Benares: Over-priced and overrated (May 2014)

It doesn’t matter how many times I go to Benares, I just can’t get to like it. This was the first time for me for a while, but it hadn't improved since my previous visit. Clearly chef Atul Kochhar must be doing something right to have earned a Michelin star for the eighth consecutive year, and while the food may have been good, it certainly wasn’t outstanding, the whole experience far from cheap, and the atmosphere underwhelming. With regard to the latter, it is hard to get excited about a bland brown and white furnished room with no natural light, clinically minimalist décor and fairly appalling acoustics. Moreover, the clientele seemed largely to be of the suited sort, most likely dining on expense accounts. A brief look at the menu explains why: starters begin at £14 and one is hard pressed to find a main for less than £30. Atul’s angle seems to be one of selecting classic British ingredients such as Scottish halibut or New Forest venison and literally spicing them up with Indian flavours. The approach certainly works, even if some of the dishes do come across as being unnecessarily complex. My starter, for example, of crispy soft shell crab sounded appealing enough, but the addition of a ‘chilli squid ring’ and passion fruit salsa was perhaps excessive, the flavours jarring rather than melding. One of my comrades also pointed out that what Benares gained in presentation and taste (our mains were all excellent), they lost in terms of quantity. Small portions at these prices seems most egregious. The extras also lead to the bill mounting up: gin & tonic at £13, or a humble espresso at £3.75; is this really justifiable? At this price, one would at least expect superlative service. Our experience would characterise it as average-good, and by no means memorably good. One stand-out fault, which one wouldn’t expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant was our server bringing amuse-bouches to our tables while one of our party was using the bathroom. This meant the dishes sat there looking sorry for themselves for some time and our conversation was interrupted not once but twice in order for the server to introduce the dish (again) when our party was finally complete. If you’re after posh Indian in London, give me Gymkhana or Veeraswamy any day.