45 Murray St.
(bet. W. Broadway and Church)
More fancy than casual

Less fancy than Tamarind, Benares is a long, narrow room done up with a soothing mix of dark neutrals and bright pops of color; nothing about it says “Indian restaurant.” The booths along one side might be preferable to the tables in the middle of the room, arranged along a curved banquette. The prices are very reasonable, especially for the lunch prix fixe. Service is enthusiastic. For more, see Suzanne’s report in the comments. Note: It has become popular for delivery.

benares signbenares dining room


1 Comment

  1. Tried it last night (Wednesday, 12/5/12). We liked it, and will probably go back and alternate it with Taj Tribeca.

    To use Taj T. 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. One of our servers pulled over the adjoining table, as he noted that we would need more space for plates. We did when our two mains+one side+bread came, so I wonder what management thought in using smallish (28-inch?) tables. [Actually, I can guess: more tables, more customers. Unfortunately more discomfort, too.] This is not to say we were uncomfortable; just that there’s not enough room at the table for a full meal for two.

    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. 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 nonethnic way. In fact, there don’t seem to be any décor touches that would identify this as anything but a generic upscale restaurant.

    The Benares dining room is on the loudish side–dropped ceiling with a sinuous curved slot doesn’t help prevent all conversation throughout the room from converging. Not ear-splitting, but we could hear lots of other tables’ talk. There was background music, although it wasn’t so intrusive that it bothered us. I can imagine that when full, the place might become very loud.

    Drink: We started with cocktails (it had been a rough day!): 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; very definitely bourbon (it seemed like a variation on a Sazerac). 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 (but that’s me; if I want lemon in my water, I’ll ask for it).

    Food: Upon sitting, we were brought the expected trio of chutneys and something crunchy. Here, in addition to tamarind chutney and coriander/mint chutney (both okay, 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 T.)–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 T. So it was mostly familiar but just a little different. The menu does list Banarsi Kachori, which sound like the same puffy dish. Didn’t notice it last night or we might have ordered it to do a compare-and-contrast. Both of these are on the takeout menu, although I don’t think they would travel well, without the crackers/puffs going soggy.

    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, but not have this one again. 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. U.S. equivalent of pomfret, which is what the servers kept calling it. The vegetables, a mix of cauliflower, broccoli, green bean, carrot, onion, and tiny potatoes, tasted tandoor-cooked–smoky and very flavorful; I could happily eat a full dish of them. Just a smear of an oily tomato puree 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; at least that’s what I got a lot of. It was good. Spicing in both dishes was mild, to my palate. Will have to try other dishes to see if mild is their norm. The menu does list a few vindaloo dishes, and you can order a side of vindaloo sauce (?).

    Between serving dishes, plates, and glasses, the small table would indeed have been overrun, so it was good we had the second table to expand to. Nice of the server to bring it over. 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. Servers and bar staff were a mix of South Asians and Westerners–including one who actually pronounced “Gruner” with a proper accent. 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.