Indian food has never been one of my favorites. I’ve had it a total of two times (that I can remember). The first was takeout in London — that didn’t go very well. And the second was in New York, when my boyfriend (who loves Indian food, or curry, more specifically) decided to try and change my negative opinion — another fail. However, I was determined to give the whole "three times a charm" thing a try, and went to sample the fare at Indian restaurant Benares in Tribeca. (Of course, I brought my boyfriend along so he could judge it as a seasoned Indian food expert.)
Benares has two locations in Manhattan — one in Midtown, and the other in Tribeca. Executive chef Peter Beck, culinary visionary of the restaurant, devised a menu meant to blend signature Indian dishes with an emphasis on cuisine specific to the Western state of UP (Utter Pradesh) where the city of Benares — after which the restaurant is named — is located. These flavors, as it was explained to me, are unique to Indian restaurant offerings (in America), and focus more on Tandoori styles of cooking, in addition to the traditional Indian sauces, but with a twist. This twist, as I would later find out, was a cleanness and distinction of flavor that I found missing previously. In terms of ambience, the place had a bit of a posh vibe, and the depth of the booth tables was at first frightening, however very appropriate for the amount of dishes soon to grace our table.
We were in need of a little ordering help, and so the waiter asked if we had any dietary restrictions. "No," I replied, "but I just don’t like peas." He rattled off a list of things we must try, and with a chicken tikka masala request from my companion, we awaited whatever they decided to bring.
The first round of food involved a platter with a few styles of chicken and lamb. Tandoori chicken, white cream and cheese chicken, and tikka masala flavored chicken (without the sauce), and then two kind of lamb — ground spicy lamb served in a cylinder shape similar to a sausage (except for the consistency), and pieces of roast lamb. The tandoori chicken, he explained, was cooked without any oil or butter, in a cylindrical clay oven. I eyed it skeptically, however fell head-over-heels in love after my first bite. The absence of heavy sauces and the flavor that seeped all the way into the bone produced some of the most flavorful and well-cooked chicken I have ever tasted. The white cream and cheese marinated chicken also had something unique to offer, a surprisingly light bite for Indian food (my boyfriend confirmed) and again a focus on the flavor seeping into the meet of the chicken. The tikka masala-rubbed chicken lacked the luster of the other two, however offered a spice that I couldn’t resist. Both types of lamb were exquisite, one a spicy ground mixture that fell apart easily, that was complemented with a minty yogurt sauce, and the other a rosemary-infused offering of small pieces, a little gamey for my taste but a favorite of my boyfriend.
The next round of food involved a spattering of plates: tandoori lamb, chicken tikka masala, palak paneer (a spinach and cheese dish similar in consistency to creamed spinach), a bowl of rice, and a plate of naan. The tandoori lamb was again, absolutely surprising. The flavorful, yet fresh taste was mind-blowing, and the vegetables served with the dish were a perfect complement. As I had never before liked chicken tikka masala, I was beyond surprised to love this dish. The sauce had more of a tomato base, and although it was packed with flavor, it did not seem confused or overpowering. There was a cleanness to the sauce that enhanced the aromas and taste, heavy without bogging it down. The palak paneer was equally intriguing. A heavy version of vegetables that I could only take in small portions, mixed effortlessly with the tomato taste of the tikka masala and rice, produced a very enjoyable combination.
Beyond surprised by the positive review this experience was generating, we decided to fit in one more course, dessert. A pistachio-flavored Indian ice cream was calling our names, and we put in an order to test it out. The result was ridiculously frozen (and very hard to eat with a spoon), however incredibly flavored and complemented by the chocolate drizzle sauce and addition of berries. There was a beautiful flavor and coolness, which, while heavy, was again somewhat light and clean.
In general, the aromas were transfixing. A general blend of spice and cool added to the experience, producing action in every corner of the mouth. The combination of rosemary with exotic flavors (at least to me, a product of an Italian/Mediterranean cooking household) wowed my senses, and produced a very memorable and enjoyable experience.
Benares was definitely a pleasant surprise in my culinary experiences with Indian cuisine. I now know that I prefer tandoori styles of meat to others (the reason I might have veered away from other Indian recipes was the heaviness and confused state of sauces) and that I have a restaurant I can take my boyfriend to for his Indian cravings that I actually enjoy as well. And while I might not be racing out to every Indian joint on the island of New York City, I can certainly say I will revisit Benares and won’t be averse to giving some more Indian food a try.
Tyler Sullivan is The Daily Meal's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter at @atylersullivan.