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db eats: Benares

After a whirlwind chat last month with Benares head sommelier, Costanzo Scala, to unravel the intricacies of matching wine to Michelin-starred Indian food, it was only going to be a matter of time before db trotted up the stairs again for more empirical enlightenment.

benares.jpgLocated on the first floor above London’s Berkeley Square and accessed through a doorway which is easily overshadowed by Jack Barclay’s Bentley showroom, it’s easy to walk straight past Benares.

Keep your eyes open though as its bar offers a rather classy version of happy hour from 5-7pm every Monday to Thursday. Half price cocktails come with an appetising freebie from the bar menu – not a bad start to an evening and a bite-size way to size up the venue before committing to a major birthday blowout. 

Starting at £110, the serious tasting menus where kitchen and sommelier really get a chance to show off their combined strength were going to have to wait for another day.

Instead we ere keen to test-drive the bar menu, which offered a more modest selection of snacks alongside a rather exotic cocktail list and, if we made it that far, a pared down snapshot of the cellar.

We immediately solved half our decision-making problem by ordering one of everything from the snack list. For an initial thirst-quencher, I ordered a mango and chilli caipiroska. Who knows if this is what they’re drinking in downtown Mumbai, but if chef Atul Kochhar is happy to take inspiration from a fusion of British and Indian influences, then there’s no reason why the cocktails can’t have some fun as well.

For an uneasy moment I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew: the fresh, rich mango was followed up by a rather grown up kick from the chilli. When the spice is in your drink, where do you turn for the fire extinguisher? Fortunately our nut bowl came to the rescue and, venturing back for a second sip (that mango is irresistibly more-ish), I found to my relief that, once you know it’s coming, the spice was spot on.

The food arrived in a nicely staggered series of trios. First up was chicken tikka, vegetable samosas and prawns. The tikka was succulent and nicely flavoured, but its advertised onion salad was, rather disappointingly, just a few slices of red onion. Unannounced that would have been fine, but we’d somehow expected a bit more flair at this level.

The samosas were definitely better than your average: plenty of filling, which actually tasted of vegetable, while the outside was neither stodgy or greasy. Perhaps that description reveals more about the poor quality of samosa offered by so many other places in this country. If you’re looking for a good one, try Benares.

I could easily have fought for another garlic and chilli prawn, but since I’d inadvertently brought a (fish-eating) vegetarian with me, I needed to save myself to tackle the meat dishes single-handedly.

The Romney Marsh mutton skewer summed up Benares’ approach very neatly. Well-sourced UK produce, elegantly presented and benares.jpgprepared so that the delicate balance of spices assumes the lead role, rather than the meaty flavours you would expect from European treatment of this core ingredient.

Surprisingly, a cauliflower dish and then paneer, India’s answer to cottage cheese, turned out to be far more exciting than I’d anticipated, providing as they did a blank canvas for the kitchen to show off its skilful ability to blend and balance spices.

Less surprising hits were the kafir-infused monkfish tails with tamarind and some beautifully light calamari. If there was a dud in the line-up, it was the cumin-infused potato cakes: fine as blotting paper, but as with the chicken tikka, we’d somehow expected it to deliver a bit more of a punch.

With such an assortment of flavours pouring out of the kitchen, it was useless to try and apply the principles Scala had painstakingly explained earlier so, after toying with the dutiful idea of an Indian Sauvignon Blanc made by Sula, I settled happily for an excuse to enjoy some Alsatian Pinot Gris from Jean Claude Gueth.

As I’d hoped, it provided enough body, fruit and spice of its own to both complement the dishes and provide some palate refreshment between mouthfuls. Beer and curry may be the classic English approach, but Benares is hardly your high street curry house and, from glassware to bottle displays, the cues here are all very much wine-oriented.

If Semplice struggled to make itself stand out from the wealth of classy Mayfair Italian restaurants, Benares certainly doesn’t have to do battle with a local surfeit of high-end British-Indian fusion dining rooms.

However, it is precisely because of its original, unfamiliar offer, that the challenge for Benares is to convince wine lovers that such spicy cuisine provides a suitable, exciting even, environment to indulge in serious bottles. On the basis of our view from the bar, plenty of diners were happily taking the plunge.

For a full profile on Benares, see September’s issue of the drinks business.

Benares Restaurant & Bar
12a Berkeley Square House
Berkeley Square

Tel: +44 (0)207 629 8886

Gabriel Savage, 07.09.2010

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