Benares has now been running almost thirteen years in its prime location on the east side of Berkeley Square. The upstairs dining room seats 120 guests at any time, with a chef table and two private dining rooms in addition. The menu is a modern take on Indian food, with several dishes that you will not find at your high street tandoori. As well as the a la carte there was a set lunch menu at £35 for three courses, and a tasting menu at £98. The kitchen has two charcoal tandoors, which impart a pleasing smokiness to dishes cooked in them compared to the usual gas tandoors more usually found in London.
The wine list is substantial, covering not just France but offering plenty of New World selections, as well as a few wines from India itself. Examples were Brownstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 at £39 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £11, Pieropan Ruberpan 2013 at £60 compared to a retail price of £17, and Vallet Freres Mersault 2013 at £98 for a wine that will set you back £35 in a shop. Given the Mayfair location, it is no surprise that there are grander wines too, such as Leflaive Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles 2011 at £499 for a label with a current market price of £185, and Margaux 1990 at £1,945 for a bottle with a current market price of £854.
Mini-popadoms here were properly crisp and came with unusual chutneys such as pineapple and gooseberry. I began with an original dish and a nice example of Anglo-Indian fusion: chicken tikka pasty (£19) used minced chicken tikka meat wrapped in filo pastry and then baked, served with wild berry chutney. The pastry was good and there was a lively chilli kick from the filling, though the chutney was a little over sweet to my taste (13/20).
New Forest venison (£34) was cooked medium rare and offered with a little pot of venison biryani on the side, along with a celeriac and spinach tikka and chocolate curry. The latter is less bizarre than it sounds, as chocolate is used in Mexican savoury dishes in the form of mole sauce; I have also encountered chocolate used by French chefs to thicken sauces. The meat had good flavour and the chocolate curry actually worked, avoiding any jarring sweetness. The biryani had fragrant rice and the meat avoided dryness, though the vegetable tikka on the side was surprisingly subdued in flavour given what a distinctive taste celeriac possesses (14/20).
A side dish of gobi mattur (£9) was pleasant, retaining the texture of the cauliflower reasonably well, though the flavour of the peas was rather limited (13/20). Naan bread was excellent, supple and freshly made (14/20).
To finish, a trio of kulfis was made in house (many Indian restaurants buy their sweets in from caterers). The flavour of the mango, pistachio and lychee came through quite well, and they were served at a sensible temperature, though these were enjoyable rather than thrilling (13/20)
The coffee served was the premium brand from Julius Meinl coffee, a long-established Austrian supplier. This even came with a trio of petit fours made in the kitchen, including a good pate de fruits. The bill came to £80 for one person with mineral water at £3.95. Service was slick, though I for one find the hot towel that magically appears when water is poured over a white pill to produce a soggy paper “towel” is a gimmick that lost its appeal a long time ago. Nine-year veteran Arnaud Dumas, the restaurant operations manager, leads the front of house team. Mr Dumas, who opened Atelier Robuchon in London before moving here, is so suave that Tom Hiddleston in “The Night Manager” appears loutish by comparison. This was a better meal than I recall from a much earlier visit many years before, and certainly the menu is original and interesting. The main question, as ever with restaurants that have to deal with soaring Mayfair rents, is value for money. If you shared a modest bottle of wine then you would be doing well to escape for £95 a head.