At this point Benares has been open at least two weeks, possibly longer. I did manage to have the $11 lunch deal there last week, but I was mulling going back before writing it up (to take more photos, if nothing else), when Suzanne filed an in-depth report on the restaurant as a comment in the Restaurant Guide. That I agreed with much of what she wrote and she clearly knows more about Indian food than I do made me think I should hand over the reins. I did manage to swing by to snap some photos of the room, and I’ve edited down her text a bit, adding a few thoughts of my own in italics….
To use Taj Tribeca as a point of comparison: The room at Benares is much sleeker, with curvy, comfortable banquettes and large booths that looked spacious for four, perhaps a bit tight for six. We were seated at a table on the banquette that runs down the middle of the room. Its curve means that the tables (two-tops) kind of stick out at odd angles into the aisle. Not a problem when the place isn’t full, but could be when there’s more internal traffic. [I sat there, too. Because of the angles, you might find another diner more in your field of vision that you’d expect—whether that’s good or bad depends on what he/she looks like, I suppose.] One of our servers pulled over the adjoining table, as he noted that we would need more space for plates.
They are probably hoping for some serious bar business. In addition to a many-seated bar up front, there is a narrow tall table at which drinkers can stand. Screens separate the bar from the dining room. [Did you notice that the one pictured above has a silhouette of a naked lady on it?] I also really liked the use of screens to block the sight of kitchen doors, although the brighter light coming through each time the doors opened was a little disconcerting at first. Still, the screens are quite stylish in a totally non-ethnic way. In fact, there don’t seem to be any décor touches that would identify this as anything but a generic upscale restaurant.
We started with cocktails: a bourbon-based Lonesome Hero for me, a variation on a mojito for him. Mine was sweeter than I like, but not a bad drink if you like sweet drinks. His Frontstage Mojito was more successful; apparently they finish it with a splash of prosecco. With the meal we each had a glass of a California Gruner Veltliner, which worked well with the gently spiced food. There was a bottle of Pellegrino on the table when we sat, but no problem to have it removed and the glasses filled with tap water. I only wish they did not stick a badly cut lemon half-wheel on the rim. [Hear, hear! And while I find the Pellegrino a bit pushy, Benares is inexpensive enough that I couldn’t blame them for trying to make a buck elsewhere.]
Upon sitting, we were brought the expected trio of chutneys and something crunchy. Here, in addition to tamarind chutney and coriander/mint chutney (both OK, I doubt house-made), was an orange-cumin chutney that was different and very good. Instead of pappadam, the crunchy thing was little fried rosettes—a nice change but a bit oily.
As an app we split an order of Aloo Papri Chaat, which is kind of like gol gopta/dahi poori (at Taj Tribeca)–diced potato, yogurt, mint and tamarind chutneys, cilantro, and sev, in this case served over round whole-wheat soda crackers rather than inside little crunchy puffed balls of dough as at Taj Tribeca. So it was mostly familiar but just a little different. The menu does list Banarsi Kachori, which sound like the same puffy dish.
For mains, we got Bhari Machli, billed as “whole pompano stuffed with pickled green masala, grilled, served on a bed of tomato sauce” and Kadhai Goat, “succulent pieces of goat cooked with fresh tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic garnished with fresh cilantro and ginger.” Basmati rice with green peas came with, and we also got an order of Boondi Raita and one of Taaza Phulka. The raita was a medium-thickness, not-very-tart yogurt topped with very crunchy puffed fried yellow lentils and a sprinkle of ground cumin. Never had anything like this before, and loved it; the lentils stayed crunchy even when mixed through. Taaza Phulka, described as a smaller version of roti, was disappointing: just a basic thin round of whole-wheat dough that quickly dried out. I might try other breads there. Of the mains, the fish was a definite winner: a whole (headless) fish, almost completely deboned, stuffed with a flavorful green paste, and grilled perfectly, still moist inside. The vegetables, a mix of cauliflower, broccoli, green bean, carrot, onion, and tiny potatoes, tasted tandoor-cooked—smoky and very flavorful. Just a smear of an oily tomato purée under the fish; not bad, but easily lost. The goat was much saucier, and seemed to have chunks of red and green bell pepper as well. It was good. Spicing in both dishes was mild; will have to try other dishes to see if mild is their norm.
In general, the servers were pleasant, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, if sometimes a bit overenthusiastic about clearing a serving dish before it was emptied. Trying hard to be very efficient, I would say, quite the opposite of the long-ago sloooooow and disorganized service we used to get in places on Sixth Street. And at the end, when we were too stuffed to order dessert, our main server brought us a miniature portion of gulab jamun, one piece each. Goodwill.
There was a slight glitch with the ADA restroom on the main floor (door seemed to be locked even though the use indicator was on Available), and I was told that the electric hand dryer in one of the four downstairs restrooms was out of order but at least a roll paper towels was available.
We found the prices quite reasonable, even the cocktails ($10 each) and wine ($10 a glass for a 4- to 5-ounce pour). Our bar bill was 75% of the food bill, so without alcohol the meal would have been quite inexpensive. I can definitely see going back, as there are quite a few dishes different from other local places, and nicely done.
P.S. It’s pronounced Ben-ahr-ehs, and I’ve added it to the Tribeca Pronunciation Guide.
Benares is at 45 Murray (between Church and W. Broadway), 212-766-4900; benaresnyc.com. Delivery is available, including through Seamless and other sites.
Recent New Kid on the Block/First Impressions articles:
• The Cricketers Arms
• Tribeca Canvas
• Nish Nush
• Roberta Roller Rabbit
• Westville Hudson
• Sushi of Gari Tribeca