22 Hawthorne St
San Francisco, CA 94105
I wasn’t planning on going too crazy dining-wise during my recent trip to NorCal, as it was around Christmas time, and I didn’t want to splurge after dining out so much during the month and buying gifts for the family. But I wanted to go to one nice place in the city, and I wanted it to be Benu (reservation which Lawrence was able to get on fairly short notice). Besides all the accolades the restaurant has received (i.e. 2 Michelin stars, 4 stars from SF Chronicle) and Chef Corey Lee’s resume (long stint as Chef de Cuisine of The French Laundry), Benu was doing something I haven’t seen any other restaurant do successfully: legitimizing formal Asian cuisine.
Chef Lee, in my amateur opinion, has succeeded in his approach of creating this “Asian Laundry” with a two-pronged attack: 1) he has effectively recreated traditional Asian (predominately Chinese) cuisine/dishes via traditional/modernist Western methods; 2) he has successfully incorporated more obscure/unknown (albeit traditional/household for most Asians) Asian ingredients into cohesive, formal dishes. That’s why Benu has been more than a welcoming sight for the culinary world, as the food that is being served at the restaurant has been able to break down multiple barriers/perceptions that the general public has regarding whether Asian cuisine can find success in the big boys’ world of formal dining, and whether “fusion” cuisine can be taken serious (if it can be called such).
I’m not sure if a la carte is still an option, but on our night there, the restaurant only had the tasting menu available (which we were going to do anyways) at $180/person. I’m not a wine pairings type of person (too much of a noob to truly appreciate it), so we just split a small bottle of Riesling, which went well with most of the courses. A couple of things before I get into the details of each dish. One, the service was on point – expected at a two-star Michelin obviously, but still nice to have each server actually knowledgeable about the details of each dish, and be around just enough without being overbearing. Two, the decor is VERY minimalist. I could care less about decor at a restaurant, but I’ve seen my share of over-the-top restaurants, and the clean look (that more restaurants are adapting) gave the dining rooms more of an airy atmosphere. Now to the food…
thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
We started with a mainstay of the restaurant, an amuse I’ve seen on plenty of blogs and expected to have. The potage (French for soup/stew) was like a comforting chowder, with a nice hint of ginger.
oyster, pork belly, kimchi
We were told that this amuse was time-sensitive, as the kimchi “shell” softens. This proved to be true when I began to eat the dish, as the shell dissolved into a soft gelatin rather quickly. Not sure if this was the intention, but the combination reminded me of bo ssam with oysters.
potato salad with anchovy
Dried anchovies used in formal dining? Get out of town! Something you’d find in the snacks aisle at an Asian market, the dried fish really made this dish work, as a briny potato salad.
eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime
I definitely tasted the eel within the filo pastry here, but the filling didn’t really have that eel flavor I was expecting (though I can’t really put into words what I was exactly expecting). The creme fraiche with lime helped cut down the slight greasiness.
monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, broiche
What would be the Asian approach to foie gras torchon? A torchon made from ankimo, duh! This was truly an awesome dish – the torchon was creamy and liver-y, and paired well with the persimmon. The accompanying cute broiche was great, too. Really made me miss foie, but if more places can pull off something like this, then I can live easier.
sake lees, chestnut, satsuma
Effective intermezzo. Enough said.
abalone quiche, caviar, rousong
This tasted like a quiche, but the appearance gave me the impression of a tart. Again, an Asian market aisle dweller (rousong, which I used to eat straight out of the container at work) makes an unexpected appearance. Its saltiness and flavor didn’t really add much here, however, with the presence of the caviar. I wished there was more abalone, too.
salt and pepper squid
This was like a shrimp cracker with salt and pepper flavors and tiny cubes of squid. It was good, but thought that it would’ve been better as a complement to something else.
lobster coral xiao long bao
At first, I told myself (and Lawrence): “oh this tastes just like a xiao long bao. Okay.” Not the most exciting of comments, right? But I thought about it some more, and the brininess of the lobster coral (roe) hit me, and I realized that not only was this a good xiao long bao, but it was a GREAT SEAFOOD xiao long bao. That is a daunting task to succeed at. OKAYYYYY.
crepinette of sea bass and shrimp, lettuce, fermented pepper
The crepinette was good, but I actually wanted more fat content from the casing. The star here was the sauce, which reminded me of X.O. sauce.
duck, cucumber, lily bulb, cherry-black olive, steamed bun
The duck was cooked to a good medium-rare, and it was good, but didn’t necessarily wow me (I can’t remember what the sauce was exactly). The accompanying mantou was nice.
beef braised in pear juice and charcoal-grilled with winter treasures
This was probably my favorite of the three “mains.” Like the duck course preceding it, there was more sweet than savory in this course, but I found it to be better executed and more balanced here. I have to say, however, that if there was a “weak” link to the entire meal, it was the mains – not as creative/fun in my opinion, but still well-executed and flavors on point for the most part.
“shark’s fin” soup, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard
Here was the other mainstay of the menu I expected to see. The black truffle custard sitting at the bottom was rich, but never overpowered the delicious broth made from Jinhua ham (a traditional Chinese execution). The faux shark’s fin was actually the same broth, solidified into a gelatin form – creative.
shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate
The first dessert proved to be more of a palate cleanser for me. Nice and refreshing, especially the shiso sorbet.
spiced pumpkin, cider sorbet, fruits and nuts
This loosely reminded me of the “eight treasure rice” dessert you’d usually find at the end of Chinese banquet meals. Again, the sorbet here (an apple cider variation) was the star.
I have to say, when we walked away from this meal, I was extremely impressed. But for some reason, it didn’t necessarily directly hit me in the face as one of the best meals I’ve had in 2012. My appreciation for the execution of such refinement and perfection of techniques and combination of flavors (not to mention appreciating the restaurant’s successful role as a culinary pioneer, as previously mentioned) didn’t settle in until I was about going to bed that night. This type of cooking isn’t meant to punch you in the face as if you were in a macho fistfight – rather, it is like a gentle, but deadly, female assassin, killing you slowly and softly via poison. By then, I was lying there on the couch, thinking to myself: “how did Chef Lee pulled off this complete mindfuck!?!” Obviously, I couldn’t go to sleep…