My love of Indian food is well-known among my friends and acquaintances so when the offer to review Benares’s Tribeca location arose, Alexa and I jumped at it. One thing that sets Benares apart from many Indian restaurants is their specialization in regional favorites from all across the country. Most Indian restaurants will feature items from a specific region. The typical “Indian” dinner featuring a protein cooked in a curry-based gravy is more typical of Northern India, while Southern India is known especially for the dosa, a large crepe-like wrap served with spreads and stuffing. It is easy to forget that India is an incredibly large country with diverse peoples, geographies, and cultures, with regions varying from tropical coasts to deserts to the Himalaya mountains. This translates into a remarkably diverse national cuisine that is nearly impossible to sample in one sitting. That said, we came very, very close at Benares.
Besides their impressive food menu, Benares is also a perfect place for drinks, boasting an impressive bar and cocktail menu. We started off with the Frontstage Mojito and the Varanasi. The mojito was the usual combination of rum, lime, and mint, but with the added flavors of angostura bitters and sweet prosecco, giving a flavorful twist on a classic drink. The Varanasi is a real treat, made with tequila, orange liqueur that is made in-house, pineapple juice, and chili-infused grenadine. It is a tropical punch with an extra kick.
For appetizers, we about lost track of all the different dishes we sampled. We started with Kashmiri soup (below), made with turnips and beets with fennel and an array of spices. The turnip balances the familiar sweetness of the beets with a hearty, earthy flavor, while the spices contributed to a warm and lovely aftertaste. Our next appetizer was Konkani shrimp, named after a region on India’s west coast, a blackened shrimp served with cumin, cinnamon, and black pepper.
In keeping with my tendency to sometimes describe foods as having qualities similar to colors, this was a decidedly dark dish. Having the spice rub cooked on the shrimp gave it a mild heat. The next dish brought out was Aloo papri chaat (below), a surprisingly sweet and cool mix of chickpeas, potatoes, and a minty yogurt served atop wheat crisps. As far as unique flavor combinations go, this is one that is highly recommended, even for the pickiest of eaters.
The next appetizer we sampled was Makkai ka soweta, a south Indian specialty made with lamb, corn, and chili, certainly a dish for the spicy food lover, balanced out by the natural flavor of the lamb (below). As a variation of my beloved pakoras (vegetable fritters, a staple at both Indian restaurants and Sikh gurdwaras), we had Kashmiri tikki, a vegetable fritter made with beets rather than potatoes or chickpeas, garnished with a mint relish and thinly sliced pan-fried lotus root. The lotus plays an important role in both the Hindu and Ayyavazhi faiths as a symbol of eternity, as well as Indian poetry as a flower representing natural beauty and perfection. Alexa described the fried lotus root as tasting like “the world’s best potato chip.” The tikki was delicious, highly recommended for beet lovers. Our next – and last – appetizer was the Chettinadu Crab, a dish based out of the Chettinad district of Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. A robust blend of garlic, ginger, roasted coconut, and spices accompany the minced crab. Our waiter then informed us that perhaps the biggest single difference between North and South Indian cuisine is that South Indian dishes are prepared with spices that are roasted before use, something that dramatically changes the flavor of the dishes.
We also sampled many different entrees (below), a feat that I am still not quite sure just how we accomplished. The first entree we had was Beguni Maach, a sea-bass filet marinated in ginger and garlic, served with jalapenos and other spices (below). This may have been my favorite of the night, but bear in mind this is, for me, choosing the best of several stellar items. Our next two dishes were also from the sea, the first being Aamiya Jhinga, jumbo prawns with sliced green mango and ginger molasses, cooked in a clay oven. This was undoubtedly the most interesting item of the night, combining the sweet and savory of the prawns with the tart green mango and the ginger molasses, which somehow melds the bite of ginger with the syrupy dark flavor of molasses. Our last seafood dish was Tawa Scallops, served with cilantro, green chilis (giving it a nice heat), ginger, ripe mango, and tomato relish. Seafood may not be everybody’s thing, either by preference or dietary restriction, but for the ones who love it, these are must-order dishes!
Our land-based dishes (below) were both chicken-based, a relief after having a number of filling appetizers and main dishes. The first was Murgh Seyal, from the Sindh region of Pakistan on the Indian border, neighboring Punjab, Gujarat, and Rajasthan in India. The chicken was tender and served atop minced spinach and broccoli rabe, seasoned with dill. This was certainly not the average chicken dish from this region, exotic but at the same time somewhat familiar. For the less adventurous eaters, but still willing to try something new, I give the Murgh Seyal only the highest of recommendations. Our final dish was Andhra chicken curry, slow-cooked with coconut, a deliciously spicy way to top off our meal. The wait-staff were more than happy to know we were lovers of Indian cuisine and culture, and they would have kept the dishes coming, but we knew if we had another plate we would have gone the way of Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life.
Of course, being “full” means one thing: we have room for dessert! I enjoyed the Ami Sheera, a mango pudding served over malpua, a pancake prepared with over-ripened bananas. Alexa had the aptly Atom Bomb, a delicious chocolate lava cake served with rose petal ice cream. The two of us shared Rasmalai, a dumpling made from sweet cheese. All of the desserts were fantastic, each catering to a different sensibility – one fruity, one for the chocolate lover, and then a syrupy sweet traditional Indian dessert.
Our experience at Benares was nothing short of wonderful, bordering on the epic with regards to the sheer volume of food we were served – and this was after asking for smaller portions so we could sample more items! – but it was a remarkable tour-de-force of my favorite cuisine in the world, with a wide array of dishes for vegetarians, meat-lovers (though don’t expect to see beef on the menu), and seafood fans alike, as well as an extensive drink menu and wine list. It is most definitely worth the trip. Alex and Alexa dined as guests of Benares.
240 W.56TH ST (between 8TH & Broadway)
45 Murray Street
Photos by Alexa Altman