If you’ve ever desired a cameo in a Bollywood film, then you might enjoy an evening at Benares Tribeca where patrons joyfully celebrate the North Indian cuisine associated with the spiritual capital of India.
For thousands of years, travelers have made the pilgrimage to Varanasi, the city also known as Benares, which is situated on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. If, however, your wallet prevents you from booking Première class on Jet Airways, then it’s equally enlightening to travel to Tribeca for a dinner at the downtown outpost of midtown’s beloved Benares.
Helmed by the founder of Chelsea’s dearly departed Devi, Inder Singh, and partner Ranbir Bhatia, the restaurant on Murray Street is framed by Corinthian columns that open into a dining room evocative of a Mondrian painting: rectangles of crimson red alongside panels in blue. Warmly welcomed by the general manager, you sink into a mustard yellow banquette and follow his lead through a menu that traverses the 28 states of India.
As an historic center of travel, the city of Benares has benefitted from a broad array of culinary influences, which are showcased in a vibrant tasting menu of regional dishes. The batter-fried cauliflower known as Khasta Gobhi is served with a savory garlic and red pepper sauce, which thoroughly activates the palate. Equally addictive, the whitefish in Fish Pakora is marinated in ginger, garlic, yogurt, and garam masala for another wake-up call.
Meanwhile, the dining room around you has filled with tables of ten and couples toasting to each other and a four-top of old friends. There’s a party at the front bar toasting to love and laughter. You raise your own cocktail—a tequila and pineapple concoction laced with chili grenadine—and toast to Varanasi.
Entrées are presented in a series of white bowls, the better to highlight the ocher of the vegetable and cheese dumplings cooked in a cashew-rich onion gravy—and the verdant green of Saag Paneer’s spinach and cottage cheese fragrant with cumin, ginger, and garlic. Equally flavorful are tomato-based curries of shrimp and salmon, both of which pair perfectly with the delicious house-made garlic naan.
In keeping with its namesake’s history of vegetarian cuisine, Benares offers more than 20 vegetarian and vegan options including a roasted turnip and beetroot soup made with fennel, ginger, garlic, and cumin.
Chef Peter Beck, formerly of Manhattan’s acclaimed Tamarind, works wonders with seafood dishes, especially those that feature the sweet succulence of scallops, which, in Beck’s hands, become bouquets garnis bursting with tomato-green chili, mango, and ginger.
By the time dessert is served, the dining room at Benares has become an Indian equivalent to Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet: a celebration of flavors and friendships for which a pistachio kulfi served with biscotti and berries seems a fitting benediction.
For those who wish to host their own extravagant banquet, the catering division of Benares is headed by the affable Ranbir Bhatia whose gentlemanly demeanor underscores the professionalism of a restaurant marked by high spirits and exuberant cuisine.