LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
In conversations with several friends, it has been mentioned to me on multiple occasions that London has the best Indian food in the world…. even better than in India. As I am constantly in search of the best food, I thought to test that theory with my visit. I chose Benares, a Mayfair restaurant, as my testbed based on recommendations as well as the fact that they were the only one open of the list that I was given. I know that is probably not the best way to select a restaurant but it was Boxing Day, the pickings were slim and my restaurant calendar for my visit was full for all other days.
In any case, I arrived to a very welcoming team who after taking my outerwear, presented me with a scarf in celebration of the holiday season. This scarf was mine to take away at the end of the meal. The space of the restaurant is large but dimly lit through out. To get to the dining area, I was led up a flight of stairs that had red candles placed on each step to the left side. At the top of the stairs was a bar / lounge area which when you walk around it and down a couple steps, you are in the largest of the open spaces that is the dining room.
I have a persistent problem with Indian restaurants in New York and their mango lassi. Almost always, they contain added sugars and as such are much too sweet. With my lack of a sweet tooth, I tend to get an instant sugar high with these drinks. Nevertheless, I persist that I will find a mango lassi that is prepared just right and is not too sweet for me. That said, I asked the waiter if I could taste their lassi before I ordered it, like I would do with a glass of wine, but he said, “Tell me how you want it and I will have the kitchen make it that way for you”. Different. Crafted mango lassi. This could be interesting. I am a fan of simple so I did not ask for anything crazy. Truly my only desire was to not have it be prepared too sweet. In the end, they brought me the perfect mango lassi, one that was fresh and got its sweetness only from what was natural to the fruit. At the start of the meal, as is customary, I was presented with a platter of papadum and chutney. Papadum is basically a thin flavorless chip that is meant to be enjoyed with a variety of chutney. Unfortunately, I forgot to write down the names of the different chutney that I was served but they were all decent.
It goes without saying that I ordered the tasting menu but be warned that their tastings are not portioned to the regular expected size… they are larger. I could not finish my meal so just be aware of this fact. To start I was presented with a dish that I was not particularly sure of based on its looks. It was colorful to say in the least but I could not readily identify any of the ingredients that comprised the dish except for the cranberry. This was a tad bit scary for me since I generally have a sense of what I am about to eat. In general, all I am waiting for is the chefs unique composition. In this case, I definitely had to proceed with my eyes closed and trust the chef. This was definitely not going to be one of those meals where I try to dissect each ingredient before trying it all together as a whole. I mean… where would I start?
So what was the first dish, it was a cold potato with mint, cranberry and chutney, topped with a yogurt foam. It tasted as though there were multiple kinds of potatoes in the dish but I cannot be sure. The yogurt did not have any particular flavor but it was livened when eaten with the cranberries. There was a lot of divergent flavors here and I could not find the clear direction that they were going for here. If I were to summarize it, I would say that it starts off sweet, given the cranberries then ends with a slow and growing burn which I can only imagine came from the chutney. I would have expected the mint to add a freshness to the dish but it fell in the background for me.
The next dish was pan seared scallops with coriander and sesame seeds served alongside pickled octopus. They know how to sear and cook scallops properly here. As a matter of fact, they know how to prepare seafood respectfully as a whole here. With the sesame and coriander so perfectly crusted on the top of the scallop, I feared that the scallop may have been overcooked. This was certainly not the case here as there was no pressure required on the knife to slice into the scallop. I cut down the middle, the thickest part of the scallop, to make sure it was neither raw nor overcooked but it was perfect. Of course after that I checked the sides as they must have been overcooked given the perfection of the center. This was not the case at all. From every angle that I tasted this scallop it was perfect and warm, with the flavor of the sesame seed being the first thing tasted. I was not searching for bad preparation here, it is merely that most times that I have had scallops, even at some awarded restaurants, they were not properly prepared. After my scallop exploration, I moved over to the octopus leaving a little scallop behind for later fusion tasting. The octopus was different, it was cold and different. I have never had pickled octopus before so I would have to defer to the experts on what this is supposed to taste like. It was a little tough to cut through but not rubbery though. The brine made it a dominant flavor on the palate but not one that I was rushing to taste again. Finally, I had the warm scallop and the cold octopus together, it was good. I cannot say that it was mind blowing but I will say that it was interesting and inventive as I was processing multiple contrasting flavors at the same time that somehow… just worked. There was the play of warm and cold at the same time and then there was also the salty brine from the octopus playing with the fullness of the sesame crusted scallops. It was a very interesting tasting indeed. Honestly, I could eat those scallops everyday for the rest of my life and not get bored of their taste where the craving of variety is my status quo. Variety is the spice of life no?
