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Monday, October 29, 2007

Benares delivers a treat for the senses

Atul Kochhar sprang to national prominence in the TV show The Great British Menu, where he provoked anguished debate among the judges about whether or not his food was truly British cuisine.

Now, having dined at his Michelin-starred London restaurant Benares, I can say it very definitely is British cuisine but with the delicate touch of a spicing master. The menu was mercifully bereft of the onion bhajiis, rogans, chicken tikka massalas and biryianis. Instead, Benares serves up a short but saliva-inducing menu of classic fish and meat dishes with that extra spicy something.

I went a la carte and started with spice crusted seared scallops with grape and ginger dressing. What made this stunning was the fact that the grapes were served at just thawed temperature. The coldness and the crunch with the ginger was, as Michael Winner would say, historic.

Next I couldn't resist the star of his Great British Menu submission. Battered John Dory with crushed garden peas and Gorkha tomato chutney. We shared a side dish of water chestnut, baby corn and courgette tossed with crushed coriander. The batter and fish was sublime, the batter light and crispy, the fish tender and juicey. The only disappointment was the chutney which was quite bland.

Benares has a fine selection of teas - such an underrated drink - and I enjoyed the delicate but robust flavour of the Benares special blend.

The restaurant was pleasingly busy for a lunch time and has a relaxed ambience with plenty of room between the tables. I think more could be done with the decor: the initial walk up the stairs and the marble sweep into the restaurant is spectacular, but once inside the ceiling is quite low and the wall covering - what appears to be smooth obelisks of Polyfilla - could be visually more exciting.

The only thing that jarred was the service. It was very much executed to a script with none of the intuition and anticipation that waiters display at restaurants like Le Gavroche. My companion's napkin was taken away when he went to the lavatory (why?) and the waiter insisted on describing exactly what we were eating, when it arrived, which seemed silly when we knew because we'd lovingly read every word of the menu. We weren't asked if we wanted to replenish our bottle of water, and uneaten poppadoms were almost removed before we had finished.

That aside, I certainly noticed the difference in spicing when I went to our usual Indian restaurant later that weekend. It's a perfectly acceptable restaurant, but somehow everything lacked clarity and unctiousness after Benares.

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