“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, 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.
Dashi, summer blossoms.
Seaweeds, raspberry-bonito vinegar.
Caramelized Anchovy Gelée
Peanuts, lily bulbs, chili, basil.
Yuzu, carrots, pickles, mitsuba.
Beef Rib Cap
Crispy maitake mushrooms, lettuce, scallion, Asian pear.
Feuille de brick, avocado, crème fraîche.
Sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle.
Monkfish Liver Torchon
Turnip, onion, mustard seed relish, cherry brioche.
“Shark’s Fin Soup”
Dungeness crab, cabbage, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard.
Abalone Vol au Vent
Spinach, artichoke, garlic, lemon, roasted chicken jus.
Fermented pepper, cucumber, perilla.
Eight Treasures Duck
Sweet Rice Sorbet
pine nut puree, pine needle-infused honey.
Vanilla soymilk, buckwheat sablé, green tea.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Executive Chef Corey Lee
22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, California 94105
* 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.