I have an issue to raise with Benares – why do their version of the Keralan classic, Meen Alleppey, taste more like a tomatoey Italian rendition of the dish, rather than the tart, coconut-creamy authentic Indian version that I love?
The first time I experienced Atul Kochhar’s cuisine was actually 4 or so years back when he was in Singapore for the World Gourmet Summit. He was hosted by Rang Mahal, one of Singapore’s oldest and best Indian restaurants – interestingly Atul Kochhar started off working with the Oberoi Group in India – and Rang Mahal in Singapore was also Oberoi-run. For many Singaporeans like me who’re exposed to Indian cooking (mainly the Southern styles) from childhood, and no strangers to “fusion” cooking (even our local Chinese dishes bore Malay and Indian influences), we were still taken a bit aback by Atul’s cooking which seemed somewhat like watered-down Indian, influenced by other styles – British? Italian?
Anyway, yesterday evening was the first time I stepped into Atul’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Benares, here in the heart of Mayfair. What we had:
Amuse geule: a tiny potato croquette perched atop a tart tamarind-infused paste.
- Jal Tarang – fat discs of fabulously fresh tandoori-roasted Scottish scallop, interspersed with cauliflower flowerettes, and also a tiny cauliflower-filled samosa. Interesting.
- Khasta Murgh - Chicken tikka pie, served with wild berry chutney. Now *this* really tasted like British-Indian fare – nothing I’d experienced in India looked or tasted like this: which is more akin to a gentrified version of Indian snacks I’d find in Brick Lane than Chandni Chowk. It was bland – with its spice content toned down (drastically, too, I should say) to suit local tastes here.
- Murgh Korma – described on the menu as saffron and Royal Cumin-flavored Tandoori Black Leg Chicken Supreme, served with Hyderabadi Biryani, Free Range Egg and Raita. The chicken was nice, if a bit puny. The biryani was served like a tiny side-dish on the plate, rather than as the central item as one would see in India. The free-range egg was hard-boiled and cloaked with silver foil here. The raita was very thick – like a clotted version of the real thing.
- Meen Alleppey (Pan-Roasted Line & Hook Caught Brixham Cod, Vermicelli, Coconut and Curry Leaf Sauce). This was my surreal moment – for a moment, I really thought it looked and tasted more like a Southern Italian dish than the South Indian (Keralan) fish dish which I adored. In Singapore, the Keralan Meen Alleppey was so popular, even the Malay- and Chinese-Singaporeans had adapted it into our local every day cuisine as “Ikan Masak Lemak”, using “asam” (tamarind, or “kudampuli”) to provide an assertive sourish tinge to the coconut milk-enriched sauce, the flavour of the dish further enhanced by fresh turmeric. Benares’ version was more like fish blanketed in an intense tomato concasse sauce. No turmeric accent, no coconut flavours. Sorely disappointed.
- Tori Ki Bhaji or masala courgette: this simple dish – which looked and tasted more Southern French than Indian – turned out to be the *best* dish of the evening. Oh well, ratatouille has always been my favourite vegetable dish from childhood anyway.
- Palak Paneer (the classic spinach puree with Indian paneer cheese) was really good though, here again, the ginger and spice content have been toned down to suit the British palate.
- Peshawari kulcha – quite a greasy rendition here, but suffice all the same – it’s just bread anyway.
My biggest surprise of the evening? That there were actually two tables of Indian clientele in there, amongst mainly British/local diners – I’d not expected *any* Indian to eat here, given the French-ified version of Indian cooking at Benares, as Indians are very much sticklers for authentic, traditional tastes when it comes to their food.
But the British/local diners all looked like they really enjoyed the food here – so I guess that’s Atul’s recipe to (Michelin-starred) success: giving your target customer-base what *they* want.
12a Berkeley Square House
Berkeley Square, Mayfair
London W1J 6BS
Tel: +4420 7629 8886
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