We’re going to the Punchbowl, I tell J, it’s that pub in Mayfair, you know, the one that used to be owned by Guy Ritchie, when he was Madonna’s husband. For all I know, it might still be a Ritchie venture but even if it is, we can be eternally grateful that we won’t be seeing Madonna in tweed plus-fours ever again.
Posh Indian, she says, what about that? I don’t want to eat in a pub. It’s not a pub, I say, it’s a gastropub, and it looks reasonable and sometimes we just need to take a risk, but there is no point as she is already sporting the face.
Spoilt for Indian choice in my manor, I am thinking Trishna or Gymkhana (can’t get in) Tamarind (don’t want to be in a basement, expensive) Roti Chai (not sufficiently upmarket for madam this lunchtime), Chor Bizarre (mixed reports) and the often available Benares, brainchild of celebrity chef Atul Kochhar. We get in at short notice.
Mr Kochhar started at said Tamarind, just down the road, where he helped them to get a Michelin star and then left to open Benares, where oops, he did it again. I bet his old mates at Tamarind were delighted. And the website calls him a twice-Michelin-starred chef, which I find a little misleading. He has been in two restaurants, each of which have one star. The website says that he was the first Indian chef to receive a star. And I thought that it was the restaurant. Silly me.
He has restaurants in Dublin, on P&O Cruise ships, and two hotel restaurants, in Mauritius and Dubai. Spreading the stars around the world. Oh, and Petts Wood.
Benares has been around for just over a decade and I have been on a number of occasions, the last when I ate a dish with a tamarind sauce so intense that I found it inedible. I thought they had made a mistake in the kitchen and they asked me whether I knew what tamarind tasted like. Which patronising approach I really appreciated as customer service and yes, I do and I use it quite a lot but there you go. Maybe it was a different tamarind to the one I have been using for the past 20 years.
So I can’t say I was cartwheeling with joyous expectation into Benares, anticipating overpriced bits of overwrought food, such was my memory of the other visits. But I seemed to be a lone voice and I’m prepared to have my mind changed.
The room hasn’t changed at all. Windowless but carefully lit, this is an elegant space, trapped inside a faceless facade bang on Berkeley Square. All neutrals and white tablecloths, it’s on the right side of formal for a business lunch. We looked at the set menu, but I have no idea why I give that eye-service as I never order from it, my fear of missing out being too great. I want to see what the kitchen can do, not what it can do on a budget. But it was with some trepidation that my eyes shimmied across the page to the à la carte, what with its starters ranging from £14 to £25 and mains from £28 to £33. Without side dishes or service.
At least you get some poppadoms. Delivered in a little box, the coin-sized bites were rather oily, but the chutneys were good. Call me old fashioned but I like a large poppadom and these little discs probably added up to a single one of the trad variety. Could be better.
And then lamb cutlets, three crisp, succulent chops, on a bed of pureed smoky aubergine and crumbled feta. The feta was slightly lost against the kerr-pow flavours of the lamb, smothered in a fiery chilli paste with a hint of sweetness, but they were excellent. I went full caveman, resorting to hand-to-mouth to strip every last morsel off them. J had the adventurously-priced Tandoori Ratan, which comprised quail, sea bass, prawn and a small kebab and something else I couldn’t quite identify on my mini-plate, lovingly prepared by J herself, who has a pathological dislike of sharing. It’s not the concept, just the comingling of foods and juices I believe, so a division of spoils before food has been contaminated during the eating process is permissible. It was all good, especially the coriander chutney, which lifted the dish, as did the fresh lime. But £31.25, after service?
I felt duty bound to order the beetroot dumplings laced with 24 carat gold because it sounded ridiculous. The dumplings came with a berry pulao (rice) and a cardamom and cashew nut sauce. It looked very elaborate, what with the gold leaf fluttering on top of each dumpling. Thing is, when you see the word beetroot in front of dumpling on a menu it gives you the idea that there might be some beetroot in the actual dumpling. If there was, I couldn’t find it. On breaking open the said dumpling I was surprised to find that it was creamy coloured. Ah, I thought, they’ve used one of those pale varieties. If so, it was a variety that tasted just like rice. Similar to arancini, these were simply fried rice balls. There was a small smear of beetroot on the plate. That was it as far as the beetroot went. The balls were sat on lumps of halloumi-like cheese which got more chewy the colder it got. Perhaps the gold was there to distract you from the boredom of the dish.
J won lunch with her chicken cooked two ways, the first a tandoori chicken breast, on a large bed of tomato-peppery sauce fashioned into the ubiquitious smear, dotted with cashew nuts. I was allowed a taste. Again, delicious; as was the second dish, chicken pieces with peppers and tomatoes. Rich and satisfying, these were dishes which showed that the kitchen has a sure hand with the spicing. Breads were extra, as were the sides, all of which were excellent. And you needed the sides, because nothing came with the chicken. Which seems rather ungenerous. So really, you have to spend another £12 on top, for a vegetable and a bread, or rice. The main course was actually £45, after the “optional” service charge of 12.5 per cent. And breaaaatheee.
Desserts were on the adventurous side and clearly not an afterthought. The banana and chocolate torte, which was very good, tasted like chocolate cake infused with essence of banana and was an entirely unnecessary end to a rather large weekday lunch.
Benares is a grown up, sophisticated Indian restaurant. It has a bar which looks like a morgue in the daytime but which might be quite fun at night. Beloved of expense-account businessmen and tourists, the food concentrates on British ingredients whilst combining them with classic Indian techniques. I enjoyed what I ate, but I couldn’t get my head around the pricing. It’s prohibitive. I know it’s Mayfair but I felt that I’d been done. A quick comparison with its competitors shows that my instinct was correct and that this appears to be the most expensive in the area and I don’t believe that the food justifies it. Despite a meal which was very good in parts, I can’t see myself rushing back to Benares – unless I’m not paying.
Scores on the doors
Value for money 5/10
Best for : expense accounts
Worst for : beetroot