Published 30 November 2003 News Review 542nd article
The spice boys: Atul Kochhar, Richard Harris and Michael Winner (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Indian restaurants ain't what they used to be. I'd get a chicken biryani, a vegetable curry, a few poppadoms, mango chutney and other bits on the side - and it was all very tasty.
These days Indian restaurants are getting above themselves. They all want to be posh. I don't like posh. I like simple. Maybe a place called Tamarind started it. It was - indeed still is - in a basement in Mayfair. I went there and hated it. They only had spicy poppadoms. The service took forever. It looked like a works canteen in Hull. Not that I've ever been to Hull or to a works canteen.
The chef who opened Tamarind and stayed there for seven years was Atul Kochhar. He now has his own place, Benares, on a first floor in Berkeley Square. It's between a Volkswagen showroom and Lloyds TSB. This is not auspicious. I don't like going up or down stairs in order to eat. Ground level is reasonable.
I first visited the Benares premises when they housed a Chinese restaurant owned by a friend of mine who started the Zen group. The food was good but it totally lacked atmosphere.
Mr Kochhar and his accomplices have cheered it up. There's a big bar at the top of the stairs with flowers floating in a pool. The main room has white relief patterns an the wall.
I went with David and Wendy. He's British and in business. She's from New York and in TV. They don't want their surname revealed. I can understand people not wishing it be known they dine with me. But if you live in St John's Wood, as they do, can you sink further?
David supplies Marks & Spencer with goods including reading glasses. He kindly gave me 50 pairs for my birthday. They're strewn in decorative patterns throughout my house. I brought a pair to Benares to help me read the menu. The first thing I saw were the dreaded words "Hildon Water". I detest that.
We were speedily given poppadoms in a basket. They were simple and very good. As I crunched I was depressed to see groups of businessmen in suits walking by from left to right.
I don't know what it is that so attracts businessmen to Indian restaurants. I've recently started going again to the Bombay Brasserie in South Kensington. This after a falling out with management. The food has recovered well, but the whole place is full of businessmen. They're an unattractive sight.
Throughout the evening they gathered at Benares, quite putting me off my melon lasse, lamb chop, prawns and chicken tikka starter. Nor were they any help to my "kaali aur hari mirch ka murg" - which I recorded as a "fried-style chicken curry with curry leaves, onions, black pepper, red and green chillies and cashew nuts". I also asked for some raita and onion salad but I never got them.
Wendy was being a bit New York princessey, saying she wanted "tandoori breast only, white meat without tomato". Richard Harris, the typically English and jovial manager - David said he'd look better in a morning suit - suggested he gave Wendy spinach chicken. "No butter, no cream," she insisted.
"I need someone to tell me what to have," Wendy finally announced. "They're very busy now, dear, you'll have to work it out for yourself," I proffered helpfully. The food was all very good. If you don't mind being part of an estate agent's convention, go there.
After the main course they gave up on us. "The manager's standing there, but he's not looking around the room," I dictated into my tape. "I'm waiting to order dessert. I'd have thought he could see that. The assistant is with him. They're both doing nothing!"
Eventually the manager came over. Wendy ordered sorbets. I chose banana cinnamon pancakes with star anis ice-cream. "It's one of my favourite desserts, sir," said Mr Harris encouragingly. Adding, "It is," in case I hadn't heard properly.
The pancakes were very heavy. Wendy said, "Whatever this sorbet is, it's fabulous." "What is it?" I asked. "Mango," she replied. "What about the rest?" I asked. David responded, "She says, 'adequate'."
Getting out took forever. "Haven't you got the bill?" I said to David, it being his turn to pay. "Not yet," he said. "Have you asked for it?" I said. "Twice," he replied. Then he asked a third time. Eventually it arrived. I said, "Thank you, David."
Wendy popped in with, "What about me?" "You didn't sign the bill, did you?" I said ungraciously "It's one less outfit," explained Wendy. Geraldine said her John Dory fish main course was delicious. Thus the evening ended on a high.
I wanted to entertain and decided to book the Savoy Grill. My wife was told, "We cannot take your booking, we'll fax you an application form within minutes." No form arrived in the next few days. I tried the Savoy website. Back came an e-mail, "bookings are no longer accepted on the website". Another call to the hotel produced "no booking can be accepted without a credit card reference". I didn't want to give my credit card number so far in advance. The hotel suggested Gordon Ramsay reservations. Two e-mails were sent. Neither produced a reply. We booked elsewhere. Gordon should concentrate on his administration rather than being constantly on television.
John Leggett, Surrey
I also found Sopwell House disappointing (Winner's Dinners, last week). The feeling of being "processed" by the catering staff was stronger than anywhere I've been. When I asked why the buffet hot food was served on cold plates the answer was: "It must be the air-conditioning, sir."
Bruce Young, Harrow
I usually enjoy your articles, except last week when you said a charming Israeli was a rarity. I go to Israel twice a year to see friends and family, many of whom are charming. Has anyone ever told you that you were charming?
Marion Davis, London
I recently rang my local Indian restaurant and insisted on booking table 12. I was disconcerted to find they only had 10 tables. Can Michael Winner explain how he overcomes this problem with restaurants he's never been to before? We eventually settled for table 8. I'm sure the staff thought us peculiar for being so precise in our demands. On of them told me secretly the food at table 6 was better. He professed not to know why. I suspect it had something to do with how far it needed carrying from the kitchen.
Mike Simpson, Northumberland
When I worked at a hotel in Bournemouth the waiters had a remedy for awkward customers - a colourless, tasteless laxative called Gutalux. An unhelpful duty manager was given a dose in his wine. He returned the next day, after a sleepless night, demanding to see the chef. Your column always brings a smile to my face. And I'm always charming to waiters.
Jane Thomas, Dorset
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