Once upon a very long time ago, Indian dining in the U.K. was synonymous with the concept of a curry house, ironically often run by non-Indian families (I suppose going for a “Bangladeshi” just didn’t have the same ring to it).
Fast forwarding to present day, Indian cuisine has quietly evolved to command an “on-trend” status spanning a broad spectrum from niche single-issue eateries (such as Kati Roll Co. or DUM Biryani) to restaurants inspired by the vastly-vibrant cultures of India (think Bombay Irani cafes and more).
While the shift has been gradual, the underlying change in perception owes much to the original wave of fine dining establishments such as Benares…
Helmed by Atul Kochhar – the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star – Benares was awarded its own Michelin star back in January 2007 for its modern approach to traditional Indian cuisine.
Paying homage to the holy city from which the restaurant draws its name, the interiors here reflect a subtle sense of heritage and culture too – from the antique sculptures greeting you at the entrance, to the indoor water features (Benares is situated on the banks of the Ganges).
Having arrived ahead of my lunch companion, I found the dark and moody bar a surprisingly-inviting spot to wait at, whetting my whistle with a Passion Fruit Chutney Martini…
The ingenious combination of vodka, passion fruit, lemon juice and chilli had a sensational sweet, sour and spicy profile, hinting at the oscillating play on textures to expect of Chef Atul.
Anemona had her twin babies in tow, and so virtuously opted for a Virgin Mojito (although it was just as appealingly presented!).
While impeccable service is implicitly a given at all Michelin-starred establishments, the hospitality extended at Benares deserves special mention here, as the team went out of their way to accommodate les infants, changing around their meticulous seating plan to find us a comfortably spacious spot in a more intimate area of the restaurant.
Having settled into our cosy corner, we started with a Subz Kebab Thal – a beautifully-presented selection of appetisers, which harmoniously married British ingredients and veggies into a popular-style of Indian snacks.
The parsnip and Jerusalem artichoke tikki was our unanimous favourite, its crisp coating revealing a soft – almost caramelised – sweetness underneath!
The paneer tikka was pleasantly light, although I would have liked to detect a slightly bolder hint of spices clinging to the marinade. Similarly with the kidney-bean stuffed pepper, which was oh-so-delicately constructed but came across a tad too mild (at least for my, at times, unsubtle Indian palate).
Our mains however showcased the more pronounced flavours appealing of Indian cuisine – doing so with an artful aplomb which is the hallmark Chef Atul’s inimitable style of cooking.
I particularly loved the unexpected fiery after-kick of the seasonal vegetable Haveli kofta, it’s soft pliable texture sheathing a green chilli within. More moreish still, were the sweet and nutty flavours imparted by the splash of peanut and sesame sauce on top!
The saunfiani bhindi was one of the finest renditions of okra I’ve had outside of my own home in Bombay. Feistily sautéed with shredded fennel and seeds, it had a surprising homely quality to it, as did our other veggie sides – from the palak paneer to the kalonji baingan, which saw tender baby aubergines simmered in a tomato and onion stew with a handful of nigella seeds releasing a peppery flavour. The dishes had just that perfectly imperfect excess of oil too, which we heartily mopped up with our Indian breads – an unapologetically indulgent cheese kulcha for Anemoma, and a flaky wholewheat paratha for me.
An order of dal makhni wasn’t amiss either, I could simply have had bowls and bowls of the creamy slow-cooked black lentils on that wintry afternoon!
Chef Atul’s showmanship continued with desserts, each plate resembling a work of modern art.
Proving once again, that it’s never too cold for ice cream – we dived into a triumphant trio of kulfis first, the aromatic – almost citrusy note – of the cardamom flavour emerging our favourite, followed by the sunny mango kulfi.
The peanut butter parfait was as delightful as it sounds too – the crunchy explosion of crisp chocolate and a smooth peanut butter mousse was balanced by the dewy almond cake underneath, with cumin marshmallows and sweet jaggery ice cream adding other versatile dimensions.
What I particularly enjoyed about my lunch at Benares, was that it was very much an East-Meets-West affair, albeit without resorting to any of the gimmicks characteristic of so many fusion restaurants today.
If you’re looking for traditional Indian cuisine with a modern fine-dining twist, this is definitely one for your list.
Benares, 12A Berkeley Square House, Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London W1J 6BS
I was a guest of Benares, but as always all opinions are mine and mine alone.
I love this restaurant. I met Atul Kocchar in Selfridges when he was doing a book signing when he first opened the restaurant around a decade ago roughly or maybe even longer and then we did my parents ruby anniversary celebrations there, made all the more special since it was the very city that was home to my Dad for a long time!
Wow, your father lived in Benares? That’s amazing, I’d love to hear more about it one day! It’s amazing how the restaurant has maintained its high level of quality and standards over so many years…