12A Berkeley Square House, Berkeley Square, W1J 6BS, www.benaresrestaurant.com
When a clearly straight, urbane waiter compliments you on your heels, you can’t help but love a restaurant. Especially when said heels are transporting you to the Benares chef’s table to gulp a fishbowl-sized gin-and-champagne cocktail and watch a Michelin-starred craftsman do his thing with an ocean of seafood.
Okay, not an ocean- but Atul Kochhar’s been down to Brixham and returned with a nice selection of tiny soft-shell crabs, their larger counterparts and scallops nothing short of humungous. He pops these monsters in a simple tandoori marinade, refreshingly devoid of neon colorants, and prepares a toothsome, coriander-laced lentil salad to sit them on post-char. The diminutive crab, meanwhile, is treated to a massage with a batter using rice flour for crispness and mustard oil for a distinctly Eastern pungency, fried and served with a salad of white crabmeat paired with- no, Atul laughs- not yellow cherries, but Lilliputian apples. It’s every man for himself as sampling is invited.
To the table, then. Dilemma- is it better to have a menu where you want to order each and every item, or nothing at all? My problem is resoundingly of the first category. Earwigging my fellow diners and calculating I’ll be able to sneak a few forkfuls, I decide to stick with the piscine option. Mackerel ki Kathi to start, followed by a dish which would probably have the moniker’Ocean catch’ in a low-rent boozer, but here goes by’Samudra Khazana do Pyaza’. High falutin’, indeed.
Atul’s got that refreshing attitude towards Indian cuisine- professing to have no real knowledge of the food of such a vast country embracing all religions, creeds and external influences. Indians, he says, have a wonderful ability to take whatever’s thrown at them and thoroughly’Indianise’ it- thus, the sub-continent eats omelettes thanks to the Brits and owes her love of chillies to the Portuguese. At Benares, Atul cooks Indian food his way- and offers, in his gentle, genial manner,’If you don’t like it, don’t come back!’
Good on him. The chef believes that a cuisine adapts according to the demographic, and that Indian food in the UK is less’bastardised’, more’augmented’ to the nation’s palate. Sadly, that’s all too frequently reflected in bargain-basement curry houses, where enterprising Bangladeshis have mastered the tandoor and balti to cater to the boozed-up boor who knows what he likes and expects to get it without sticking his hand very deep in his pocket. A few more attitudes like Atul’s, a bit more regional pride, I reckon things could change.
And if’going out for a Ruby’ could one day mean eating off the plate currently set in front of me, the sooner the better. No sloppy brown sauces, no unidentifiable chunks of protein here. A mackerel fillet sits atop an’Indianised’ ratatouille and a sliver of crisp garlic naan, accompanied by an artful little’hard-boiled-egg-and- pipette-of-tomato’ affair. Green chutney’s always welcome- cutting the pleasant fattiness of the fish and piquing the tastebuds. Chicken tikka masala’s on the menu- hey, it’s a British-Indian classic- but this is a natty little pie topped with black and white sesame. See- it can be done.
A startling agglomeration of seafood is presented next. King prawn? Surely I’ve got my neighbour’s lobster by mistake?! Nope- underneath nestles the scallop, marginally smaller than those beasties in the kitchen- a razor clam and a piece of squid. The’do Pyaza’ part is more like chunky tomato-and-onion compote- the decision of when and how much to apply left, gratifyingly, up to me. Slivers of gram-flour based missi roti are first-rate, but it doesn’t stop me hitting the bread basket running- Peshwari and cheese naans, roti, paratha… My dish is good, but the standout is to my right- lamb, baby artichokes and a legendary purple potato preparation. I manage a small mouthful without being stabbed by a defensive fork….Yup, that’s food envy right there.
Indian restaurant puds, runs the common consensus, suck. As The Mithai Addict, I beg to differ- but we’ve all suffered the indignity of the bought-in’Punky Penguin’, and wished we hadn’t. There’s none of that here- just good puds, tarted up with clever touches like shards of seed brittle or cumin marshmallows. Betel leaf baba lacks hallucinogenic effect, but packs an intense flavour punch. Rose and raspberry bapa doi unusually and ingeniously presents the steamed yogurt cut into chunks, and chocolate and peanut roll with jaggery cake and sugar cane ice cream just plain delights.
Okay, so for most of us, Benares is never going to be an everyday experience. But if a few chefs and restaurateurs at the other end of the spectrum could draw even a little inspiration and confidence in their cuisine from innovative approaches like Atul’s, the Indian restaurant industry would be in much ruder health… And those rude, curryhouse-dwelling boors would finally’phall’ into obscurity, replaced by customers who know their Assam from their elaichi. Atul Kochhar- a defiant, proud chef, refining and redefining Indian food to delicious effect.