review: the asian laundry…

1st Course: veal sweetbreads

“You’ll feel like you’ve left the city,” someone told me when describing their experience at benu.

I didn’t understand what he meant by it then, but I understand it now.

You’ll see benu’s kitchen through the big, picture-windows on a quiet stretch of Hawthorne Street in San Francisco’s SoMa district.  If you arrive after nightfall, as I did, it will glow – a mute, gleaming-white diorama framed in brick.

But the restaurant’s entrance is tucked away in an enclosed, urban garden, secluded from the street. I needed help finding it.


Landscaped with Japanese maples embedded in smooth stones and tracked overhead with a network of potted greens, the courtyard extends a markedly Asian welcome. Did they pipe in sounds of crickets, or was that nature?

It’s spacious, spartan, and simple, a design approach that you’ll also find in the dining room.*

benu

*    *    *   *    *

benu, ex-French Laundry chef de cuisine Corey Lee’s “rebirth” into haute cuisine, opened in early August of this year after a significant build-up of publicity, thanks in part to Paolo Lucchesi’s online “Inside Scoop” column, which chronicled the restaurant’s development from conception to cradle.**

Despite the excitement, early reports from benu’s tables were limp and unenthusiastic.

The food was technically flawless, but not terribly remarkable, diners (and friends) said.

Where have I heard that before?***

Undeterred and genuinely curious to see what Lee would do, now untethered to The French Laundry, I kept my dinner reservation.

The person who was supposed to join me for dinner had to back out just days before I left for San Francisco. Alone, I ordered the tasting menu, which, at the time, was $160 (I was told that the price of the tasting would fluctuate, depending on the ingredients used).

I asked Yoon Ha (formerly of La Toque), the well-maned sommelier, for three or four small-pour tastings.  After two white wines, both of which were good, but neither of which I thought paired particularly well with the food, I asked for a sake. The sake he poured was spectacular – again, not particularly great with the food (I wasn’t expecting it to pair well), but exactly the savory, almost briny, high-mineral experience I had requested. It was incredible on the nose and had a satisfyingly long, lingering finish.  The wine did not appear on my bill.

To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE. Or, click on the course titles below to see photos of the individual plates.

*   *   *

Canapés

Thousand-Year-Old Quail Egg

Tomato
Dashi, summer blossoms.

Geoduck Clam
Seaweeds, raspberry-bonito vinegar.

Caramelized Anchovy Gelée
Peanuts, lily bulbs, chili, basil.

1st Course
Veal Sweetbreads

Yuzu, carrots, pickles, mitsuba.

2nd Course
Beef Rib Cap

Crispy maitake mushrooms, lettuce, scallion, Asian pear.

3rd Course
Eel

Feuille de brick, avocado, crème fraîche.

4th Course
Risotto

Sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle.

5th Course
Monkfish Liver Torchon

Turnip, onion, mustard seed relish, cherry brioche.

6th Course
Shark’s Fin Soup
Dungeness crab, cabbage, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard.

7th Course
Abalone Vol au Vent

Spinach, artichoke, garlic, lemon, roasted chicken jus.

8th Course
Pork Belly

Fermented pepper, cucumber, perilla.

9th Course
Eight Treasures Duck

10th Course
Sweet Rice Sorbet

pine nut puree, pine needle-infused honey.

11th Course
Strawberries

Vanilla soymilk, buckwheat sablé, green tea.

Mignardises
Chocolates

*   *   *

8th Course: pork belly
Pork Belly
benu, San Francisco

I feel like I visited benu prematurely.

The food here, which is clearly an attempt at fusing Asian cuisine with other world cuisines, seemed to still be trying to find its identity.

As a progression, the tasting menu felt disjointed, uncoordinated, indecisive; the marriage of cultural cuisines was unsettled and unconvincing.  Instead of an anthology showcasing Lee’s unique culinary perspective, I found a curious succession of dishes alternating between East and West. In many dishes, the dialogue went no further than the simple substitution of Asian ingredients in otherwise Old World classics.

If this was Corey Lee’s ultimate goal, then I’d say he succeeded.

