Perhaps the world’s oldest city, Varanasi is also Hinduism’s holiest site. It lies on the banks of the Ganges River in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northeastern India that borders Nepal. The city is home to the famous burning ghats—steps that descend to the water where religious ablutions are performed, and dead bodies are committed to fire on makeshift wooden biers, after which the remains are tossed into the river. It is said that if you die in Varanasi, you’ll achieve instant enlightenment.
Although I hoped for an epiphany, I had no intention of dying for it as I stepped into the new restaurant on 56th Street called Benares—the Anglicized name of Varanasi. Somewhat disappointingly, the decor does little to evoke the city itself. (What did I expect? A crematorium?) Sure, there are little framed examples of indigenous needlework, but these are barely noticeable compared with the faux Tiffany chandelier, tall and stately yellow banquettes, and generic upscale feel of the place. The restaurant is owned by Inder Singh—once a partner in the omnipresent Baluchi’s chain of Indian restaurants (11 in NYC at last count), with further connections to Minar, a pair of good cheap Indian steam tables, and Devi, a defunct pricey establishment that had an adventuresome menu.
True to its name, the place partly focuses on the cooking of Uttar Pradesh, with four dishes and one martini attributed to Varanasi. Benarasi kachori ($8, the menu spells it “Banarsi”) are three wheat-flour fritters, round and flat, perched on spiced potatoes, offered in an appetizer portion decorated with squirts of yogurt and a fruity red sauce. Not bad, but Benarasi dum aloo ($13) is superior: an entrée of small potatoes hollowed out, stuffed with cauliflower, and deposited in beige onion gravy. Laboriously gutting whole potatoes sounds like something the French might do, but here, the effect is entirely Indian and tasty.
Radiating geographically from Varanasi are other recipes attributed to Uttar Pradesh. Famous for its Krishna temple, the town of Matura offers more potato patties, this time stuffed with lentils. They will further convince you of how much this state loves its spuds. But the real regional treasure comes from Kakori, a traditionally Muslim enclave famous for its mangoes and civil servants. Cooked in the tandoori oven, the ground-lamb Kakori kebabs surprise you with their poppy seeds and predominance of chiles, for a tongue-searing spiciness. Dotted with astringent kari leaves and flavored with lemon, the region’s Benarasi rice is also worth ordering, even though it must be separately purchased ($7). No bargains here.
Escaping the confines of Uttar Pradesh, the restaurant makes a noble attempt to deliver several other regional Indian cuisines. The third-best thing on the menu comes from Tamil Nadu in southeastern India: kekada kari, a luxuriant wad of crabmeat simmered in mustard and kokum, a tart round fruit native to south India often used in sherbets. From farther west, in the Kerala state, comes tharavu curry ($18), the bill of fare’s second best thing. It’s a pungent stew of bone-in duck meat in a sauce of ginger and chiles thickened with coconut milk. The dark flavor of the quacker prevails.
The best thing on the menu is a soup, paradoxically, because most people ignore soups entirely in Indian restaurants. Attukal paya ($8) is like something you’d normally find only in Pakistani steam-table joints, an unctuous potage featuring swatches of squishy goat foot flavored with a delicate mixture of spices. You should probably avoid anything made with chicken at Benares because these recipes employ uniform chunks of tasteless breast meat—you’ll find yourself sopping the sauce with something from the breadbasket ($13) and avoiding the actual poultry. This is especially true with chicken vindaloo, from the former Portuguese colony of Goa and one of the most abused Indian recipes—it’s nearly always disappointing. Yes, Benares’s rendition is vinegary and spicy, but the potatoes and chicken are indistinguishable lumps, and anyway, the original of the dish was made with pork and red wine. What Indian restaurant in town has the Desi balls to do that?
There’s an engaging selection of Indian beers, some of them unfamiliar. But why not go regional with that Benares martini ($11)? It mixes gin, Lillet, and citrus peels soaked in house-made bitters and is not nearly as sweet as you fear. I’d be lying, though, if I denied thinking of the mighty Ganges as I took my first sip—and checking the surface of the drink for ashes.