benares restaurant

Benares: Is this London’s best Michelin-starred Indian restaurant?

04 Apr 2024 | |By Annabel Harrison

Sameer Taneja and his team create inventive dishes that showcase conversation-stopping flavours and creative flair at Benares, which is still going strong after two decades in business

“I would eat this every day, says the pickiest eater in the world,” declares my Benares dining companion, E, within about ten seconds of attacking the chicken momo with gusto. The pretty presentation of this dish does warrant a more delicate verb but it’s just too good to eat slowly. A hot little dumpling rises up out of a foamy, soupy sauce, dotted with islands of crunchy croutons and generous truffle shavings.

I feel the heat at the back of my throat and, yes, I too would eat this dish every day – but can I have the scallop too? And the halibut? While we’re at it, chef Sameer, perhaps you could come and prepare this feast for me at home just once more, from start to finish?

benares chicken momo
Chicken Momo

Benares, on Berkeley Square in the heart of Mayfair, celebrated 20 years in business in 2023 and at the helm is the supremely talented Sameer Taneja. He secured a Michelin star for the restaurant in 2021 and has – deservedly – kept it, creating Indian fine dining from British ingredients and cooking with classical French techniques. The Benares website says that Taneja’s menus are based on “simple, clean and precise cooking” but I’d push back on simplicity. I certainly couldn’t replicate a single thing I tasted.

My appetite for trying – devouring – Sameer’s food was whetted late last year but, when unwell kids meant I had to abandon my meal after half a dozen irresistible mouthfuls, I was more than ready to return. Now I’m back, and (yet another) wet London evening is brightened by Benares’ cosy, un-showy, window-free interior; low ceilings, pendant lighting, red banquettes and a lively hum of chatter.

A quick mid-meal visit to the loo does reveal an odd design choice, however. The toilet signs are the kind of functional stainless steel font and design you’d see in a busy Piccadilly café. An oddity, and one that is easily remedied. Or perhaps, as it hasn’t bothered customers over the last two decades, they’ll just ignore this reviewer all together.

Named after the ancient spiritual capital of India in the country’s north, which is also known as Varanasi, Benares is filling up with groups of friends and couples, a family with young teens (I hope their children will eat more than mine would – there’s a minimum spend of £50 per head), colleagues and a solo diner next to me. Sipping his masala chai, he tells me he’s here on business from Vienna and always eats at Benares. “Because it’s just so exceptional, you know?”

I soon do. The bar is set by the amuse bouche: a charcoal and beet flower the size of my palm which seems to have been created using a stencil. Intricate and impressive, it’s followed by a sweet potato pakora ‘street snack’, skewered and stuck in a potted bonsai with a little note signed by the chef. ‘This is tribute to all road side street vendors in India who seek shade under trees while they work hard to make a living selling street food. We salute them.’ A lovely touch and one of the only dishes where the presentation and flair (just) overtake the taste.

In any case, back to the star attraction: the food, and always the food. I tend to prefer meat courses but here I’m swayed by the delights of the sea. The Malabar scallop has even been singled out by the Michelin inspectors: “Perfectly cooked and with a rich, creamy coconut curry sauce that was sweet but well balanced, with the spices expertly judged. The paratha on the side was really special; it was a soft as a whisper but dotted with crispiness and was the perfect vessel for soaking up the delicious curry in the shell.” Exactly. Crunchy, soft, spicy perfection. The delicious halibut is beautifully presented; a delicate fish outline is painted onto the plate itself, there’s a crispy fish skeleton made out of squid ink, and a vibrant green sauce adds the final touch.

The standard of the food continues through the tasting menu, which has no weak links. My friend is gluten-intolerant and they consistently offer brilliant variations on what I’m eating for her: “It never feels like a lesser-than option, which must be hard to do,” says E. Sparkling black tea with lemon and thyme is served as a palate cleanser and the aforementioned chicken momo appears next, followed by lamb chop pulao. The tasting menu’s only additional, lovely detail comes here: Served with Good Old Indian Staples. That includes Sameer’s famous black lentil sauce which is cooked for 24 hours.

It’s the sign of a well-balanced tasting menu that I have space for dessert – a juicy, fruity, traditional rasmalai, and of course, petit fours (macarons and bite-sized chocolate tarts). We sit back, replete and delighted.

Benares, bravo. You were absolutely worth the wait.


Read more: London’s best fine dining Indian restaurants