The Indian curry house has undergone one of the most lavish makeovers, with the finest five-star chefs determined to rid the nation of the mythical greasy chicken tikka masala, and canned coconut doused korma.
A stampede of luxury Indian restaurants have often battled for the prime spots in London’s hottest vicinities, from the shimmering chic streets of Chelsea and Belgravia, to the moneyed hedge fund haven of Mayfair. Sitting pretty by its idolised Bentley neighbour, rests the upscale settings of Mayfair’s Benares. Here, I was hosted in style with traditionally wholesome, yet modern fine dining with an added, contemporary British fusion twist.
Benares takes its name from the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities, also commonly known as Varanasi, which rests on the banks of the River Ganges. The W1 postcode remains a far cry from any spiritual connections however, Benares remains content with the by the door proximity of the aristocratic quadrangle of Berkeley Square.
One of the original players in London’s Indian gastronomy scene, the South Asian jewel opened their doors in 2002 formerly headed by celebrity chef, Atul Kochhar of Tamarind fame. In 2007, his Michelin Stardom continued to shine in his new venture, making Benares a force be reckoned with by its fellow native and international upscale dining spots.
For a nation obsessed with the razzmatazz of brash Bollywood glitz, I found myself surprised but also intrigued, to witness the calming low key class and elegance of the front facade in black, red and antique gold, finished off with a large Tahiti flame heater. The theme of understated, yet powerfully daring, modern luxury continued to follow suit inside, with the ground floor reception housing earthy traditional furnishings and antiques, including an exquisitely intricate stone statue.
A staircase flight led us to the bar and main dining room, where I was entranced by the intimate and calming decor of a rich sleek black colour scheme in addition to the back-lit bar, glass windowed kitchen and a largely spacious table seating, which married modernity with traditional heritage. This was showcased through the priceless ornate fabrics, hand crafted furniture and of course, the bewitching sight of the infinity water pool feature, filled with dainty candles and vibrant fresh flowers. This was a truly reminiscent tribute to the enchanting display of the sacred cities waterfront, particularly during India’s beloved Festival of Lights celebration, Diwali.
Shunning my predictable preference for a shaken not stirred martini, I shed off my inhibitions to continue developing my wine palate with a bottle of fine, Chenin Blanc; dry, yet delicate with touches of apple notes.
Following the team’s recommendations, the evening kicked off with the Tandoori Ratan of seafood and meat selections, and a serving of baked Malabar scallop. The seafood dishes from the Ratan transported me back to the restaurant beach shacks of India’s holiday haven Goa, reputed for their ‘just caught today’ fish brimming with the heat of freshly ground spices, and barbecued to flawless calibre on real open fire. The flaky sea bass revealed a buttery like flesh, which married harmoniously with the crispy spiced chargrilled skin, whilst the moist, firm king prawn meat packed a punch with the Bengali style mustard seed marinade.
The meats of soft tender chicken tikka and finely minced lamb kebab brought in the regal tastes from the Mughal Empire, also known for their love for whole and ground spices, but the star pupil was the scallops. Beautifully sweet and succulent, the Scottish scallops were enveloped in a rich velvet like coconut cream curry, baked to perfection to my excitable delight, on the shell.
Impressed with clean sweep of starter recommendations, the team were further entrusted with the mains selections of Murg Makhani, aka a slow roast baby poussin in a buttery tomato gravy, and the Meen Dakshani of curried wild turbot, served with a selection of Indian breads and vegetable sides.
The culture rich historics of the popular tomato gravy, mixed with lashings of double cream and melted butter, blended beautifully with the contemporary twist of a delicate and tender whole baby chicken, instead of the traditional use of diced chicken pieces. The turbot was approached with Alice in Wonderland curiosity, due to the lack of presence in many a high-end eatery I have visited, however the gamble paid off. The mild flavours of the luminously gleaming white fish were balanced with pristine care with the gentle touches of coconut sauce, curry leaf oil and baby tomatoes, finished with toppings of authentic curry leaves and juicy clams.
The soft, fluffy warm tandoori baked naan breads with dainty chopped garlic, were a far cry from the tough, doughy takeaway stodge, whilst the side dishes of cumin spiced yellow lentils, soft curried chickpeas and a mini helping of plain cumin rice, helped to offset and lighten the richness of the grand feast.
Leaving a little stomach corner for dessert, we opted for a falooda kulfi, the much adored popular street side ice cream, as well as India’s own take on cheesecake known as Rasmalai, served with mascarpone cream, replacing the traditionally used sweet cardamom milk.
Whilst the team certainly deserve kudos for their creative twist of these old age and untouched recipes, both desserts may be more of an acquired taste. The mascarpone cream took a tad bit of getting use to, however, I was won over by my childhood favourite fruit of fresh ripe mango slices, and the creamy airy texture of the rasmalai.
The kulfi’s take on an ice cream sundae appeared ever so slightly busy, bursting to the brim with kulfi, jelly, and a maybe not so needed topping of whipped cream however, I was won over by the genuine fresh fruity jelly and the traditional ice cream ingredients of saffron, cardamom and rosewater.
In a nutshell
Despite the ever growing competition from their fellow high-end native rivals, Benares continues to hold their own as one of London’s original players that helped to pull this South Asian cuisine out of the B-List shadows, and onto the Michelin map. Their ability to produce consistency delicious food hosted by a team where nothing is too much, has won them a loyal affluent and high-ranking client base, who continue to flood through the sleek glass doors.
With the UK in positive stead for the promised December freedom from lockdown 2.0, Benares is a sure-fire addition for the celebratory bucket list.
Address: 12a Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London, W1J 6BS
Telephone: 0207 629 8886
All imagery used in this article credit: Benares