But, I suspect Lee aims for something more meaningful. With the menu I saw, I don’t think he was quite there yet.

Canape: caramelized anchovy gelee
Caramelized Anchovy Gelée
benu, San Francisco

There were a lot of great concepts – like the “Eight Treasures Duck” – but little excitement.

Like a “knock, knock” joke without a punchline, that duck dish triggered a familiar cultural reference, but failed to complete the conceit. [I assumed that this dish was an allusion to Chinese babao fan ("eight treasures rice") or, as a commenter reminded me below, babao ya ("eight treasures duck") and not the general Chinese fascination with the number eight.]****

Were there eight treasures?  Yes. But, setting aside for a moment the fact that this dish was a complete departure from the traditional Chinese babao fan, though more similar to babao ya, did I taste eight treasures? No.

9th Course: eight treasures duck
Eight Treasure Duck
benu, San Francisco

I tasted duck – it was very good, shockingly moist, extremely tender – with a hint of foie gras and black truffles, two of the “treasures.” The other six treasures, including specks of gold dust, were lost. Maybe, like its namesake, a little nub of glutinous rice would have helped bring out the flavors of the treasured filling.  Regardless, it failed to capitalized upon the greater, cultural significance attached: the excitement and novelty of discovering each of the eight treasures. Its witty potential was clipped.

It tasted like very good duck, but not much more.  The more impressive aspect of this dish to me was the precision with which it was constructed and executed – a perfect cigar roll, tightly-wrapped skin, and incredibly moist and flavorful meat.

And that’s the ace in Lee’s pocket. (I hope it does not become his crutch.) He is precise. His food looks almost machine-manufactured. For the most part, meats were nicely cooked. Ingredients were pristine. The plating was gorgeous.

Two dishes were the exception to my otherwise flawlessly executed dinner:

3rd Course: eel
Eel
benu, San Francisco

The Pork Belly – which was just a bit tough on my cut – was one-note in flavor, and over-salted. It had no personality whatsoever.  A complete throwaway, it was the weakest dish of the evening.

The Eel was conceptually interesting, but tiring after the second bite. The thin strip of eel had been piped with avocado purée, wrapped in a thin sheet of feuille de brick, and deep-fried.  It was extremely greasy; it tasted like a bad churro. The Andante Creamery crème fraîche topped with lime zest and served as a condiment, however, was amazing.

I don’t want you to think that my meal was totally beyond redemption.  Far from it, there were some truly great dishes.

Risotto,” was rich, savory, and redolent with black truffles. The rice was perfectly turned, creamy and thick. It was studded with fresh kernels of corn whose milky sweetness was echoed in the sea urchins that topped the dish. It was delicious and comforting, a highlight.

4th Course: risotto
Risotto
benu, San Francisco

Other than substituting abalone for chicken, Abalone Vol au Vent was the classically French ideal. Wonderful chicken jus, flaky puff pastry, tender baby artichoke hearts – it was excellent, one of the best dishes of the night. What I especially loved about Lee’s version was the bed of tasty creamed spinach hidden beneath the abalone, and the wonderful hit of lemon that really helped brighten what was otherwise a rather heavy composition.

And the Veal Sweetbreads were excellent, not only for the handsome crust the nuggets wore, but also for the earthy, sweet carrot purée and pickles, which hinted at Asia with a coriander-spiked brine.

Both of the desserts were well-worth mentioning, especially Strawberries, which was an intense, berry experience punctuated by crunchy “buckwheat sablé.” That was excellent, a brilliant bright and light ending to an otherwise heavy dinner.

Service was coordinated and well-informed. It operated at an extremely high level for a restaurant in this early stage of its life.

I can’t deny that Lee has created a quality product. And the ability to make food delicious and satisfying is not missing from his repertoire.

But, based on this one meal, the benu tasting menu is not the type of experience I’m scrambling to re-experience.

10th Course: sweet rice sorbet
Sweet Rice Sorbet
benu, San Francisco

While Lee presents some unique twists to haute fusion, the majority of the food I saw seemed betwixt and between, unable to situate itself comfortably or confidently. It dabbled instead of committing.

