Benares was opened by Atul Kolchar back in 2002, winning a Michelin star in 2007. Since September 2019 it has had as its executive chef Sameer Taneja, who worked in this role here from 2011 to 2015 and more recently cooked at Talli Joe. In his career he has also cooked with Pierre Koffmann at Koffmanns and with Joel Antunes at Brasserie Joel, as well as at the Waterside Inn.
The restaurant’s entrance is on the east side of Berkeley Square and the dining room is on the first floor. As you reach the top of the stairs you pass a pool with flower petals floating in it, and on your left is the bar area. As well as the dining room there is a private room and chef’s table. Sixteen chefs work on the kitchen, and on this busy weekend evening two hundred covers would be served, with much turning of tables going on around us and some meals being served in the bar too. Sameer has changed most of the menu since he came on board, and upgraded suppliers too. For example the seafood is now supplied by the top-notch company Keltic Seafoods, who supply The Ritz. There was a tasting menu at £98 as well as a full a la carte menu, and also a separate vegetarian menu with several additional dish options.
The wine list had 333 full bottles and ranged in price from £32 to £4,499, with a high median price of £95 that reflects its Mayfair setting. Prices averaged 3.4 times retail, which is pushing it some even for Berkeley Square. Sample references were Torrontés Bodega Colomé Salta 2017 at £41 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £12, Chardonnay La Crema 2016 at £66 compared to its retail price of £18, and the excellent Hamilton Russell Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 at £89 for a wine that will set you back £32 in the high street. For those with the means, there was Domaine René Monnier Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières 2016 at £199 compared to its retail price of £77, and Domaine Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne 2007 at £399 for a wine whose current market value is £208. I drank Cobra beer.
The meal began with a choice of lentil and rice flour popadoms with a spicy mixed vegetable pickle, mango and mixed berry chutney and also spicy lentil powder. An initial canapé was a little wheat cone with chickpea salad. This worked nicely, the cone itself crisp and delicate, the chickpeas tender and their flavour lifted by some gentle spice (14/20).
Wheat pani puris followed, the hollow spherical shells partly filled with carrot, potato, mint and coriander chutney and organic sprouts. A tube of fermented black carrot water was also presented for the diners to fill up the spheres. The idea is that they burst on the tongue when bitten into and release their partly liquid filling. This dish was enjoyable, though the puris could be just a touch more delicate, and for me a little more spice might have been beneficial, to lift the carrot flavour (13/20).
Momo chicken is a dumpling reminiscent of a gyoza, char-grilled rather than steamed and served with beetroot crisps, pickles and smoked tomato chutney. This was fine, the crisps an interesting pairing for the dumpling (13/20). Cured sea bream was served in an oyster shell with avocado chutney and a little coriander, along with aam panna tiger milk, which is a drink made from mango, cumin, mint and other spices. The fish itself was very good and the chutney worked well with it, so it was a successful dish. It was an unusual dish to see on an Indian menu but none the worse for that (14/20)
A scallop was sliced and baked on its shell, along with coconut curry. The scallop was without doubt high quality, though I think that pan-frying a scallop whole is the best way to show it off. The curry for me lacked quite enough coconut and was a touch oily (13/20). On the side was a genuinely superb Malabar paratha, bread from southern India. This is fried in a pan with oil, and in many restaurants ends up either too greasy or too dry. This version was a joy, being light and fluffy and with terrific texture (16/20). Next was dosa with a crab and potato timbale, topped with fried quail egg on top of crab and Exmoor caviar. On the side was tomato chutney and coconut chutney. The dosa was fine and the chutneys were good, though I am not really sure what the fried egg and caviar really added. Also the time taken to plate this up meant that the dosa was not piping hot (14/20).
A smoked dome then appeared, under which was paneer (curd cheese) topped with blue cheese along with pickled onion and quince jam. The paneer had good texture and the pickled onion provided useful sharpness, with the blue cheese an interesting touch (14/20). Grilled and mashed purple aubergine came with a peanut and sesame gravy, peas and crisp aubergine discs. The aubergine had good texture and the peanut and sesame sauce had plenty of flavour (14/20). On the side was honey-glazed naan bread; I am not really sure that the honey glaze added much here.
A side dish of new potatoes with spiced lentil powder was lovely. The potatoes retained their texture well and the dusting of spice added a pleasing peppery note (15/20). Venison ghotala is a variant on an Indian snack called ghotala, normally made with eggs, onions, tomato and potato and served with bread on the side. Here the venison added a luxurious twist, with quail eggs rather than hen eggs and beetroot chips and peas mixed in. This dish was a triumph, the venison excellent and the crisps adding an interesting textural contrast, the level of spicing precise, and the egg, venison and beetroot flavours combining really well. On the side was, as is traditional, some pau or butter bread. I thought this was a terrific dish (16/20).
We also tried a main course of New Forest venison loin with braised red cabbage with broccoli stems and a miniature venison biryani served on the side. Finally there was a sauce of venison jus flavoured with garam masala. The deer was good, light cooked and having plenty of flavour, and the broccoli was tender. The biryani was quite fragrant and for me was the star element of the dish (14/20). After all this we were pretty full but did sample a fig leaf kulfi, which was very good indeed (easily 14/20). Coffee was from Julius Meinl and came with a series of petit fours such as bharthi served in a wooden presentation box.
Service was very good, the staff being attentive and professional. I didn’t see a bill this evening but a typical cost per person if you shared a bottle of wine might be around £100. This is not cheap but then you are in Berkeley Square, the single most expensive piece of real estate in London. Mayfair is the most expensive property on the Monopoly board for a reason. The new chef is already making an impact here and I feel much more inclined to return here then I ever did under the old kitchen regime.