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Benares in Berkeley Square, W1
Indian fine dining at its most luxurious
The entrance to Benares is itself fairly modest, but once through the door you enter a high ceilinged atrium. Your coats and bags are discreetly taken, and you arrive upstairs by the side of a gently overflowing pool, with floating blossoms and candles. You notice the inviting ottoman sofas in the spacious lounge and bar area, and you instinctively feel that you are about to be transported - to experience a transformation, if not at least something of a renewal.
The dining room itself is relatively minimalist, using clever lighting to create an intimate atmosphere. For the second time in a week, I decided to try the tasting menu (£37 per person), since this gives the reviewer the opportunity to try several dishes. I'm always intrigued to see what wine pairings the sommelier comes up with, so in fact we went for the full monty and had the four specially chosen glasses, which costs an additional £18. This sounds quite a lot, but the wines are good, and the glasses are big!
After the traditional Anglo-Indian pre-starter of poppadums and pickles (home made), we began with scallops and prawns, gently spiced with a rockety salad dressed with fresh tasting mint and ginger. This was a good example of a fusion style dish that worked well. The wine was a Pinot Blanc from Alsace which had enough fruit to complement the natural sweetness of the caramelised scallops.
Next was a Tranche of salmon, with lovely ultra-crispy skin and spices that were kicked up a notch to suit this more robust fish. A rosť from Chateau la Moutete in Provence had enough pizzazz to partner this dish, making a satisfying combination. After this we were offered a "seasonal sorbet", which was quite a surprise, as it turned out to be a banana flavoured ice cream! We thought it might be a little to rich for a palate-cleaner, but it was delicious and both of us made short work of our plates.
There was a choice of meat courses, so we had one each: lamb shanks were served in a dark rich sauce, the tender flesh had fallen completely off the bone, just as it should. Equally tender barbecued pieces of chicken were served in a Masala sauce with that smoky flavour of fenugreek . The side dishes, a spinach puree with paneer cheese and water chestnuts and beans were both fit to be appreciated in their own right. With all this we had a glass of Chateau de Belcier, a claret from the Cotes de Castillon, an area which I think has a number of good but underrated properties. This one was classic Bordeaux, but for me it doesn't quite go with curry. Something fights in my palate - I'd have preferred a lighter, fresher red - a Beaujolais, perhaps? The collection of wines on the list is very proper - big names abound. There are great opportunities here to develop something more unique to Benares - more careful wine pairings right through the menu with more wines by the glass would help to promote a greater sense of adventure.
The dessert was pineapple roasted in the tandoor oven - quite an incredible flavour resulted from this treatment. Looking at the menu now, it tells me that it came with baked cheesecake. I must have been so bowled over by the seared fruit that I forgot about the cheesecake! A glass of Monbazillac was the somewhat overwhelmed suitor to this amazing taste experience!
The main a la carte menu reflects Chef Atul Kochhar's vast knowledge of (and additional careful research into) the diverse culinary traditions from all corners of the sub-continent. Prices on the a la carte menu: appetizers: average price £8 - kebabs £17 - main courses £18.50 - vegetable side dishes £7.50. Prices inclusive of VAT, discretionary 12.5% service is added to the bill.
Clifford Mould November 2003
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