Okay, so you all know I don’t really bitch, whine, or complain much. (‘Scuse me a minute while I cover my ears to shut out the vehement dissent of The Spouse and my children, the derisive laughter of my friends, and the collective gasp of disbelief from everyone else who knows me). Right now though, if I had a pen instead of a keyboard, I’d be dipping it in acid. This restaurant should change its name to Benja-wrong.
Last week, Giant Vacuum Cleaner and I had two hours to kill between buying him a “light grey zip-up hoodie with fleece lining” and dropping him off for a movie (yes, he has a busier social schedule than I do). I thought Benjarong would be an good choice for a quick meal in a nice ambience. Given the chilly weather, we were both craving the spice and flavors of Thai cuisine.
The elevator takes you straight up to the third floor, and you enter a tastefully – albeit unimaginatively – decorated space, in a predictable maroon and off-white color palette cued with Buddha heads and other vaguely Oriental artifacts. We were greeted by a girl dressed in a sarong (yawn!) and seated quickly and efficiently.
As we perused our menu, a plate of complimentary Miang Kham arrived at the table. In Thailand and Vietnam, miang kham is served with betel leaves; although it is perfectly acceptable to serve it in lettuce leaves, as Benjarong does, I see no reason to do so by default. Why not offer the diner a choice? And the tamarind sauce is nice and tangy, but where, oh where is the dried shrimp? At that point, I was willing to concede that this was some kind of vegetarian version, and enjoyed rolling up the leaves and waiting for the explosion of contrasting flavors and textures to hit my taste buds.
We decided to keep things simple. A Neua Tod Prik Tai On (a fried beef tenderloin starter), Hor Mok Goong (I can never resist hor mok), Som Tam, Steamed Rice, and a Kaeng Phed. After some debate over which kaeng phet to order, we opted for duck. We also ordered two drinks – a Ginger Lemon Cooler for me, and a house special known as a Siam Sparkle for Vacuum Cleaner.
It took longer than expected for our drinks to arrive, but when they did, the ginger lemon was refreshing and the Siam Sparkle was a pleasant surprise. It resembled champagne, golden and sparkling, and had an interesting aftertaste – cassia bark, I think. I asked what the fizz came from, and was told they use 7Up. It’s been a while since I’ve tasted an interesting non-alcoholic drink. And that’s the last nice thing I have to say about my experience with this restaurant.
The Food, Such As It Is…
The starter, Neua Tod Prik Tai On, arrived. Allow me to deconstruct: “neua” means beef. “Tod” means deep fried. “Prik t(h)ai on” refers to raw green peppercorns.
So. I wasn’t sure whether the meat we received was beef (neua) – couldn’t tell, because it was half-burnt and chewy. A fact that is only evident after you manage to crunch through too much cornflour batter. It was certainly deep fried (tod), because it was swimming in oil, as you can see from the picture if you click on it for a closer look (rim of plate). And as for the green peppercorns (prik thai on), I mistakenly thought there were none, but found one little cluster of them when I was cropping this picture for upload. See if you can spot it. Hint: it’s hidden somewhere near the top of the frame.
The rest of our food arrived, and took its time doing so. Let’s take it from the top.
Hor Mok. Whatever Benjarong is serving, or thinks it is serving, it’s not hor mok. Hor mok is supposed to be a delicately steamed curry with the consistency of custard and the texture of a soufflé. We received a thick, Kerala-style coconut curry containing lots of finely diced prawn, served in a banana leaf cup. Perhaps it had been steamed, perhaps not. Was it tasty? I suppose. Was it hor mok? Hell, no.
Peht Kaeng Phed. All we wanted was a simple Thai red curry. You know, the kind you can make at home from a curry paste packet, with the addition of fresh coconut milk, some meat, and if you’re finicky like me, some fried basil leaves and fresh lemon grass for added aroma. Instead, we got a coconut-based curry with a few boiled basil leaves floating limp and helpless atop it. The coconut milk had split during cooking, and by the color of the meat and its inordinately high fat content, we were being served duck leg rather than breast.
Tasteless. Insipid. Blah. These are mild words. I’m trying to be polite; otherwise, I’d probably used words like: awful. Deplorable. Atrocious.
