Upscale Indian food can be a gamble. Most of the food we're familiar with is made from humble ingredients, highly spiced and seasoned to make the most of them. When I walked into Benares , I was unsure if the food would justify the Midtown West prices. I made sure not to order the usual suspects: sag paneer, samosas, and vegetable biryani were all off the table. Luckily the friendly staff was happy to assist me with some different choices.
My meal started with this complimentary amuse (a first for me at an Indian restaurant). A one-bite mouthful of puffed rice, roasted nuts, yogurt, and a spicy chutney. The mix of flavors and textures nicely set the tone for the meal.
The Mathura Se ($8) was also something new to me. The patties were formed of potato, stuffed with spicy cooked peas, and toasted until crisp on the outside. Familiar flavors, but different from more typical presentations around town. The patties were served with a sickly sweet cranberry sauce that should be avoided, and a mint sauce that adds a cool, herbal note to the potatoes.
The Bhel Puri ($8) was a bit of a disappointment. The flavors were great—creamy avocado mixed with tangy tamarind and savory onions. Unfortunately the texture wasn't quite right. Bhel puri, when done well, should be an intriguing blend of crunchy and smooth, but it seemed like perhaps the puffed rice and wheat crisps were tossed with the wet ingredients too soon, making them slightly soggy instead of crisp.
My server recommended the Achari Bhindi ($13) from the vegetarian entrées, and I'm very glad he did. The okra was cooked until almost toasted, slightly crunchy and chewy without being slimy, and was then tossed in a tomato-based sauce. The thick, "dry" sauce is full of treasures: whole coriander seed, chunks of preserved lemon, and slivers of pickled peppers. Get some naan on the naan ($3) on the side instead of rice. The warm, puffy flat bread was perfect for balancing out the bold flavors of the dish.
Despite the higher prices, Benares won me over with its "flavor first" philosophy. Sure the plating was quite fancy, but flavor is what really counts, and the chefs at Benares don't forget that.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.