I know many people (myself included) had only learned about Atul Kochhar through his involvement in the BBC programme 'Great British Menu', where he wowed the judges with a sucession of exciting Indian-fusion dishes, spiced to perfection, then completely failed to win anything. I was surprised at this because I was under the impression that the Chicken Tikka Masala was our nation's favourite food, and being the only Indian chef in a competition largely consisting of French-trained chefs I thought he'd stand out, but no - when it came to the public vote he was beaten time and time again by people like Richard Corrigan and his great big boring slabs of boring salmon.
So in sympathy I vowed to visit Benares, his restaurant in Mayfair, and try first-hand the kind of things that had Matthew Fort et. al. in raptures. A mere 4 months later, and courtesy of an attractive looking Toptable deal (£29.95 for 3 courses and a drink), I sat down in the plush basement restaurant and made my choice of Chikken Tikka (starter), and a lamb curry for main. Now apologies for not getting the exact details of the dishes, but for some reason my picture of the menu didn't turn out and this is all largely from memory. Anyway, we started with mini poppadums as nibbles, which were nice enough and served with a set of four sauces and pickles including my favourite lime pickle.
The starter proper was an absolutely delicious couple of chunks of chicken tikka, maybe a tad on the dry side but - yes - spiced to perfection. No complaints here, so far so good.
The problem with what followed is that I suppose for a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in Mayfair I was expecting something out of the ordinary - perhaps dishes that took the flavours and ingredients of Indian cooking and matched them with European presentation and techniques. But plonked down on our table was something dangerously close to a bog-standard local curry. My lamb thingy was nice enough, nothing special, and a few tastes around the table didn't reveal any other huge surprises. True, naans were properly cooked and a couple of the side dishes were very impressive (black lentil sauce is worth a mention - we all liked that) but this really wasn't starry food. In fact I'm going to go out on a limb and say that our local takeaway, Spice Fusion, has consistently produced food just as good as this and for about a third of the price.
The set dessert of Kulfi (some sort of Indian ice-cream) was tasty enough but failed to divert from the overriding sense of mediocrity from the mains.
I know we were on the Toptable offer, and perhaps didn't get to sample the very best the kitchen could produce, but I just can't understand what all the fuss was about. Our deal made sure that we did OK in terms of value for money but I would have been fairly annoyed had we paid any more for this. Service by the way was pretty good, and the lily ponds and black marble created a very luxurious environment, but I have long had a sneaking suspicion that many restaurants in this part of town seem to go for style over substance and was disappointed to find that Benares was one of them.
Later on that night we popped into Nobu Berkeley Square for a couple of cocktails before bedtime, and though the cocktails were superb it was the food menu that caught my eye - Nobu is justly famous for its food, and you can of course expect to pay a fortune for the very best ingredients (Wagyu beef, Black Cod, etc.). But if we'd known in advance what we were going to be served in Benares, we probably would have done. You get what you pay for, in Mayfair and elsewhere.