As a critic, I'm continually going to restaurants that my colleagues have described as "reasonably priced", only to discover that I'll have to re-mortgage my house in order to pay the bill. How can this be? My theory is that the owners of these honey traps deliberately keep their prices low for the first three months, knowing that this is the period in which the critics will come in, and then, as soon as they've been acclaimed for offering great value for money, double or triple the prices.
Take Benares, for instance. When this posh Indian opened three years ago, the starters averaged £4.50 and the main courses were all £13.50 or under. Such prices were particularly generous, given that the chef patron, Atul Kochhar, had come straight from Tamarind, one of London's first Indian restaurants to be awarded a Michelin star. The fact that it was in Berkeley Square, right next door to the most expensive car show room in London, was the icing on the cake. Few critics could resist pointing out how low the prices were in contrast to those of Jack Barclay.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I opened the menu and found that the starters range from £6.95 to £16.95 and the mains go as high as £38.00. These don't include any extras, either. (A side order of Dal, for instance, is £8.50.) At these prices, a Bentley Continental GT for £115,000 begins to look quite reasonable.
Then again, perhaps it's not fair to complain about the high rates of inflation at the top end of London's restaurant trade. As anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of economics knows, prices of consumer goods aren't fixed by calculating the cost of the raw materials and then adding something for labour. Rather, they're dictated by the laws of supply and demand-and, on that basis, Benares is actually a bit of a bargain. Ever since Atul Kochhar became one of the contestants on Great British Menu, the BBC series in which various chefs compete to cook a dish for the Queen's 80th birthday celebrations, it's been impossible to get a table. It was already fairly popular, but, according to the Manager, trade has increased by 30% since the boss started appearing on television.
The atmosphere at Benares is very business-like. Not only is it located in Mayfair, the heart of the corporate entertainment district, but it's on the first floor of Berkeley Square House, one of those modern, concrete buildings that's guaranteed to bring Prince Charles out in hives. Inside, it feels like a very luxurious nuclear bunker, a sensation that's enhanced by the absence of any windows. If the Queen ever feels inclined to drop by, I imagine she'll be as safe here as in any of the bomb-proof rooms in Buckingham Palace.
Naturally, I opted for "Her Majesty's 80th Celebration Menu", a seven-course extravaganza that cost a whopping £90. The highlights were chicken liver masala on toasted naan, soft shell crab accompanied by smoked salmon mouse and a skewer of John Dory with plum tomatoes and mango sorbet. It wasn't the best Indian meal I've ever had-that accolade still goes to Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in Chelsea-but it was still very good. Indeed, I was a little disappointed when Atul Kochhar failed to win in any of the categories on Great British Menu, particularly as he was one of the seven finalists.
On the night I was there, a large percentage of the customers were fans of the television programme. How do I know this? Because one of the other finalists, Michael Caines, was sitting at the next-door table and every five minutes or so some random punter would come up to tell him how much they loved the show. He was lapping it up, telling all and sundry that he was going to knock Atul Kochhar into a cocked hat.
Now that the programme has run its course, it may be possible to get a table again at Benares. My advice is to go at lunchtime, take a colleague and try and put the meal on expenses. The food is undoubtedly outstanding, but with even the mineral water costing £4.25 a bottle this has got to be one of the most expensive Indian restaurants in the world.