Thanks to his restaurant Tamarind, Atul Kochhar entered the record books as the first Indian chef to receive a coveted Michelin star. Not happy with just one, in 2003 he repeated the experience with high-end Indian eatery Benares, Berkeley Square.
Nearly 10 years on, and having never been, I was eager to pop down to sample what the 2012 Benares offers its modern-day clientele. Joining Atul in the kitchen, my visit began with a demonstration of his signature dishes. ‘No one can tell me what Indian food is,’ he stressed, hammering home his viewpoint that if you cook using ingredients, methods and a spirit synonymous with Indian cuisine, then it is Indian cuisine.
The first dish I tried was Jal Tarang (£16) – a statuesque, sumptuous and lightly-spiced scallop on a bed of delicate lentil salad; the second being the delightful crispy soft shell crab of the Karara Kekda Aur Salad (£18), complete with crab salad, apples and saffron mayonnaise. Easy to recommend in both cases, with a balance of flavour that still allowed the scallop and crab to shine through.
Next came my turn to sample from the à la carte menu, starting with a satisfying chicken tikka pie (Khasta Murgh, £16), filled with aromatic and soft meat. A pleasant dish, and a good portion size, but perhaps a little shy on that elusive ‘tikka’ flavour. An accompanying wild berry chutney added a sweet and sour finish.
Unfortunately, my Konju Moilee (£58) main course of lobster, fricassee of okra and mango, lemon couscous and Atul’s signature Moilee sauce was disappointing. The lobster was perfectly cooked, and again there was plenty of it, but it was left bereft on the plate as for anything to really help it shine. For me, lobster deserves careful consideration in its complement, whether simple or extravagant, but the Moilee sauce – although apparently a classic – was practically undetectable on the taste buds, with the vegetables and couscous doing little to assist. I ended up spooning mounds of dal, sautéed baby potatoes and paneer side orders onto my plate to give the lobster something to bounce off, all of which were solid performers, although nothing extraordinary. Not what you’d expect for nearly 60 quid.
Moving on to dessert, I tried the curiously tempting chocolate peanut butter ‘tube’, served with jaggery (cane sugar) cake, cumin, marshmallow and sugar cane ice-cream. It was an interesting finish, with a salted chocolate surround encapsulating a tasty peanut butter cup-esque centre. The cumin marshmallow was, funnily enough, one the first real examples of a bold use of spice, and was a nice touch.
Taking into account the price and its Michelin starred status, Benares fares well, but struggles to really impress. Stand out starters such as the crab and scallop are – excuse the pun – worth shelling out for, but throughout the meal there was a palpable ceiling in how bold the flavours would dare to go. Frankly, although this is still Indian dining of a finer nature, when compared to somewhere like Covent Garden’s Moti Mahal – which has much more style and substance in my opinion, and for marginally less cash – Benares pulls its punches just a little too much, and unfortunately loses the fight.
12a Berkeley Square House
Tel: 020 7629 8886