Lunch at Benares - sampling the best Indian in London
February 17, 2017
How many chefs in London can cook better than the best in India? Despite of the huge number of Indian diners in the capital, the answer to this question is - not many…
Typical high street curry houses bloomed in UK with the influx of Indian immigrants. Only long time ago the food served by the authentic indian cooks was unforgettable, and cooked as well as grandma would have done back home. Then with time, the popularity of the diners grew, the menus evolved to suit and please somehow different palettes. That’s how ‘curry’ was born, but now the food was nowhere as near good as in India. It came to no surprise, as many of the restaurants were now owned and run by non-indians. So now, many years after the pressure grows on culinary masters to go back to heir roots and try to recreate the vibrant flavours from the incredible continent. Thanks God we have enough passionate and determined people on this planet and the scene has changed. Creative Indian food is on trend now - just look how quickly has the ‘Dishoom’ grew from one restaurant to a pretty strong network. There are even hipster Indian places that serves the trendy dishes fully inspired by amazing spices of India - look at Cricket for example. None of this boom would have ever happened if people like Atul Kochhar had not pushed so hard to create his Benares and make what it is today.
Benares is one of those Indian restaurants which placed its mark on the gastronomical map of London back in 2007 when it became first Indian restaurant awarded with a Michelin star. They managed to keep the award for ten years and their food is as good as ever. Why? Because Benares serves food ‘like my mum would have cooked’ - as my dear friend Ayushi (thefoodiediries.com) said after our lunch there. Despite the fact there are some dishes on the menu clearly inspired by wester cooking, in many ways Chef Atul proves he did not only mastered the nuances of authentic Indian cooking as well as tricks of wester schools of cooking. In his menu he shows his roots being the reason he cooks and he uses the skills gathered in the world only to outline the beauty of authentic Indian food.
You enter the restaurant from the street level on Berkley square and head straight up an wide and elegant staircase. There is a great, shady and classy bar with comfortable lower sitting. I was still breastfeeding so couldn’t have really tried any of the tasty boozers - I have chosen a virign mojito instead. Unfortunately the selection of mocktails was not very impressive. The classical virgin mojito was good, fresh and nicely presented. But it was not cocktails I came here for!
Our amuse was tiny papadums with typical selection of dips - I especially loved the bite size of the crisps. Straight after we had a plate of Subz Kebab Thal - a tiny vegetarian appetiser composed of four elegantly plated mini dishes. Our favourite was the cooked to perfection jerusalem artichoke and parsnip tikki. There was a small soy bean salad, which I have greatly enjoyed too! Other pieces were paneer tikka and a small red pepper stuffed with red beans. The dish was a good opener to a great meal, to my surprise however, it wasn’t very spicy at all!
As it was only lunch, we have decided to go straight for mains. Ayushi is vegetarian so all of our dishes were vegetable based - and I loved it! There is no better way to test a skilful chef than ask for a meat and fish free meal. I guess being Indian it makes the task a bit easier, but let’s not take any points from Benares here - they did a marvellous job! And we were so full after our mains we needed to take a long break before trying the sweets.
What did we eat then? Haveli kofta - an amazing hand rolled kofta with a whole green chilli inside, served with heavenly smooth and perfectly complimenting peanut and sesame sauce. The indian classic veg dish of pan fired okra - saunfiani bhindi - perfectly balances with generous seasoning. We also had the palak paneer and kalonji baingan, with the second one being a unique mouthwatering baby aubergine and tomato stew cooked with onions and nigella seeds. A good indian meal would never be complete without one of the amazing dal sides - this time we went for a bowl creamy slow cooked black lentils. We didn’t get any rice, instead we have tried two different breads from the very impressive selection the menu has to offer. Whichever indian bread you would think of - you will find it here, and it will be offered plain or stuffed. We have ordered a plain wholewheat paratha and a cheese kulcha - both were just perfect!
Although we were pretty full after the feast, we couldn’t have refused desserts. The must try is Indian ice cream selection. Good Kulfi is hard to get, especially that it takes a long time and a patient chef to master the prep of this dish. The milk for Kulfi needs long time of slow reduction, until it reaches a silky thick texture, only then you can turn it into delicious ice cream. In Benares you can try them in citrus, mango and cardamom flavours - the last one beats them all! Other delight we have tried was the peanut butter parfait - although it certainly does not sound like a typical Indian dish, it was served alongside with a scoop of ice-cream of an unusual Indian flavour of jaggery (a form of concentrated sugar cane juice without separating of the molasses). The parfait was served in a light chocolate coated tile tube, placed on a delicate almond sponge. What a finish!