Overworked was in town for a conference and made reservations at Benu, which happens to be one of the most talked about restaurants to have hit the San Francisco dining scene in the last couple of years. Chef Corey Lee brings a very accomplished resume most notably being the Chef de Cuisine at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s world famous dining destination in the Napa Valley. Benu also recently achieved 3-star Michelin status solidifying his place not only in the SF dining scene but really on an international level.
There is an immediate sense of simplicity and pureness from the moment you enter the restaurant. The fact that they offer an open look into the belly of the kitchen shows that Corey Lee must run a tight ship in order for him to feel confident to let the public see what happens behind the kitchen door. Although I have never been to The French Laundry, I know that Corey Lee and Grant Achatz (of Alinea, Next and The Aviary fame) have both worked under Thomas Keller. So I think I’m probably already pre-disposed to see commonalities between them. Not only are both restaurants willing to showcase the activity in the kitchen, but the space is immaculate. Clean lines every where, well-mannered staff greeting you at the front and waiting on you throughout the meal.
Similarly, the menus highlight each course with a few ingredients that still vaguely give you a sense of what you’re in store for. Again, this probably isn’t intentional, but I can’t help but see the parallels. Now on to the food.
The last time I had a 1000 year old egg, I was a kid, but I didn’t really like it so much then so I never ate it again, until now. So even though I have no real point of comparison, but I can only imagine that this egg was probably similar but refined much more in part because the ginger potage in which the egg sat was rich and satisfying.
This little bite was essentially a light wonton-like wrapper filled with pork belly and kimchi and topped with a delicately prepared baby-sized oyster. Even though this surf and turf like combination seemed odd, it actually worked very well together, but it was intriguing how I was unable to discern any of the rather distinct flavors of the main components.
You can’t see the monkfish liver in the picture. It was buried underneath a mix of green apple, yuzu, turnip and mint which brought a refreshing twist to the unctuousness of the monkfish liver. It was a quick bite that quickly and smoothly slid down my throat.
Although I give them points for the honey covered butter, the bread tasted different but not particularly interesting. It was a little too dense for my liking.
This was a celery leaf topped with a peanut and anchovy. It honestly did not sound that appealing given my aversion to both anchovy and celery but the flavor combination was pleasantly appetizing.
The Homemade Tofu was topped with some charred scallion and burdock root. Another bite which sounded somewhat underwhelming. The tofu was cold which doesn’t usually sit well with me. It wasn’t bad, but it was not at the top of my list.
This was probably my least favorite dish of the night, but not because it tasted bad. It just didn’t taste as good as I would have expected from something described as XO Sausage with Basil Curd. Instead, it really just tasted like salami and cheese. The cheese didn’t even taste like good cheese. It was a little bit sour, and I couldn’t get past how salty the salami tasted.
The Beggar’s Purse of Treasures was a delicately prepared dumpling with more of a meaty slant than seafood one. The wrapper was a little thicker than your average dumpling. I would have preferred something a little less doughy, but it definitely seemed like great pains were taken to prepare each little pouch of goodness.
The Jellyfish and Ham seemed reminiscent of the cold plate appetizers that you often get at Chinese banquets, but the caviar and dollops of horseradish took it in a more refined direction making it taste much more French than Asian. I particularly liked the shrimp chips, as I usually do, but the dish as a whole was well done.
This was a Feuille de brick filled with eel (what I like to call an Eel Taquito) and served with a creme fraiche and lime dip. The wrapper was made from phyllo dough. I really liked this dish. It was surprisingly light for being deep-fried and the eel filling was wonderful.
The squid was very finely diced and presented on top of a large rectangle squid ink tapioca chip. This is not exactly what comes to mind when I think of salt and pepper squid, and maybe because I had an idea in my mind, and this didn’t seem to bring that particularly flavor profile to life. It wasn’t bad. It was essentially a very tasty shrimp chip, but I do wonder if it could have been executed or maybe even named differently.
I was definitely looking forward to this. As a take on Shanghai dumplings, this was excellent. The wrapper was thin yet sturdy enough to keep the flavorful broth locked in, so adding lobster to it just really made this soup dumpling dish one of the highlights of the meal. I am so glad they gave us two.
This was essentially a fancy take on head cheese with what I assume includes pork, lentil hozon and bonji. It wasn’t terribly memorable. As a cold dish, I felt like it was supposed to be a palate cleanser before starting the parade of proteins which would represent the main entrees.
This dish reminded me a lot of the miso-flavored cod dish that is commonly served at many high end Asian restaurants. The presentation is more notably western with the use of hearts of palm, pine mushroom and pine nuts, but it really tasted like one of the best versions of “misoyaki” because it was so moist and flavorful. The maple glaze added a sweetness that is much more subtle to the taste buds.
The roast quail was served with lettuce heart and mustard. Although I can’t say I’ve had a lot of quail in my life, this was definitely tastier than I would have expected from such a small bird.
Again, the beef rib steak portion was small but the dish was well-executed. The meat was tasty and extremely well-cooked and the addition of the crispy mushrooms, pickles and radish added some nice texture and balance to end the main courses.
I was quite excited as this was one of the dishes that I heard a lot about. Obviously since shark’s fin is not banned, there has been a lot written about this particular execution of Shark’s Fin Soup. It definitely did not disappoint. I don’t know exactly what they did to replicate the texture and look of shark’s fin but along with some crab, egg white and Jinhua ham, I really felt like it was a very elegant albeit Westernized version of shark’s fin soup.
Like every course, the dessert procession of the meal consisted of several dishes. First off was a Shiso flavored sorbet with white chocolate and persimmon. Considering there were a lot of individual ingredients that I don’t particularly like, I found this dish rather refreshing.
The White Sesame Cake was served with a salted plum sauce. I don’t recall too much about it, but I think I was pretty much past full by this point.
Although all high end restaurants worth their weight in Michelin stars has to end every meal with some petit fours, I rarely ever care for them. It’s probably due to my lack of a sweet tooth but I think by the end of the meal, where I’m usually stuffed, sweet chocolates is really the last thing I want to end my meal with.
All in all, there were 19 courses many of which were surely unique and creatively executed but inevitably, there were a few which were good but did not taste particularly memorable. And given that this review is a couple of years over due, you have a good idea of what was really etched in my mind. The menu does slant sharply Asian but there is a highly elevated level of technique and artistry that you don’t ever expect to find any Asian restaurant. I know some people usually Asians aren’t as impressed with Benu, and I think it is because they’re comparing it to your everyday Chinese or Korean restaurant, so this feels notably overpriced. However, I think you need to look at Benu in the context of other fine dining, molecular-esque restaurants and for that, I commend Corey Lee for what he is doing. It is a challenge that you don’t see any other chef attempting but where Corey Lee is surely succeeding.
22 Hawthorne St.
San Francisco, CA 94105
PAFO Ratings for Benu:
Ambiance 4 stars
Food 4½ stars
Overall rating 4½ stars