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May 17, 2013 11:12 PM

London - Fusion-Indian experience at Benares, Mayfair

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.

Address details
12a Berkeley Square House
Berkeley Square, Mayfair
London W1J 6BS
Tel: +4420 7629 8886

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  1. Are you enjoying these dishes less because their names on the menu are the same as dishes you've eaten in Singapore/India?

    Perhaps next time let your companion order and see if you enjoy the food more if you're not biased by authenticity!

    There is more than one way to skin a cat.

    7 Replies
    1. re: brokentelephone

      Mea culpa - I insisted on dining at Benares despite my fellow Hound, Limster's forewarning. Anyway, he was dining with me last night, so it was a "I told you so" moment. Just as well I didn't ask Howler along!

      Having eaten in good restaurants in London since the early-70s, and seen the evolution of British restaurants which served stodgy, bland foods (e.g. Maggie Jones) to ones serving excellent trad-British using fresh ingredients today (St John's, Hereford Rd), I'd expected more from their British-Indian counterparts - especially since they are Michelin-rated. Mind you, I knew there would be some tinkering with the tastes, but was curious to see *if* any semblance of authentic flavours would be retained.

      Benares' menu was pretty straightforward, so there's no question of letting someone else order for me - Atul attempts to cover multiple regional Indian cuisines, so you have the seafood Samundri Khazana Do Pyaaza which is Bengali, the tandoori and korma options which are Punjabi, even British colonial India's mulligatawny.

      Quilon was similarly a let-down when I was there last month - the tastes and flavours were *nowhere* near the excellent level of cuisine I experienced in Delhi just the month before.

      I don't place authenticity above good taste - Hakkasan and Yauatcha manages to present good food, even if they are not out-and-out Chinese.

      The now-defunct Nahm London, on the other hand, preserves authentic Thai tastes to a 't', even when they introduced British ingredients - hence you get lobster tom yum, and guinea fowl green curry.

      Love for Indian food runs in my family - my great-grandfather dined at Veeraswamy when it was the only Indian restaurant in London. I was last there 4 years ago but was disappointed then to find out that, despite it being managed by Camellia Panjabi, whom I regard as one of the foremost authorities on Indian cuisine in the world (she conceptualised many of the Taj Group's restaurants in Mumbai and elsewhere in India), the food there was a big let-down, having been localised. There was an interesting interview with Camellia Panjabi I'd read (I can't find the article again) where she talked about her aim of bringing "authentic Indian" flavours to British diners who're more used the Bangladeshi (Sylheti) flavours since 90% of Indian restaurants (especially take-aways) in the UK are Bangladeshi-run. Camelia tried to do that for her Masala Zone outlets initially - but they had to tweak the recipes when "no one" liked those. In the end, it made business sense for them to offer the customers what they are used to.

      I plan to do Tamarind, Zaika and (Camellia Panjabi's) Amaya next week.

      1. re: klyeoh

        Klyeoh - I think if you really want to experience good Indian food in the UK you need to leave London. I know London has the Michelin starred Indian restaurants but Birmingham, Leicester and other big cities have Indian restaurants that have evolved into "fine diners" that deliver very good food - Lasan in Birmingham being a great example.

        1. re: PhilD

          Yes, I do think Birmingham might offer good Indian cuisine, with its large South Asian community. I'll have to make a trip up north one of these days.

          I once tried "Wee India" in Perth, Scotland (3 years ago) - it was a wee bit inauthentic but understandable.

          My conclusion of dining out in London: stick to the British, or else French, Italian and other European cuisines. Forget about Indian, Chinese, Japanese or other types of Asian cuisines here.

          1. re: PhilD

            Phil: Aside from Moti Mahal (or the michelin contingent), where would you suggest to go for a mid-range Indian meal in London? I.e., if I just want some solid curries and starters?

            Indian friends have recommended going to Drummond Street but I don't recall where exactly.

            1. re: brokentelephone

              If they are talking about Drummond Street, then I think that they may be talking about either Diwana's or chutney's. Chutney's began in the 90s and has steadily declined. Diwana's was around during the 70s and has been an old friend (we used to go there when we dropped my aunt off at Euston). If you go to Drummond Street, Ambala's Sweet House may be worth trying for their laddoo. Veeraswamy was great in 2001 but a bittersweet experience for my Dad, who immigrated in the 60s. Happy hunting experience & I hope you get to eat a lot of tasty food!

              1. re: Kalivs

                Kalivs - I have a soft spot for Veeraswamy my parents used to go for meals there in the 1940's as well as to Kettners in Soho. Last meal at Veeraswamy was around 2001 and it was good back then - although very expensive.

              2. re: brokentelephone

                I have moved on from London so only get there for fleeting visits so my info may not be bang up-to date. But our "after work" curry was always Haandi in Knightbridge, it gets lost in all the modern Indian and authentic places in London but it's a fine high street curry house that delivers a a good price.

                I am not really one of the Moti Mohal fan club thinking it OK but not tempted back. And when I lived in London it was out west so I tended to head out to Southall rather than across town to the east.

        2. My two pence is that, at least for me, much of how I rate a restaurant or a particular dish goes back to memories from long ago or experiences I've had throughout life.

          The Indian food in America seems so terrible that whatever I eat here seems better and OK. I don't have much to compare it with. I do remember one Indian restaurant we went to long ago in Newcastle, and my husband thought it was fantastic. He's been eating this cuisine far longer than I.

          I find the salt beef and other 'Jewish' dishes I've had in the UK to be far inferior to anything I've eaten in the States. I tend to stay away from it, the way you will now want to stay away from Chinese and Indian. Once one has had the best, well... why bother?

          1 Reply
          1. re: zuriga1

            That said, June, I still look forward to our Min Jiang date next week ;-)

            I heard from Limster that the Chef de Cuisine's Singaporean - maybe we'll have a word with him in the kitchen first.

            1. re: howler

              Ack, should have read your CH post *before* I decided to book there. Anyway, like I told Limster, Thank Gawd I didn't ask you along. But then, you'd have steered me far away from this place had you known. Anyway, no use crying over spilt dudh.

              1. re: howler

                Hilarious response.

                As a somewhat related note, I cannot take these places seriously. Even our custom meal at Bombay Brasserie was only quite good with many flavors going through a cultural filter.

                It was a shame that Thattukada was ridiculously off when you were in. Perhaps we could do Suvai Chettinad or Hyderabadi Spice to try to redeem your opinion of South Indian places in the East.

                Also, I am in town on only Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays. If you are around at the moment drop me an email.