Seafood, Chicken and More in Benares
Foodies, there’s yet another new Indian restaurant in Manhattan – Benares, a cool, contemporary space where you can indulge in regional specialties from many parts of India. In a preview peek at the new eatery which seats 89 diners, one is struck by the sleek, haldi-yellow interiors highlighted by multicolored lamps and beautiful old Benarsi saris framed on the walls.
Peter Beck, who’s previously cooked up a storm in the kitchens of New York restaurants Chola and Tamarind, is the chef at Benares. The name Benares gets you slightly off-kilter – isn’t that city supposed to be a vegetarian paradise? This Benares has everything from seafood to Cornish hens to red meat in abundance, besides meatless fare.
As Beck, who was anointed as a top chef by James beard Foundation in 2002, points out, there is no conflict between the name of the restaurant and the cuisine it offers. Benares might be the holiest city but it is in Uttar Pradesh, a state which is famous for its Muglai cuisine from the city of Lucknow, and also has many excellent meat and seafood dishes. It is these Beck has emphasized, along with other regional specialties.
Tastes of North and South India
Benares, while having a sizable repertoire of vegetarian food and the city’s snack specialties, focuses on seafood and there’s enough fish, lobster, rock shrimp, crab and mussels to satisfy the sea-farer in you – and what’s more these are highlighted in the little known flavors of South India.
Many people do not realize that fish and other seafood are a staple in India, which is sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and juts into the Indian Ocean. Seafood is regular fare in many states including Bengal, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
“Seafood dishes have mostly been done in the Northern style here and few have offered Southern style non-vegetarian food here, though there are excellent places for vegetarian South Indian food,” says Beck. “So I thought, why not focus on the non-vegetarian dishes from states like coastal Kerala and Tamil Nadu where people eat seafood every day? That’s the reason I wanted to bring dishes like rock shrimp and crab cooked with curry and coconut and served over rice noodles, which is the South Indian favorite.”
Rather than use a standard sauce with different meats, Benares is orchestrating North and South flavors. “I’m focusing on creating the authentic cuisine of various states,” says Beck. “My aim is to do light and healthy food for New Yorkers – most people think that Indian food is very spicy and greasy but good restaurants have come up where we are more oriented toward light cooking. You’ll see not much oil in the cooking and lots of seafood like calamari and scallops.”
Some of Chef Beck’s signature dishes are the Sevai Tomato Kurma (mussels, scallops, rock shrimp and crab claws tossed in a garlic tomato sauce over Indian style rice noodles) and the Tandoori Hen ( whole Cornish hen marinated in lime, ginger, cumin, garlic and garam masala and cooked in the tandoor oven).
For Seafood Addicts and Veggies
The menu has something for everyone, be they carnivores or vegetarians. There are over 20 dishes which are meatless, including some vegetarian snacks which are not common in New York: Mathura Se – potato patties stuffed with seasoned gram topped with mint and cranberry sauce; Banarsi Kachori – crispy flour puffs served with tomato salsa, potatoes, and chutneys; and Shakahari Kebab – corn, yam, spinach & chickpea kebab skewered and cooked in clay oven. The latter is interesting for the mix of healthy ingredients and the fact that it is baked.
For vegetarians there are some classic tastes of Benares such as Benares Dum Aloo, scooped potatoes stuffed with seasoned veggies in onion tomato sauce, and Achari Bhindi fresh okra cooked with pickled, flavored spices Others are creative concoctions with healthful ingredients such as Jodhpuri Tarkari – baby corn, tofu and soya stewed in a spiced onion and tomato sauce.
In non-vegetarian cuisine there are several classic tastes from different regions of India. These include Aamiya Jhinga – jumbo prawns marinated in mango, chili, rice vinegar, ginger, molasses, and cooked in a tandoor; Lucknowi Murgh which is chicken breast marinated in yogurt with saffron and cardamom flavors, cooked in the clay oven; and Kozhi Varutha Curry which is a South Indian specialty chicken, cooked with roasted chili, ginger and garlic in coconut sauce .
(Photos by Paul Wagtouicz)
Then there’s Safed Gosht, which is a Rajasthani specialty, marinated lamb in ginger, garlic, yogurt, simmered in cardamom and almond sauce; and from Kerala comes Kekada Kari traditional nadan kerala style jumbo crab curry, simmered in mustard, curry leaves and kokum.
Inder Singh, the owner of Benares, is a serial restaurateur who also owns Aangan on the Upper West Side and the hugely popular, moderately priced Minar restaurants in midtown. Earlier he was a partner in Baluchis and Devi. This love of feeding people is in his DNA, since his father was a restaurateur before him.
“I love food, I love opening restaurants,” he says. Asked about the reason for naming the restaurant Benares, he adds, “Benares is one name most New Yorkers know and they will remember it. The names of some Indian restaurants are hard to pronounce, but this is a name that everyone is familiar with!”
Benares is another new spot for New York foodies to savor the complex dishes from different parts of India, for as Peter Beck points out, the cuisine in India changes every 100 miles. Without traveling to India, you may be able to get your taste of diverse regional cuisine right here in the Theater District.
Related Article and Recipe for Sevai Tomato Kurma