Review: Benares, Berkeley Square

This article originally appeared on on 27/01/12 
Going out for an Indian is, let’s face it, usually not that posh…
When it comes to pushing the boundaries of taste, in the UK at least, you don’t usually think of Indian food first – and dodgy day-glow chicken kormas don’t count.

Michelin-starred Benares has probably never been near a fluro korma in its life (not intentionally anyway). Instead it’s considered a pioneering restaurant for fusion cooking. Its chef is Atul Kochhar (Great British Menu, Masterchef) who is credited with being the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star – awarded while at the nearby restaurant, Tamarind.
So when my friend and I venture out on a miserable, grey Saturday lunchtime to dine there, we’re rather excited. Benares opened in 2003 and earned its own star in 2007, four years later is it still at the cutting edge of Indian cuisine?

Never mind the money, luxury and pomp, Mayfair on a wet January Saturday is as unglamorous as Crawley – well, nearly. We manage to walk past the restaurant twice, this despite the rather ostentatious ropes and carpet that adorn the entrance. Probably it was the Rolls Royce showroom next door that kept distracting us. That, or the numerous bottles of red wine still coursing through our bodies, serving to remind us that we should be on the sofa with a fry-up, not stumbling around Mayfair.

But we were saved from a third round of Berkeley Square after resorting to asking in the Eat a few doors down. “It’s just next door,” two walking-booted tourists buying coffee told us. “You can’t miss it.” Really? Apparently we missed it twice. Embarrassing.

The first thing to hit you when you arrive at Benares are the orchids. A combination of freshly cut and potted, they are spell bindingly opulent. We lose a good five minutes admiring them before sitting down. The effect is interesting, as my lunch date is quick to point out; orchids are normally associated with the orient, with Thailand, not with India. Once you’ve torn your gaze away it’s the massive black sea of a water display that you have to deal with next.

The display is also very opulent, which is presumably the desired effect, but unfortunately it’s a bit naff too, a little, dare I say it, noughties. But we we’re not here for the water features.

Once inside we’re led into the bar area where we proceed to have a much needed drink before taking to our table.

The cocktail list is as dazzling as any Bollywood movie. It would be rude not to. And it’s the weekend. We both opt for passion fruit chutney martinis, made with Wyborowa Vodka and fruit chutney. They are divine. Perhaps the best hair of the dog I’ve ever had. Inspired we move on to the Mumbai Martini. Ginger, curry leaves and Wyborowa Vodka. It’s fresh and stimulating – a boozy explosion of flavours in our mouths. Absolutely delightful. We try to strum up some chit chat with our bartender but he’s focussing far too much on the drinks for any real chat. It’s impressive.

Then into the square and sepia dining room. I like it, find it cosy, but it freaks my date out. “It’s got no windows,” he says immediately. Luckily the cocktails are having their desired effect and he’s pretty relaxed. “But it’s a nice room, I think I’ll be alright,” he reassures me. I bite my tongue.

Ten minutes later and the walking-booted couple from Eat arrive and sit at the table next to us. I half-heartedly smile with acknowledgement, they don’t smile back. Double embarrassing.

Turning back to my friend, we both agree that the windowless effect is quite nice. We don’t really want the Mayfair drizzle intruding on our lunch – but we feel sorry for unhappy couples, where to stare?
The amuse bouche arrives to whet our pallets. It certainly does that. The blue-green wet foam is both wet and amusing. Unfortunately it’s horrible too. Neither of us likes it. It reminds my mate of the stuff that comes out his pet Beagle when it has an epileptic fit.

Luckily, the amusing bouche doesn’t set the tone. We each opt for the grazing menu with paired wines. If you have trouble choosing and always want what the person next to you has ordered (like me) then this is the menu to go for.

With three courses of mini dishes followed by a desert, the Benares grazing menu is perfect for short attention spans. But, more importantly, the chef really gets to show off what he can do. And boy does he show off.

The pairing of Indian flavours with top quality British ingredients, such as wood pigeon, cheddar, and salmon trout are stunning. Beautifully presented with perfect portion control, the delicately spiced quail pattie incites little groans of delight from us both while the surprise juicy jumbo prawn at the heart of the prawn biryani is an absolute hidden treasure.

Both of us agree that the only dishes not to excite us were the more traditional ones: the dhal and the Keralan curry. Having just returned from the south of India myself (one week before), and with my date having lived there, these are the only dishes familiar to us. We find them a little bland. On reflection this may have been deliberate, or we’d have experienced taste overload.

The wines are all fantastic and complement each course beautifully. Unfortunately our sommelier, as lovely as he is, isn’t the genuine article, we fear. Rather, he’s learnt by rote what to say about each wine and seems to go to great lengths to describe them correctly in his heavily accented English. He seems awkward and uncomfortable – the complete opposite of most sommeliers who verge on being intimidatingly arrogant. This one doesn’t provoke intimidation so much as pity.

At the time we find this rather endearing, verging on humorous, but on reflection it feels a little weird and now I feel sorry for him. It’s a shame, flying in the face as it does of the otherwise harmonious marriage of east meets west.

Dessert is fantastic. Basil sorbet, lime mousse and what my friend describes as “the best take on lemon meringue I’ve ever tasted.”

We stay for four hours and walk out into Berkeley Square where it is still drizzling. Dizzy and disorientated, we wander down to St James Park to hunt for pelicans, determined as we are to keep enjoying the exotic in the sublime.

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