Thursday, 23 October 2008

Benares vs Pizza Express

Before we first went to Benares, nearly a year ago, I did some research, looking at user review sites, to see what other people thought. Mostly they seemed to be impressed, but I did notice a few bad reviews. Obviously I paid special attention to these, but I soon realised that they weren’t applicable to me. I’ll explain why.

The bad reviews came into two categories. The first category, was “people who were comparing Benares to other top class Michelin star restaurants in London or otherwise”, and thought that Benares was not as good as Tamarind, or Claridges, or The Ivy. This gave me my first reference point. The opinions of people who are able to compare between such venues are of no interest to me, as their expectations will be so much higher than my own, and their desire to put down what others deem to be of a quality, too great. I read them with interest, but didn’t let them sway my judgement.

The second category was “people who are so up themselves, they are not my sort of people”. It’s not so much a category, as a single review, where their entire enjoyment of a meal appeared to be dependant on the fact that when they asked for finger bowls, they were given hot towels! The opinion of people, who would complain about such a thing (in person at the time, and on the review site afterwards,) is of little interest to me, other than to satisfy my own sense of being a normal and rational member of society, who although appreciative of the ability to clean one’s hands is not going to get upset over the manner in which they are cleaned.

I fall into a third category, and I think you should know about this prior to reading my review, so you know if my judgement is of any interest to you. If you would insist on finger bowls, then enjoy my prose, but possibly don’t blame me if I recommend you give Benares your patronage, and they don’t meet your expectations.

My normal eating out is certainly of a higher class than many. I can’t remember the last time McDonalds, KFC, or Burger King (or their poor imitations) passed my lips, but the wife and I will often go to Wagamama, Pizza Express, or if we are in the vicinity, the excellent Mangosteen off Carnaby St is a veritable favourite. The curry houses of Brick Lane and our local Italian restaurants in Tooting have also never so far let us down. If we spend £40 between us on dinner for two, it was because we were really hungry, or shared a bottle of wine, or occasionally both. It is not unknown for our bill to be under £15 if we just want a main and a glass of water.

The occasion for our first visit to Benares was our first wedding anniversary. In April last year, Atul Kutcher had received his Michelin Star, his recipes in the Great British Menu and on Saturday Kitchen had got us excited, and his ability and willingness to make vegetarian food and put it on the menu sealed the deal. What helped too was a superb looking set menu, available lunchtimes and early dinner (until 18.30 I believe) which comprised of 3 courses, various extras, and a glass of wine for £29.99 each. The addition of two glasses of champagne, and the ubiquitous service charge left our final bill just short of 3 figures, but worth every penny.

We returned to celebrate my 31st birthday, although that was just an excuse to go back once they (finally) changed the set menu. I’m guessing it is an attempt to lure people back in following the new year lull, but the changes to the menu meant the price had dropped to £24.99 for the 3 courses, and the only thing apparently missing was that mineral water wasn’t included, where it was before.

We arrived at about 5 to 12, and the restaurant was still being prepared. We were sat down in the bar, given a bowl of complementary spicy nuts, and asked if we wanted drinks (we declined, knowing the wine with the meal would suffice).

Soon enough we were seated in the corner of the restaurant, and provided with menus, wine list and mini poppadoms and chutneys (tomato, gooseberry, chilli, and lime). I won’t repeat myself too much, but I’ll tell you now – everything we ate was the finest example of such a thing we’d ever had. My starter was Lemon Thyme Infused Pollack Cakes with Cucumber Pachadi. Lisa’s Grilled Artichoke Salad with Chat Masala Vinaigrette was amazing too. A generous glass of white wine arrived at this point too (red and sparkling were options).

Main courses of Tandoor Cooked Chicken Supreme with Chestnut Kedegree (rice) for me, and Pickled Pumpkin Risotto with Grilled Portobello Mushroom for Lisa, with a tikka type sauce on both, was accompanied by the lightest, tastiest naan bread.

The most spectacular hot towels we had ever seen arrived once we’d finished our mains, looking like two breath mints on a double tea light holder, the waiter poured boiling water over them, and they expanded upwards to about 3 times their original height into perfect hot damp towels. (Seeing our delight the maitre d’ slipped us a couple as we left!)

Our desserts were worthy of photography, however my telephone’s photography was not worthy of our desserts – see below for the pictures I took. Lisa’s Assortment of Kulfis – mango, pistachio and lychee, complete with flower petals, and my Star Anise Scented Orange Jelly with French Meringue, were almost too beautiful to demolish with spoons, but we did anyway.

Coffee and petit fours followed, (tea would have been allowed) and the meal was complete. Total bill, £60 (we forgot that mineral water wasn’t included) including service charge, which was a delight to pay, as the staff were perfect – attentive without being oppressive, there when you needed them, and invisible when you didn’t, and able to answer important questions (is there gelatine in Dave’s dessert, or will Lisa expect him to share it?) when required.

Obviously, it was all of an extremely high standard, but we were only eating off the set menu, we didn’t explore the £32 Lobster tails, or the £400 bottles of Krystal and Krug, but we left perfectly full (dinner in the evening was cheese on toast!) and certainly satisfied. The nature of the meal got me thinking about value for money, as I often do, so I’ve done some research into what the equivalent courses would have cost at Pizza Express – size of stomach not being a factor – I doubt I’d be able to eat all the below at one sitting.

Intro Noci 1.95
Starter Bruschetta 3.65
Main American Pizza 7.70
Side Garlic Bread 2.10
Dessert Toffee fudge glory 4.35
Coffee Filter coffee 1.75
Wine 175ml Chardonnay 3.80
Total 25.30

It kind of makes eating at the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at seem a totally sensible and reasonably priced thing to do. Next time you are in Mayfair (Maybe browsing the Rolls Royce dealership next door) and you want a £25quid lunch – see if Benares has a table available…

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