Wowed and Awed at Benu

There is great food in Northern California.  I say that every time I visit the area and I really feel it to be true.  There is all kinds of good stuff, from Thai to Italian to Vietnamese to Mexican.  The variety of ethnic cuisines alone is really impressive, but I think the serious fine dining scene in and around San Francisco is equally phenomenal.  I’ve been fortunate to experience Manresa and Baumé during my previous two visits, and this time it was at Benu that my admiration for culinary arts grew to yet another level.  A few months ago the Wall Street Journal named Benu the next “IT” restaurant or the new El Bulli/Noma, and David Chang (of the Momofuku fame) had apparently declared Benu “the best restaurant in America.”  I, for one, confess that I didn’t know much about Benu and went to dine there with no expectations.  All I knew was that Chef Corey Lee used to be the chef at French Laundry and worked at Per Se for Thomas Keller, and that he combined classic techniques with molecular gastronomy using Asian ingredients.  What would all that mean?  Kevin, a group of his friends, and I found out on a recent Friday evening.

Overall, it was a great meal filled with exciting and new flavors.  The service was professional yet friendly, not overly attentive or fussy.  The restaurant itself is very modern and minimal in its decor, but as we were a larger party we sat in a smaller/separate area from the main dining room.  It was intimate but we still felt the energy of the other diners and inclusive of the evening’s festivities.  It didn’t hurt that we had plenty of good libations; we kicked off our dinner with a bottle of Roederer Estate bubbly, then moved onto a 2010 Nicolaihof Grüner Veltliner, 2010 Morning Dew Vineyard Pinot Noir, and finished with a 1998 Niepoort port.

Our official photographer of the night (as well as being our designated spokesperson/ liaison to the sommelier) was Peter, a friend, foodie, frequent dining companion, and travel buddy who went on a two week long “eat everything in sight” holiday in Korea with Kevin and me last year.  I’m sure there will be more of that to come in the future.

My thanks to the one and only Mr. Peter Merelis for the photos of our 18 course dinner at Benu from June, 2012 below:

Thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger: Benu’s version of the Chinese thousand-year-old egg.  A beautiful start to our meal.

Oyster, pork belly, kimchi: the servers told us this dish was time sensitive.  The outer layer of the delicate dumpling was what I can only describe as the “essence” of pork belly and it literally melted away as soon as it touched my tongue.

Potato salad with anchovy: upon seeing his use of these tiny pan fried anchovies we suspected that Chef Lee may have a background in Korean cuisine.

Monkfish liver, peach, daikon, perilla, brioche: foie of the sea with house-made brioche.  No wrong turns made here.

Eel, feuille de brick, créme fraîche, lime

Mozzarella, basil, xo sauce: a collision between Italy and China!

Salt and pepper squid: one of the favorites of the evening.  A sophisticated take on the Asian shrimp crackers.  We all loved it.

Foie gras xiao long bao: we wanted a dozen of these.  Genius!

Omasum tripe, shimp, yellow chive, lovage: the first and only cold tripe dish I’ve ever had.  It was so clean and refreshing.  A pleasant surprise in a gorgeous vessel.

Asparagus, sunchoke, almond, cherry blossom

Chicken velvet, abalone, abalone mushroom, chrysanthemum

Sea bass, lobster, lily bulb

Duck, celery, scallion, Shaoxing wine, black truffle bun: this bun was out of this world… perfect East meets West flavors.

Beef braised in pear, beech mushroom, sunflower seeds and leaves

“Shark’s fin” soup, dungeness crab, Junhua ham, black truffle custard: absolutely no idea how this faux shark’s fin was made…  not only was it beautiful to look at, it was delicate and rich at the same time.  The truffle custard took me far far away to an exotic place.

Strawberry, white chocolate, yuzu: obsessed with Benu’s stemware as much as the food.

Spice cake, blueberry, yogurt, oatmeal ice cream

Chocolates

As we were finishing our meal the waitstaff asked whether we’d like to go into the kitchen and meet the chef.  Would we?  Could we?  Marco, Peter, and I did.

Chef Lee runs a quiet kitchen.  A spotless kitchen.   The kitchen purposely does not have a door and that naturally leads the space to remain clean and tranquil.  It creates a serious self-contained bubble for those working in the kitchen, and as diners can easily look in and hear everything from where they’re seated, I’m sure there is extra awareness to be alert and be at their best.  It was so calm in there that we couldn’t tell that they were working through a busy Friday night service.  It was almost zen-like.

Peter commented that Chef Lee seemed a lot more relaxed and at ease than when he met him years ago at French Laundry.  I was struck by how young he was/is.  Here is Chef Lee signing my menu.  After that he graciously posed for photos with us, and chatted with me for a bit.

I can’t begin to imagine the amount of thought and effort that went into each and every dish.  I was wowed and awed at the level of creativity, and felt challenged and intrigued by what was presented to us.  Much respect to Chef Lee, who is clearly an artist, and to the Benu team- I wish you continued success.

Benu: 22 Hawthorne Street  San Francisco, CA 94105

 

RELATED POST:

Dining in Silicon Valley: Baumé

Dining in San Francisco: November 2011

Nouvelle Korean at Jung Sik Dang: Seoul, Korea

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