Valentine’s Day is not a favourite date to dine in public for me. Squeaky foil balloons (heart-shaped, of course), musicians, roses (your partner asked us to give this to you, Madam – yeah right, Gaston!), and worst of all, the overpriced set menu. Alex and I are not against celebrating V-Day, we’re really not against celebrating anything and welcome an excuse to eat and drink in a silly fashion, but the gimmicky stuff grates a little. HOWEVER, when you choose to dine out on the most loved up night of the year at Michelin star Indian restaurant, Benares, you can rest assured you’ll bypass all that stuff. And (spoiler alert!), you’ll enjoy some of the best Indian food, ever.
We’ve been itching to try Benares in Mayfair for a while now, having become obsessed with Atul Kochhar (complete with his own Michelin star and dubbed by many a foodie expert as the best Indian chef in the country, perhaps the world!). It gets booked up pretty quick and when Alex looked at going at the end of last year, he just about managed to snap up an early evening table for Sunday 14th February. There was a special tasting menu available for the romantic occasion and it was around about the same price as the usual Benares tasting menu, but you didn’t have to get involved, and could alternatively choose your courses from the al a carte. We’d been behaving ourselves as far as eating out was concerned for a month or so in preparation for going ‘big’ at Benares, so we opted for the 7 course tasting menu with matched wine. When in Mayfair…
The restaurant itself is beautifully chic but not outlandish. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the surroundings, but everything was lovely. It was unassuming, as were the front of house, which really made us feel comfortable. That’s not to say the staff weren’t superb, because they were, topping up our water before I even knew I was thirsty again and keeping a keen eye on which dish we were on. The sommelier was rather impressive and explained each of our wines in great detail with such passion that during one of his speeches, I couldn’t wait for him to finish before I was glugging the vino. He found that quite entertaining. Well, if they will let ruffians like us in…
So the food. First, we were brought a basket of mini herbed poppadoms and an assortment of sauces and chutneys. We were offered a refill, but with 7 more courses coming, we declined. The tasting menu included two fishy courses, which I asked to be swapped out, not being so partial to things from the sea. It wasn’t a problem at all and I was told the chef could rustle up some veggie options instead. Before the food arrived, the waiter brought us both a pristine envelope with the food we’d be eating tonight enclosed. I assumed mine would be the original tasting menu since I was going a little off piste, but low and behold he’d gone and edited the menu and printed it off for me so I had a memento of my exact choices!
The amuse bouche was a great start: warm potato and sweet potato topped with a yoghurt foam and sprinkled with something rather yellow. The yellow something was almost like popping candy, with a little bite and fizz – fantastic. Next, I had the first of my veggie additions, and believe me when I say it is high praise indeed that I could turn vegetarian if all meat-free food tasted like this. I had Subz Kebab, a Jerusalem artichoke and parsnip Shami and Tandoori Simla Mirch, a red pepper stuffed with kidney beans. The stuffed pepper was divine, and together with a balsamic smear and so many different spices and textures, totally satisfying. The wine which went with this course was a 2013 Viognier, Clay Station Lodi from California and it was super crisp and cold.
Course three was chicken or Murg Do Roopya: a duo of free range chicken, tandoori chicken tikka and grilled breast with a green chutney. The tandoori chicken was the softest most succulent chicken I’ve ever eaten. So flavoursome and chicken-y with a light heat. The wine was another white, a 2013 Soave La Rocca, Pieropan from Veneto, Italy and it was quite sweet and syrupy and lovely. Course four was Khumb Moilee, that’s portobello mushroom filled with coconut, spinach and curry leaf sauce to you and me, as well as Gobhi Amritsari, a deep fried spicy cauliflower with tomato chutney and a little rice. The mushroom was a real highlight for me; the spinach-coconut concoction was sweet and creamy. We were served another white (we’d hoped there’d be more of our preference of red but credit where credit’s due, the whites worked well with the food – I guess Atul knows what he’s doing!), which was the restaurant’s signature drop (Atul really knows what he’s doing!). The Gewurztraminer Atul’s Signature, Jean Claude Geuth from Alsace in France was everything you’d hope an Indian-inspired vino would be. You could certainly taste the rose water and a light, sweet spice. It wasn’t dissimilar to dessert wines I’ve tasted but lighter and thinner, in a good way. It went so perfectly with the curry leaf sauce I couldn’t stop swirling both around in my mouth at once.
A much-needed break came next, followed by a Nimbu Pani Sorbet. It was quite sour to start with but then becomes limey and creamy. By the end of the pot, you wanted more, but in favour of our tongues not dropping off we declined another round and awaited the next course, what the restaurant considers the ‘main’ in this conveyor belt of courses. When we’d looked at the tasting menu online before going to Benares, we’d assumed that the two parts to each course were two different options and for the main course we were really torn between the Rogan Josh and the Changezi Chaapein. We fought over who would have which one and whether we’d be expected to share but luckily, this was our mistake, and each course is made up of both dishes. WIN. The roasted rump of English lamb, Rogan jus and dal makhni was exquisite. The lamb alone could have been from a Michelin star British restaurant, but there was no mistaking where that dark dal was from. Creamy and hot it was perhaps even better than my fave dal in town, the Black Dal from Dishoom. If you’ve tasted that you’ll understand just how good Atul’s is. Joining it was the smoked Kashmiri chilli marinated tandoori lamb cutlet, which was joined by rice and flour-y chapati-style breads. Oh and the wine? RED! Hooray! And it didn’t disappoint. The 2013 Pinot Noir Muddy Water from Waipara in New Zealand was rich, smooth, fruity and quite strong, exactly what the lamb needed. I’ll be looking this bad boy up.
More? Yep, there’s more. Our last course was the pud. Now, I wouldn’t usually bother with dessert in an Indian restaurant (that’s a lie, I love a pistachio kulfi, but that’s more a cool snack than anything else..), but the Bhapa Doi, steamed yoghurt with rhubarb and pomegranate jelly and Masala Chai Brule, a tea and spice infused creme brule, certainly got me excited. The portions were perfect for our stuffed bellies, the yoghurt was more like ice cream and the crumbs on top were just the right amount of sweet. The creme brule wasn’t quite what I expected and you could really taste the tea – definitely one to try. We washed that down with a thick honey-coloured wine, a 2014 Chenin Blanc, Fairview La Beryl Blanc from Paarl, South Africa (and plenty of water because I had hangover fear and work the next day).
We ate, drank and enjoyed Benares for about three hours and didn’t feel rushed at all. The courses were well spaced and we didn’t want for anything. After we’d washed our faces (why does this only happen at Indian restaurants?), I was given a little box of chocolates and we ventured out into the cold London air, towards an Uber and home.
All in all, Benares was a total 10/10. It’s not cheap but you feel like you get what you pay for. Indian is one of my favourite cuisines and it’s nice to sample a more fine dining take on it with a thoroughly modern, and at times, British twist. Atul, we’ll be back.