Restaurant: benu (Tasting Menu – Part 1/5)
Cuisine: New American/Euro-Asian/Pacific Northwest
Last visited: May 7, 2013
Location: San Francisco, CA (Financial District)
Address: 22 Hawthorne Ln (at Howard St)
Phone: (415) 685-4860
Transit: Howard St & New Montgomery St
Price Range: $50+
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Chef/Owner Corey Lee
- James Beard Award winning chef
- 2 Michelin Stars
- Innovative New Asian cuisine
- Pacific Northwest cuisine
- Local and global ingredients
- Seasonal menus
- A la carte menu
- Chef Tasting Menu
- Cocktail/wine program
- 48 seats
- Reservations recommended
- Valet $15
- Corkage $40/bottle (2 bottle limit)
- Dinner Tues-Sat 5:30pm-9pm
- Tasting Menu only for Friday & Saturday
**Recommendations: Tasting Menu ($180/person + optional wine pairing $150)
The name benu comes from the mythological Egyptian bird Bennu, or Benu, which relates to the phoenix or heron. They are considered self created birds relating to ideas of rebirth, resurrection, renewal, longevity, the rising of the sun, and also the rising of brilliance. Benu, or as I interpret be nu (new), is a place where old ideas are given new meaning. This is a bird that sings a rehearsed lyric rather than an improvised song. This is Chef Corey Lee’s benu.
benu. It was a plan B which turned into a plan A very quickly. Originally I had my heart set on The French Laundry, but after talking to people who had dined at both I was highly recommended to go to benu. Comparing them would be apples and oranges, but apparently benu was more suited for my tastes, and the rave testimonials had me on my toes. Almost everyone I talked to put it on their “best meal of my life” list, and Follow Me Foodie to San Francisco Round 2 seemed incomplete without it.
Chef and owner Lee opened benu in 2010, and although the style is very different from the traditional French Laundry, it pays homage to one of the founding godfather’s of French fine dining. Chef Lee worked under Chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry for 8 years and was chef de cuisine for the latter half. Being classically trained in French cooking, his 2 Michelin Star restaurant benu is an eclectic and creative mix of Asian inspired Californian cuisine. It is expertly executed with French, Asian and New American techniques.
Chef Lee is born in Korea and raised in the US, and he brings a strong sense of identity and respect for his culture to his menu. Having a natural palate and understanding of Asian ingredients and flavours helped the menu translate with ease. Even though the concepts and components were at times simple, the courses were intelligently put together.
Being Canadian born Chinese I experienced the menu very differently. I was expecting it to be more Korean influenced, but after watching Lee’s interview here, I understood why everything seemed Chinese influenced. He admires Chinese food. There is a lot of overlap in Asian cuisines, but each one is very different and unique. Many Asian cuisines draw from Chinese cuisine, but Chinese cuisine itself is very broad and covers various regional and diverse styles of cooking in China.
“Asian fusion” is one of the most undesirable way I would want to describe the menu, just because the word has been so misused. It carries negative associations with failed attempts of “con-fusing” Asian and North American cuisines. It is a food trend from the 90’s, and although not all of it was awful, most if it belongs in the 90’s.
The menu at benu is not “fusion”, but carefully thought out and influenced by Chef’s cultural upbringing and Asian heritage. Each course was specific to an Asian culture, which is ambitious considering almost all of his training is in classical French cuisine. However if I didn’t know, I would be fooled.
If you are familiar with Chinese cuisine, or even Asian cuisine, meaning you grew up eating food from these cultures, you will experience and relate to benu’s Tasting Menu differently. For me it was personal and at times nostalgic and even challenging. I appreciated it on another level since I had a point of reference for many dishes. Some of the dishes and ingredients would be new and “exotic” to one who was unfamiliar with traditional Chinese and Asian cuisine, so even sense of excitement varies. My excitement was more for his interpretation and ideas rather than his introduction to flavours and ingredients. Regardless, understanding the menu is largely based on cultural familiarity.
I was very surprised they even offered an a la carte menu. I expected it to be a Tasting Menu only restaurant, but being located in the Financial District I could understand the need for broader menu options, perhaps requiring less time. The Tasting Menu is the heart of benu and it could be even stronger if it was the only feature.
I opted for the 15 course Tasting Menu which more or less emulated the flow of a traditional Asian menu. It started off with a modern play on Chinese and Asian inspired appetizers and childhood snacks which I found most fun, but the rest was not overlooked. Some of the courses were very homestyle Asian dishes while others were a test of skill. An Asian chef could spend a lifetime mastering some of those dishes, so at times it was ambitious but nonetheless dedicated.
The traditional dishes respected authentic flavours, but they also made it palatable to a larger audience by removing some acquired textures and tastes. I questioned the intentions of some courses, as it is a challenge to keep the integrity of a classic dish while giving it modern flair, but overall I found a good balance although not always consistent.
The main courses were perhaps less creative (which is common of many menus), but still refined, and the desserts were less committed to traditional Asian tastes, but excellent in their own identity. The value was more in the labour intensive and time consuming execution than perhaps the ingredients, so I would have preferred more of a balance, although the meticulous work was much appreciated.
As for the room and experience, I wasn’t too crazy about the room, but it was spacious and open. It felt a bit corporate and it accommodated the Financial District context. At restaurants of this caliber I can appreciate tastefully done “theatrics”, full sensory experiences and stories to accommodate the food, but at benu it was simple and reliant on KwangJuYo custom designed porcelain. Custom made and fit for royalty dishes are not uncommon for Michelin star restaurants though, so creating a memorable dining experience exceeding the fine dining norm could have been taken further. Nonetheless, the food was the focus.
More often than not I get more excited about a meal and a restaurant when I’m actually in the moment, but in this case it was the opposite. It was a thought provoking meal I appreciated more looking back on it. I did not necessarily remember each course because of how amazing it tasted, but it was the consideration for a concept that had me intrigued.
To be honest, I did not have that toe-curling moment, but the execution, technique and development of each dish was so intense and fine tuned it was admirable. I could almost taste the determination for a third star. Although I haven’t tried benu with Chef Lee in the kitchen, the menu was well engineered, practiced, and delivered with confidence. The precision, knife skills, and attention to detail at benu I hold high in regard. It wasn’t necessary my favourite movie, but it was mindfully stimulating.
Although benu refers to the mythological bird, there were no smoke and mirrors in his menu. It was a different and refreshing change from the current “farm to table” and “foraged” themed menus. It didn’t even emphasize modernist techniques or push any molecular gastronomy, it essentially relied on traditional French and Asian cooking styles.
The concept of Asian inspired menus is commonly found along the West Coast (where it is heavily populated by Asian communities), but this bird flies to new heights. That may sound cliché, but given I am Asian, born and raised in Vancouver, and rather familiar with Asian food, I can’t say I’ve had anything quite like benu before. It was ingredient driven, but more importantly idea driven. Without a backbone and familiarity with Asian cuisine, the dining experience is limited, but the menu is still incredibly inspired and inspiring.
On the table:
To be continued…
… sneak peek…