Anyway, up next we have the chicken tikka masala pie wrapped in puff pastry and served with a berry chutney. I am not sure what kind of berry they used in the chutney but I will start off by saying that it did not work for me. I know what they were going for, sweet balancing out buttery, like butter and jam on a piece of toast. A different berry would most definitely have worked in this combination. For the pie, it was not what I expected. I love chicken tikka masala as the mixture of chicken, especially when it is the thigh, with the creaminess of the curry is just heaven in a bowl for me. The filling did not taste like chicken tikka though it was still tasty. For me, it was missing the creamy element of tikka. Also, I had to peel apart the crust to really taste the insides as the crust overwhelmed the entire plate. Let me be clear here, even though the crust overwhelmed the plate, I still very much welcomed this. The crust had a perfectly crunchy balanced texture that you love in a pie i.e. soft in all the right places with a touch of crispy in spots to keep things interesting in your mouth. It was also beautifully buttery. Truly, this was some of the best puff pastry that I have ever had, so excellently prepared.
The next dish was the salmon topped with a coconut aioli sauce served with an oyster fritter. There was nothing that particularly stood out for me on the oyster fritter as I really did not taste any oyster. However, when I moved over to the salmon, it was perfect. There was no part of it that was dry. Generally, in my observations at restaurants, when they serve salmon with a sauce, I find that they do so to hide the fact that the fish has been ill prepared and is dry. There was nothing of the sort occurring here. Something to note is that I am not the biggest fan of any aioli as it tends to gravitate to a misclassified mayonnaise at most restaurants. Based on this, you can well imagine that I was a little hesitant to try the sauce. This is where it got interesting, it was an aioli based on coconut milk and there was just something incredibly unique that happened while tasting the richness of the coconut milk paired with the fresh sea salt of the salmon. There was also a red sauce on the plate but I had absolutely no idea what was in it. My ingredient dissecting skills were quite ineffective with this plate. It did taste like red bell pepper though.
As a palate cleanser, I was served a passion fruit and mango sorbet. It was refreshing as was to be expected but what I particularly loved was the plating to look like an egg. I wondered if that was intentional as I ate it. At this point, I thought the meal was over and desserts were up next. It made me a little sad that the dinner was over so soon… but then came the lamb.
Wow. wow. wow. My belly groaned and complained that it was full but my mind was quite the cheerleader here. It was a perfectly cooked lamb, how could I say no? Without even a single bite? Not happening… In any case, the lamb, cooked to medium rare temperature, was plated in a rogan josh sauce and served alongside dal, rice and naan. I did not get any pictures of the accompanying sides as the lamb was stellar enough a photo. The lamb was a beauty to look at and in taste the spots where it could have used a bit more salt were aided by the rogan josh sauce. The dal was quite phenomenal. Generally, if I am not in the mood for meat in my Indian food, I am either eating dal or saag paneer, this was exceptional. Actually, I may have spent quite a bit of belly currency on the dal and naan hence the reason that I could not finish my meal.
I could barely take a bite of the two desserts served. One was a steamed yogurt with cardamom and cranberries and the other was a chocolate cake with raspberries. I should mention that the dark chocolate was of mixed origin, if you are particular about that sort of thing… I am.
A quick final note on Benares is about the service. They are spectacular is this department with managers that are insanely attentive to their guests. From their enthusiasm, in discussing the menu and wines to their constant check ins, it is definitely a place to visit for quality service. The frequent visits were very much appreciated and I have to admit was a very nice addition to the entirety of the dining experience.
At the end of this meal, and several others I should add (Quilon was another amazing one), I can conclusively say that London does indeed have the best Indian food that I have ever had till date. I have not been to India yet though, so the jury is still out on that front.