The takeaway curry is upgraded to Mayfair-standard fine dining at home with Sameer Taneja's lockdown-induced, back-to-his-roots food. Andy Lynes samples the menu
Since launching in 2002, Benares in Mayfair has been synonymous with Indian fine dining. Executive chef Sameer Taneja, who returned to the restaurant in September last year after an initial stint as head chef between 2011 and 2015, has recently been praised by critic Andy Hayler for sophisticated dishes, such as scallop with coconut curry, and dosa with a crab and potato timbale, fried quail egg and Exmoor caviar.
But since late March, Taneja has been helping the restaurant make a new name for itself (at least during these ‘new normal' lockdown times) with a delivery and takeaway menu of more straightforward offerings under the title of Benares@Home.
"Benares was never a traditional restaurant, but when we thought that we'd do a delivery and takeaway service, it was the perfect opportunity to go back to our roots and make a small curry menu," says Taneja, who explains that the menu is not expected to make a profit.
"We had the demand for it from our regular clients, it will help to keep the brand alive and, most importantly, for every order received, we donate a meal to the NHS."
During lockdown Benares is operating with a skeleton staff of five chefs with three on service at any one time, down from its usual brigade of between 13 and 18. The reduced staffing helps with social distancing. "Luckily, we have a big kitchen, so that solves a lot of problems. We're following all the guidelines and wear masks and use gloves," says Taneja.
The reduced brigade is sufficient to manage the reduced menu of three starters, such as lamb samosa with mint and tamarind chutney (£11); four tandoor-cooked dishes, including chicken tikka with chilli, ginger and garam masala (£9 for three pieces, £16 for six); and nine curries, including the signature vegetable, lamb or chicken biryani flavoured with rose and mint and served with roasted cumin raita (£28), currently the only dish from the à la carte. The menu also offers four sides, a short list of rices, breads and condiments, as well as gulab jamun (£7) for dessert.
Taneja is using a combination of companies to facilitate the service, including Swift for click and collect, and Deliveroo, UberEats and Supper for deliveries, who charge 20% commission. Benares is also employing its own drivers, who can deliver anywhere within the M25. The service has proved popular, with between 30 and 50 orders a day and customers spending £25-£80, but it wasn't without its teething problems.
"We struggled initially. The price of ingredients shot up, I think because of the panic buying and not enough supply. We had to take okra off the menu because it wasn't available, for example. But now we've learned our lesson and we speak to suppliers a week before about what is going to happen next week."
Taneja anticipates using more seasonal ingredients as the weeks progress, but has already been using new season lamb, served as smoked Kashmiri chilli and ginger marinated adraki lamb chops with pickled onion and herb chutney (£21), or Kerala-style lamb pepper fry (£21) as part of a daily changing range of specials. "We do the first marination with salt, pepper, ginger and garlic, and then a second where we make our own chilli paste with Dutch red chillies," he says. Taneja also uses fresh peas from wholesale supplier Smith & Brock in Walworth, London, which he pods, blanches and stir-fries in sunflower oil with asafoetida, fresh mint, cumin and lemon juice, finishing with chaat masala spice to make Benaresi heeng mater (£8), a dish he says is typical of the city of Benares in Uttar Pradesh.
Most importantly, for every order received, we donate a meal to the NHS
No single dish has emerged as a customer favourite, but a number have "taken a fast track", including chicken makhani (£21), rogan josh (£22) and the tandoor-cooked prawn kasundi (£11 for two pieces, £20 for four). "We make a paste with Bengali kasundi grain mustard. It is pungent, but it turns sweet when cooked. When combined with the seafood, it makes magic."
Taneja plans to increase the repertoire of delivery dishes. "We have not decided as a board, but I think we will continue to do a delivery service after lockdown is over. We will not immediately come back to normality and, from a commercial point of view, there needs to be a different channel of revenue to sustain the business."
Benares, 12a Berkeley Square, London W1J 6BS
From the menu
- Samosa chaat: classic vegetable samosa, white pea curry, yogurt and tamarind £9
- Aloo tikki chaat: Indian-style hash brown potato, yogurt, mint, tamarind, pickled onion £9
From the tandoor
- Chicken tikka: chargrilled tandoori chicken with chilli, ginger and garam masala £9/£16
- Lamb seekh kebab: spiced minced lamb, pickled onion and mint chutney £9/£16
- Saag gosht: spiced Punjabi-style boneless lamb and spinach stew £22
- Fish moilee: king fish simmered in coconut and curry leaf sauce £19
- Lahori murg chana: cardamom and cumin-flavoured chickpea and chicken curry £21
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