When you think of food that best epitomises London, what dish or cuisine comes instantly to mind? Could it be the traditional “fish and chips” or a homely “Sunday roast”? The answer is neither of course, as you will not be surprised to know that it is Indian food, which many regard to be UK’s national cuisine.
In 2001, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Robin Cook stated that the “Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”
The humble Chicken Tikka has come a long way since then, thanks to innovative chefs such as Atul Kochhar, who has been at the forefront of revolutionising the nation’s beloved fare, by transforming the archetypal curry house dishes into nouvelle cuisine.
Atul Kochhar is the first Indian chef to be awarded the prestigious Michelin Star, and has won the accolade twice. The critically acclaimed chef’s contemporary cooking technique is renowned for combining Indian traditions with culinary advancements, by incorporating the delicate use of spices to enhance the flavours of seasonally sourced ingredients to create modern dishes.
Benares Restaurant & Bar, Kochhar’s first solo venture, opened its doors to the public in 2003, which then went on to win a Michelin Star in 2007 and has retained the coveted award ever since.
Located in the affluent area of Berkeley Square, the front facade of the restaurant is visually alluring, as it entices diners through its golden archway entrance. The elegant first floor cocktail bar, and sleek restaurant offer a blend of modern furnishings with traditional Indian adornments. As you reach the the first floor, you are greeted with the mesmerising sight of a Mughal style water tank, decorated with bright yellow flowers, which is a homage to the beauty and vibrancy of the city of Varanasi, from where the name Benares originates from.
The venue is large, catering to approximately 150 diners, with the main dining area seating circa 85 covers, along with a chef’s table with a full view of the kitchen and a sommelier’s table in the wine room.
Benares Restaurant & Bar serves a full halal menu. However, the establishment also serves alcohol. The prices are in line with other fine dining establishments.
Our invitation began with mini herbed popadoms and three different types of chutneys.
Left to right, we sampled the gooseberry chutney, which was simply delicious and an unexpected taste sensation, as the flavour was a combination of sweet gooseberry imbued with Asian spices. The tomato chutney, although satisfying, was subtle in piquancy and not too memorable. Finally, the pineapple chutney was sharp and tangy, while infused lightly in spices, which offered a gratifying start to our Benares experience.
From the “Beyond Alcohol” drinks menu, which is the non-alcoholic section, we ordered the “Mango Wood” and “Berry Boost” mocktails.
The Mango Wood was impressive, as it takes the gustatory cells through a journey of flavours, akin to Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper. From the initial sip, the palate is caressed seductively by the sweet syrupy taste of the mango and passion fruit, which is then washed away by the sharp, refreshing citrusy lemon juice and the final taste to end the odyssey on is the tantalising heat from the ginger, which makes the concoction so hedonistically addictive.
The Berry Boost, similar to the Mango Wood, is an eye catching spectacle, with its ice fruit basket and vivid red colour. The refreshing, cool, sweet berry flavour is boosted by the sacchariferous peach and guava, which is then balanced by the sharp lemon juice, thereby delivering an effervescent, invigorating and thirst-quenching mocktail.
For appetisers we ordered the “Karara Kekda Aur Papeeta”, which is crispy soft shell crab, green papaya salad and sour mango dressing, and “Sarson Chooza”, which is tandoori honey mustard poussin, tomato salad and roast garlic mayonnaise.
Karara Kekda Aur Papeeta is one of the signature dishes of Benares and has been on the menu in one form or another for the past 13 years. The crispy texture of the crab was light and dainty, with a subtle moreish and appetising mustard flavour running through the coating. The crab meat was fresh, with a very subtle piquancy, due to the light use of spices, nonetheless there was no piscine aftertaste. The sweet papaya salad was a superb accompaniment to the crab, which was juxtaposed delicately with the sour mango dressing, which added an extra layer of taste.
From the very first bite, we were enamoured with the Sarson Chooza. The poussin, which is a baby chicken, no older than 28 days, was salaciously supple, tender and moist, with a delectable tandoori infused honey mustard piquant. The roasted garlic mayonnaise synthesised divinely with the tomato, with some segments of the tomato softening into a lightly spiced sauce that was simply divine. However, the flavours were once again to our palate veritably delicate.
For the “main” show, we were promptly served with “Tandoori Macchi Aur Kekda”, which was chargrilled Scottish salmon, spiced vermicelli, crab croquette and Moilee sauce, along with “Changezi Chaapein”, which was smoked tandoori lamb cutlets, spring greens with ginger and cumin, and rogan jus.
