked by paparazzi, discreetly swallows us into a small dark and clubby interior, enhanced by Indian wood sculptures and flower strewn water features. No less than three black attired staff busy themselves with taking our coats, ticking us off the booking list and leading us up a staircase to the dining area.
This is a simply enormous rectangular room, the sense of spaciousness heightened by mirrored pillars. I consider the real estate price and my mind boggles. The décor is white, dark brown and gold, and to be honest, whilst it’s adequately attractive, it’s not especially fabulous or even exotic looking. Still, the table linen is starched, and there are tea lights on every table, glowing like little fireflies in the dimness of the room.
We are led to an excellent table against the back wall from where we can easily survey this entire Indian kingdom . Every table is taken but there’s no screeching or cackling, no buzz, merely a quiet background murmur and hum.
The menu arrives. Luckily, we are prepared for the quite stupendous pricing. This is no neighbourhood curry house! The incredibly delicious sounding tasting menu is priced at £98 per head but requires both of us to order it, so instead we opt for the equally enticing a la carte menu. While we peruse it, a dish of perfectly crispy little mini popadoms with three different chutneys, tomato, apricot and gooseberry, is set before us. It’s impossible to decide which of the three condiments is the best, all three are scrumptious. Since we’re in a Subcontinental mood, we order an Indian Sauvignon to accompany our food and that too tastes great, cool and fresh. An Amuse Bouche of Potato Dumpling with Aubergine Chutney follows and gets us suitably excited for the food yet to come.
Our starters are a vegetarian Subz Kebab Thal with Plantain and Spinach Tikki, Paneer Tikka and Kidney Bean Stuffed Pepper, most prettily presented, and Jal Tarang of Pan Seared Scallops, Caramelised Apple and Ginger Puree, Pickled Celeriac and Roasted Hazelnuts. Both dishes are divine and a totally unexpected taste experience. I mean, when did you last have caramelized apple and ginger puree with your sweet and tender scallops? This is truly where the chef’s skill and imagination come into play! The combination of ingredients is highly unusual but the end result is stunning.
The Lovely Husband, as so often, my companion for the evening, choses Changezi Chaapein, Smoked Tandoori Lamb Cutlets, Seasonal Squash with Ginger and Cumin and Rogan Jus, with a side order of Khatti Bindi, which is Okra Sauteed with Onions, spices and Dried Mango Powder. I, on the other hand, have had my eye on the Chargrilled Scottish Salmon, Coconut and Curry leaf Sauce, Cornish Crab Croquette and Smoked Tomato Chutney right from the start, so this it is for me. And again, we are entranced by the combination of thoroughly English ingredients elevated to mindblowing and quite sensational gourmet stardom by the clever symbiosis of the aromatic Indian spices. Layer upon layer of sublime flavour and texture hit our taste buds, but despite the many different components, these are not fussy or complicated dishes, just one magnificent, sophisticated feast! Our conversation ceases completely until every last splendid little morsel has been devoured. What makes this food so outstanding, aside from the obvious quality of meat, fish and vegetables, is the sense of surprise that comes with every single mouthful tasting subtly different to the previous one, without ever being overwhelming.
We take some time to digest and reflect and then, true to form, it’s time for pud.
Now it has to be said that Indian influenced desserts never quite do it for me and even though we are here in this palace of culinary delight, this is no exception. The list of sweets is impressive and yet nothing quite rings my bell. We settle for a Peanut Butter Parfait, Jaggery Cake and Cumin Marshmallow, which sounds interesting and looks lovely but tastes mediocre. Nice enough but not in the same league as the all that went before.
The bill is predictably high at £187.75 including a bottle of wine, naan, rice, VAT, service and £1 for the charity fund.
So was it worth it? The meal was faultless, as was the service, and there is no doubt that it will all remain in my memory as a fantastic experience that I am very glad to have had. The cost was not unexpected either, yet, for me, this was more of a fabulous one off than something I would like to repeat. At the end of the day, it still doesn’t beat the Vegetable Makhanwala I had at the cost of a pittance on a Goa beach more than a decade ago, or the butter crab in a basic Mumbai restaurant some years later. Often it’s the simple things in life that outcharm high octane sophistication, now isn’t that so?
With many thanks to my wonderful friend and super talented photographer, Suki Zoe (www.sukizoe.com) for allowing me to use a selection of her Varanasi photographs and portraits and with many apologies for my rather inadequate food photography alongside her master pieces.
What I wore
One piece full skirted cotton and silk taffeta Sara Roka dress, 3/4 length sleeves: shirt top pale pink, skirt mid blue, sash purple, purple Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes, purple velvet LK Bennett clutch.
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