Save a few courses, the meal, left me ambivalent (and bursting at the seams; portion sizes were unusually large given the number of courses on this tasting menu; thankfully, there was no bread service).

However, considering that my favorite dishes seemed to be Lee’s more classically European-based ones, I would return to try the poulet en vessie, which is offered a la carte. It looked very good (the couple next to me got it).

Given some time, I hope Lee’s food will find and develop a unique personality that I might find more compelling than I did on this visit.

To read my “notes and scribbles” about the other dishes at this meal, CLICK HERE.

benu
Executive Chef Corey Lee
22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, California 94105
415.685.4860

* A lot has been made of the interior. Maybe a little too much, in my opinion.

It’s bare. It’s simple. It looks more like a gallery than a dining room (except there is very little art – only one large, colorful print in the main dining room, and a series of three, folksy Nordic prints in the smaller dining room). Actually, it looks like a converted, half-finished high-end furniture store.

I can’t say I find it terribly attractive. But I won’t say it’s the ugly, a little cold, perhaps.  I’m visit restaurants for the food, not the decor.  As long as the decor is not intrusive or distracting to the dining experience, restaurant interiors rarely fluster me (though a beautiful dining room can enhance a dining experience). More troubling to me was the uneven lighting. Some tables enjoyed spot, track lighting, while others fade into the dark shadows, where I was unfortunately seated.

** The Benu, the restaurant’s namesake, is the mythological Egyptian equivalent of the phoenix. The bird is associated with creation and rebirth.

*** Quite a few people have, I think, aptly described the food at benu as an Asiatic version of the food Corey Lee was cooking at The French Laundry, hence the title of this post, which I borrowed from others.

**** I recognize that a rigid application of the “eight treasures rice” might not be entirely appropriate for this duck dish, as babao fan is usually a dessert.  Traditionally, the sticky rice cake (usually molded in a bowl and turned out, much like the pasta “timpani“) is layered with, among other treasures, candied fruit, Chinese red dates, and sweetened red bean puree.  But duck does often enjoy sweet accompaniments, so an adaptation might be possible.  Babao ya (“eight treasures duck”) is a more apt comparison.  The duck is stuffed with glutinous rice mixed with “eight treasures,” among which is often chestnuts, which I think was in the version at benu.

Benu on Urbanspoon

~ by ulterior epicure on September 27, 2010.

7 Responses to “review: the asian laundry…”

  1. couldn’t have said it better – my meal was basically the same and it when it starts w/ sweetbreads, you know you’re either a) trapped in a time machine or b) in for a long night. generally un-inspired, not unlike his French Laundry cooking, but probably necessitates a return in spring to see if he has fulfilled a vision.

  2. So looking forward to my rsvp there in a few weeks. Your photos are amazing & i’m glad you explained the wines pairing parts. I will make that note to self.

  3. Actually, babao ya, or eight treasure duck, is an authentic chinese dish in of itself: usually it’s a braised whole duck (savory) stuffed with sticky rice and other assorted “treasures”. Still, it doesn’t sound much like benu’s interpretation.

  4. @Al: Well, now I feel plain stupid that I failed to draw that comparison. You are quite right. I have had babao ya, and I know not why it slipped my mind. Thank you! I’ve amended the post to include a reference to your comment. Also, I think you may have helped me recall one of the eight treasures in the version at benu – chestnut, which is a common treasure in babao ya.

  5. There are several versions of Chinese babao ya (I’ve had the Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese versions). Ingredients vary, but all include an array of textures, flavors, and colors – the complex combination makes the dish. Seems like Lee’s dish might have captured the spirit of the dish in terms of color and flavor, but less so in terms of texture.

  6. hi,

    i was at benu just last week and my photos *do not* look like this. how did you manage to get such good lighting in the restaurant? i have a pretty decent camera.. a panasonic lumix dmc-gf1 with the f1.7 pancake lens.

    hoping you’ll give some advice to an admiring novice,
    michelle

  7. I’ve been aware of your post since last September, but deliberately avoided reading it before having a chance to try benu for myself. I finally did, and then read your post – I’m struck by how similar your experience was. I want to try benu again, but it seems that I may have to give them more time to find their way before revisiting.

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