The presentation of the Tandoori Macchi Aur Kekda was striking. The bright reddish pink beetroot jus on a black ceramic plate was visually captivating. The salmon was perfection, skilfully prepared and cooked medium, similar to a steak, with a crispy outer skin and soft, moist, flakey and meaty fillet. The vermicelli added a rice like texture to the soft salmon, which was a great combination, even though the vermicelli itself had no prominent taste. The flavours overall were once again light, however the Moilee elixir was simply sensational. The sauce tasted like a marriage of coconut milk, curry leaves, ginger and cumin, which conjugated to produced the most magnificent korma like sauce that set our taste buds alight. The crab croquette was also a superlative component to the dish. The sweet spices were prominent in the croquette and every morsel was a step closer to heaven.
The Changezi Chaapein (lamb chops) were visually not as impressive as the salmon dish, however, the aroma of the chops were ethereally intoxicating. Looks can be deceiving, as these were possibly one of the best chops we have consumed, based on the quality and texture of the meat. The meat was prime spring-time lamb, marinated for a short period, as lamb is naturally tender and does not require a lot to break down the muscle content. The chops were braised and tenderised in a raw spiced papaya rub, which provided a soft, butter-like consistency, that was sweet and savoury in taste. The lamb chops were undeniably moreish and luscious, however, for our preference, slightly more bolder spices and possibly some heat would have titillated our tastebuds to a greater ecstasy. Nonetheless, the dish was still superlatively outstanding.
Along with our mains, we also ordered some side accompaniments, because haute cuisine tends to be light and not too filling for people with avaricious appetites.
The “Palak Paneer”, which is spinach puree and paneer, unfortunately did not meet our expectations, as the flavours were weak and the paneer itself was regrettably bland.
The “Dal”, which was tempered lentils, lacked the discernible flavours that makes lentil soup, one of my favourite dishes.
The “Lamb Rogan Josh”, even though flavoursome, just did not agree to my palate, but that does not mean the dish was not executed well.
The “Pulao”, which was aromatic spiced rice, was simply well cooked rice, nothing too exciting.
And finally the “Naan”, which were “Plain” and “Buttered” naan breads, on arrival tasted nice, but the bread turned firm and crusty quite quickly, which lessened the enjoyment.
A climax to a meal is never complete without dessert. We were presented with “Rhubarb and Pomegranate Bhapa Doi with Pistachio Burfi” and “Dark Chocolate Mousse, Anise Infused Sour Cherry with Yoghurt Ice Cream”.
The Rhubarb and Pomegranate Bhapa Doi with Pistachio Burfi was beautifully presented in a glass tumbler. The bhapa doi, which is essentially condensed milk, was of a smooth and creamy consistency and the steamed yoghurt was a revelation. The silky smooth pomegranate jelly and rhubarb pieces adding fruity textures against the creamy bhapa doi, and overall providing a soothing palate cleanser.
Dark Chocolate Mousse, Anise Infused Sour Cherry with Yoghurt Ice Cream was a theatrical extravaganza. This was truly a decadent dessert. The dish arrived looking modern and contemporary; nothing too usual there. But then we watched in fascination as the chocolate sauce was poured over the chocolate ball, and it started to collapse, dissolve and melt away like the Wicked Witch of the East. The rich chocolate, combined with the light mousse, provided the perfect balance, and the fruit segments added the desired level of contrast both texturally and piquantly.
Benares has been serving cutting edge modern Indian food for more than a decade, and their success is clearly attributed to their determination to source high quality seasonal ingredients, and applying innovative, contemporary and progressive culinary techniques to their dishes.
The menu at Benares, in our opinion, is ultimately designed for the indigenous British palate, who desire sophisticated dishes that are appetising but not overpowering in flavour, so not to assault the senses. However, for a majority of Muslim diners, our palate is accustomed to bold and prodigious flavours, and therefore we crave for our tastebuds to be set alight.
Our experience at Benares was exceptional. The creativity of the dishes, the presentation of the food, the quality of the ingredients, were all remarkable. In terms of taste, the majoity of the dishes we sampled were glorious, yet for our spiced accustomed palates, we still rapaciously yearned for audaciously sapid flavours, so to deliver a euphoric taste sensation that in our assessment did not quite deliver. The flavours, even though great, were still not prominent enough and left us wanting more from the dishes. However, this could be just as a result of personal taste.
It is clearly evident, from the moment you enter Benares, that the praise, accolades and awards that they have achieved over their long tenure are well deserved. So for that special occasion, why not follow their Halal Food Journey, and experience the world of Indian haute cuisine.
Disclaimer: We were invited by Benares Restaurant and Bar to conduct our review.