You know you’re almost there from the minimal number plates and the freshly polished cars lining the streets off Berkeley Square, suited Henrys hooraying and the sort who use Tatler, rather than Facebook, to keep up with their friends. Benares itself is unassuming, blending into the darkness from the outside, quietly decadent inside. The initial feeling is on a par with entering a spa: chilled music, moody lighting, lamps like giant Meadow Mushrooms drooping down from the main entrance and water reflections dancing around the ceiling at the top of the stairs from the orchid-clad pond feature. Coupled with a welcoming even warmer than this odd burst of summer we’ve been experiencing in the city of late, there was an immediate air of being on to something really rather good.
Benares has a great reputation, for both its food and its owner and chef, Atul ‘Master of Spice’ Kochhar, so I didn’t expect to be disappointed. I didn’t expect, either, quite the culinary thrills that lay before me that evening…
After a glass of blush champagne, I was seated in the wine cellar dining room with the handful of other diners there to experience the first of five special wine evenings launched by the Michelin-starred restaurant: Revisiting Fish, Indian Style – a nod to Kochhar’s 2008 cookbook of the same name and partly inspired by his time at catering college in the coastal region Chennai, where fish was in abundance and a key part of his diet. He found the restaurants serving Indian cuisine over here to be “a world apart” from his home country, and has aimed to tackle that by fusing British and European culinary influences with traditional Indian methods and spices and, in this case, fish.
Kochhar introduced himself and talked about the menu for the evening and then handed over to his fantastic team, including the wonderful head sommelier, Costanzo Scala, to talk us through each dish and wine pairing choice. Despite the potentially ego-inflating TV, literary and culinary credits to his name, Kochhar was warm, engaging and relaxed when he came to introduce the dinner, his passion for cuisine endearingly evident.
Unlike some of these multiple course matching meals where wine and food is sparse, here the courses were generous, but aesthetic, the wines plentiful, to the extent that I left some behind. Dainty poppadoms with a trio of fruity, tart and spicy dips kicked off the palate and acted as a subtle warning to the stomach of the kind of ingredients it’d be dealing with through the five courses that night. A crisp and just as fruity Sauvignon Blanc arrived as our refreshing aperitif. Bite-sized portions of mackerel, deliciously crispy skinned and soft of flesh, were moist, unbelievably yielding and delicately flavoured with fruity Goan spices, gooseberry chutney and pickled pear – a match made in heaven with the nectarine bite in the Californian Clay Station Viognier. The presentation prompted my demonstrative Twitpic of the evening.
Round two, the crisp soft shell crab, wiped the last greasy experience from my memory and replaced it with something really quite delicious: sweet, mustardy, ever-so-slightly creamy, and not at all dripping with deep fry. Not surprisingly it’s a dish that Kochhar revealed is “close to my heart” and one with which he scored a victory over Gary Rhodes on Great British Menu. The accompanying New Zealand Ata Ranghi ‘Craighall’ Chardonnay, a measure of buttery, oaky smokiness, balanced beautifully with the lemongrass spring roll.
Kochhar’s signature dish of coconut and ginger Prawn Moily had a hint of crème brûlée about it and a side of rice as fluffy as fresh snow. The wine – a light Gewurztraminer from a boutique winery in Alsace – was unsurprisingly another of Kochhar’s favourites, and rightly so. A green apple sorbet amuse bouche followed, rejuvenating the taste buds ready for the dish I would order if I went back again for the à la carte.
A couple of bites in to the hefty fillet of meaty Stone Bass, and I was overcome by fullness, the sort that makes you think you might have to head outside for a solitary breath of fresh air. I channelled my inner sumo and tucked in to the deliciously burnt flakes from the tandoor, crunchy samphire and a luscious moss-green Nilgiri Korma sauce, one tiny morsel at a time, hoping mind over matter would see me through; my greed was aided by the saporous sauce. It was the best dish of the lot and disappointingly one I just couldn’t finish, the light, silky Manawa Pinot Noir a perfect partner with the dish, despite breaking the red-with-fish rule.
Dessert was exactly what was needed at the time: a crisp fresh lime mousse, lemon thyme jelly and a shot glass of basil sorbet. By this time, I was full to the brim, so much of the accompanying sweet Kirnbauer Welshriesling Eiswine went reluctantly to waste.
Coffee was turned down in favour of the exciting looking tea box. You don’t just pick your infusion from a menu here; the waiter carries over the chest so diners can feel, smell and see the tea before making a decision, assisted by the waiter’s commentary on the holistic benefits of each one. Peppermint, my original choice, was replaced with rosebud on the promise of its detoxifying qualities. My fellow diner chose anti-ageing jasmine. There’s also white tip, my beloved Earl, and many more, each with their own life-improving promise.
I left shortly after, drunk more on food than anything, walked passed the well-heeled spilling out of the other fine establishments on the strip, back to Green Park station, up the Archway road to my house and into the stark light of the bathroom, where I smiled in the mirror at the thought of the wonderful evening, the pang of glutton’s guilt not due for at least another six hours or so. It was at that moment when I spotted, in horror, an obvious dollop of sauce that hadn’t quite made it into my mouth, staining its way into my pale silk dress. Oh, the shame. Just at that moment, one of Kochhar’s Yogic quotes from earlier – probably orated while said stain was winking at him – popped into my head and put me at ease: “If you don’t make a mess, then you don’t enjoy the meal.”