Som Tam. By now, we were hungry enough to eat just the som tam with the steamed rice. Som tam is the simplest and most ubiquitous of all Thai salads. Finely shredded raw papaya is supposed to be pounded lightly in a pestle with garlic and chillies and then dressed in a combination of fish sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice. Chopped tomato and crushed peanuts are sprinkled on top, and a green bean or two thrown in for color and textural variety.
At Benjarong, however, the papaya has been grated into thickish strips (or more likely, cut into strips with a peeler), there’s not even a hint of fish sauce, and the chilli component is woefully lacking. And there are bits of carrot in it too. Ugh.
Service, Or Lack Thereof
Since Vacuum Cleaner absolutely had to meet his friends on time or risk social suicide, I had no time to complain or send the food back to the kitchen. Leaving most of it untouched, I quietly asked for my check.
Meanwhile, a nearby table of four was in the process of sending back their burnt beef, trying to figure out why the beer they ordered 15 minutes ago still hadn’t arrived, and asking to speak to a manager. Who asked their forgiveness for these lapses because they were “busy downstairs” at Zara, the tapas bar. At the only other occupied table, another diner gesticulated unhappily, saying something uncomplimentary about his soup.
Over 15 minutes later, the “should-have-sat-downstairs” table was presented with a fresh plate of beef. They sent it back to the kitchen “with compliments to the chef” because they’d already finished their meal. My check still hadn’t arrived – but a sweetly smiling waitperson had. “How was the food?” he asked. “It was horrible,” I stated in my matter-of-fact way, “and I’d like my check. Now.” His response: “Can I get you some dessert ma’am?”
Up until then, I’d stayed calm. A maitre d’ then appeared. When I said that I didn’t have the time to provide feedback, was now in a tearing hurry, and would like my check – but would be happy to provide specific inputs and feedback if they emailed me – he asked for my contact details. I produced a business card. He then wasted another 10 minutes of my time trying to persuade me that the meal was on the house (Now if he’d done that before I gave him my card, I just might have accepted).
After I paid the bill and left, Aji Joseph, the manager/chef from Zara, followed me outside to ask what the problem had been. I explained (again) that I hadn’t the time to provide any inputs as I was already late, told him that amongst other things, the curry contained split coconut milk, and asked him to email me for more detailed feedback.
Three days later, I received email from Regi Mathew, the owner/chef of Benjarong, apologizing for my bad experience, thanking me for my “advice” and inviting me to visit again “in order to see how we have incorporated your feedback.” Huh? Whuh? Wha?
I did subsequently have a long conversation with Mr. Mathew, in which I elucidated every sorry detail of the experience. He seemed receptive, and disappointed that his staff had let him down. He promised to look into and rectify all the issues.
Would that be enough to get me to spend my time or money at Benjarong again? In a word, no. Here’s why:
- Hanging Buddha heads on the wall, dressing women in sarongs, and playing Oriental-sounding music will never persuade diners that the food on the table is Thai. Assuming that you can fool their palates in this way insults their intelligence.
- Beautifully carved vegetables won’t do the job either. I promise.
- Any restaurant purporting to serve Thai food that can screw up something as simple as a som tam and a kaeng phet on the same day doesn’t deserve my business. Less so one that charges Rs. 600 for the privilege.
- Rs. 1781 for a meal like that, even if it had been properly prepared, is OVERPRICED. My friends will tell you that I don’t say that about too many things. In this case, you cannot argue that you’re paying for the ambience, which is very ordinary. And you’re sure as hell not paying for the service. (The bill, as you can see, includes a 5% service charge). Go figure!
I have since spoken to several informed diners who have eaten at Benjarong. They described the food as “decent” (as opposed to “amazing”, “fantastic”, “fabulous”, or even just plain “good”). I’m sorry, but in my book, “decent” just doesn’t cut it, not with that price tag attached.
As a comparison, see my bill at Shiok, for three of us (the service and the food are MUCH better; the fish in chilli and lime sauce was to die for), and my bill from delivery kitchen Asia in a Box for last night’s at-home dinner for five. So much more food for so much less moolah. Your call.