Perched on India’s sacred Ganges River, the city of Benares is the Hindu world’s holiest pilgrimage site. Pilgrims of another sort have made Benares in Wyckoff a destination for authentic, full-flavored Indian cuisine.
Benares opened last April as the offshoot of a Manhattan restaurant of the same name. The deep, narrow, 70-seat space is subtle and spare, with gentle lighting, upholstered chairs and a long banquette. “Local diners are very welcoming,” says general manager Ranbir Bhatia, “and our menu here is more adventurous than in Manhattan.”
A fair portion of the roughly 100-item menu is vegetarian or vegan. A good place to start is the tandoor bread basket, a generous sampling that includes earthy, whole-wheat roti, onion-filled kulcha, and potato-stuffed paratha.
“I cook real Indian, home style,” says chef de cuisine Anil Gonsalves, 38, a native of Mumbai. His delicious dishes include koli erachi, chicken breast in ginger and garlic with a rich, spicy peppercorn-and-curry sauce. Mumbai’s street food, chaat, has a strong presence, as in kolhapuuri missal, a bowl of sprouted beans in a lemon-coconut chili sauce topped with deep-fried chickpea vermicelli flavored with turmeric, chili and caraway-like ajwain. Don’t pass on Gonsalves’s zany, zesty invention, paani puri shots, little wheat puffs stuffed with potato and chickpeas in shot glasses of tamarind water.
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“Around here live a lot of Indian-Americans and Britishers who love red peppers,” says Bhatia. The chef can really bring the heat, but don’t worry; the servers will make sure the kitchen tailors it to your comfort level. If you choose a full-throttle vindaloo—India’s hottest curry dish, from southern Goa—you will dig into the spiciest version I’ve tasted outside of India itself. It brims with your choice of chicken (supple) or lamb (lush). The vindaloo’s barn-red hue derives from chilies, its velvety texture from potatoes, and its tantalizing flavors and aroma from clove, cinnamon, cilantro, cardamom and ginger.
From the restaurant’s two tandoor ovens come milder roasted dishes. Tandoori chicken, marinated in yogurt, lemon juice and garam masala (a curry mix), was marvelously tender and tasty. Tandoori prawns and salmon showed equal finesse, though lamb was overcooked. Next time I’ll try the tandoori whole Cornish hen, bathed in lime, ginger, garlic, cumin and garam masala.
A star of my meals was a recipe Gonsalves cooked for Bhatia as his audition for the job, a biryani Bhatia calls “the best I’d ever tasted.” I second that sentiment. Biryanis are basmati-rice casseroles, augmented variously with vegetables, chicken, lamb, goat or shrimp. At Benares, each makes a grand entrance in a brown clay pot topped with puffy billows of steaming-hot naan breads.
Good as the presentation was, the eating was even better. We ordered the version with pieces of goat on the bone, whose robust meatiness played off the rice’s sweet cashews and perfumey saffron and rosewater. Similarly seductive was the vegetarian rice dish Kashmiri pulao, a dulcet heap of milk-soaked, saffron-kissed basmati laden with nuts, raisins, dried cherries, pineapple chunks and apples. Though priced like a side at $7, the pulao was entrée sized. Even the rabid carnivores in our party pounced on it. Our table’s one vegetarian was already blissed out with his delectable malai kofta, dumplings made of fenugreek-laced vegetables and cottage cheese–like paneer in a velvety sauce puréed with cashews, almonds and onion.
Benares’s most intriguing dessert is the Atom Bomb, a warm chocolate cake with a liquid center oozing over a central mound of house-made ice cream. “It’s very soothing after a spicy meal,” says Bhatia, quite rightly. Still, I’m secretly hoping he will turn his imagination to creating a vindaloo ice cream. It’s time dessert made you sweat.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Anil Gonsalves as the executive chef. He is the chef de cuisine.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Indian
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $2.75–$22.50; entrées, $16–$29; breads and sides, $3–$13, desserts, $8; lunch buffet, $12.95–$14.95
- Ambience:Contemporary, with comfy seating
- Service:Savvy and helpful
- Wine list:BYO