Restaurant: benu (Tasting Menu – Part 2/5)
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.
Sometimes it is about timing, and benu is in its prime but it hasn’t yet peaked. This fine dining restaurant is still considered a baby, but it is already training for the Olympics.
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.
Talking with Chef de Cuisine Brandon Rodgers, as James Beard Award winning Chef Lee was attending the James Beard Awards in New York.
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 the 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.
Charles E. Williams’ signature, author and founder of Williams-Sonoma, on their famous pillar.
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:
Thousand-Year-Old Quail Egg – 5/6 (Excellent)
- Potage, ginger
- The highlight was the Thousand-year-old egg which I’m already familiar with and love.
- It was the concept I couldn’t get over though and it is a dish I will remember.
- Although I grew up eating Thousand-year-old eggs, I’ve never had a Thousand-year-old quail egg.
- It is not actually aged for a thousand years, but it is a preserved egg and it is most often made with duck eggs.
- Thousand-year-old chicken and quail eggs exist, but they are rare.
- These preserved eggs are often called Century eggs and it is a traditional Chinese delicacy, although not expensive these days.
- There is a traditional and modern method of preserving the eggs and I don’t know anyone making them from scratch. Most often they are bought at the store.
- The traditional method uses a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice husks. This plaster is coated around the egg and the egg sits for months until it is preserved.
- The modern way is easier and quicker, but I’ve never done either.
- The fact Chef Lee made Thousand-year-old eggs was impressive enough alone. He did an excellent job with it too.
- In upscale traditional Chinese restaurants in China it is common to see preserved duck eggs with pickled ginger served as an appetizer.
- Another common Chinese preserved egg dish is Century Egg with Pork Congee, and this is chef’s modern interpretation of it.
- Century Egg with Pork Congee is one of the most popular congee choices for the younger generation, so this was a bit nostalgic for me.
- Congee is Chinese comfort food and traditionally it is eaten for breakfast.
- It is rice porridge often served with savoury and preserved condiments.
- It is inexpensive, so congee is considered “peasant food”, but chef served it with potage.
- Potage is a thick and creamy soup often considered as French-style porridge due to its consistency.
- This warm potage tasted like a sweet caramelized onion soup with a mild raw onion spice in the aftertaste.
- I could also taste some celery and perhaps potato used to make the potage and it was aromatic and layered with flavours.
- The texture of the potage mimicked a Chinese congee, but it was smoother and more desirable to Western palates.
- A traditional congee would be flavoured with either pork bones or dried scallops (expensive congee is made with dried scallops).
- I could also taste the pickled ginger at the end which tasted like the pink ginger served beside sushi.
- The Thousand-year-old quail egg tasted authentic and just like the ones from the store, except saltier and it had no ammonia taste.
- I know it sounds dangerous, but the Century Egg has a mild ammonia taste which is acquired. It is safe to eat though.
- The black part is firm and jelly like and the yolk is creamy and rich.
- The yolk was a bit too salty, so he could lessen the salt in the brine for such a small egg, but I still enjoyed it.
- I could appreciate the idea and technique in this dish and it paid respect to Chinese traditions and flavours.
- It was modern and ambitious, but well thought out and I loved it as the first course. It was a bold and black start.
Buckwheat Lavash – 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)
- With toasted nori and sesame
- This “complimentary bread” was a fun Asian inspired childhood snack.
- I still remember bringing packs of seaweed to school to eat during recess.
- This is a childhood favourite for many Asian kids growing up with immigrant parents.
- The “bread” was executed as nori, but the nori was used as the seasoning. It was a neat idea.
- It was a light and crisp single layer of dehydrated buckwheat lavash, which is a soft and thin Persian flatbread or Middle Eastern cracker.
- This was not soft and much thinner than traditional lavash, but the seasonings were Asian and a bit Middle Eastern.
- I could taste ground black sesame seeds, nori, and various spices that were not very obvious.
- The nutty flavour was most dominant, followed by sweet and then salty, but I could have used more seasoning.
- The flavour was reminiscent of black sesame paste found inside Chinese glutinous black sesame balls.
- I didn’t think “seaweed” in flavour, but the texture and idea had “packaged seaweed snacks I used to eat in elementary school” all over it.
- They were not really addicting because of their flavour, but just fun to eat because of the memories.
Oyster, pork belly, kimchi – 4.5/6 (Very good-Excellent)
- This was time sensitive and I had to eat it in one bite so it was hard to pick it apart.
- There were so many flavours, temperatures and textures coming at once and I’ve never had anything like it. Well there is the the “Hot Potato” from Alinea, but this was still very different.
- It was an interpretation of a shao mai (pork and prawn dumpling) served at dim sum.
- The ‘phyllo cup’ was almost like a fruit roll up, but it was a dehydrated (?) and crisped up kimchi gel sheet.
- The kimchi component was the modernist twist and it used gelatin and agar-agar to execute.
- It allows for a slower flavour release so I could taste the kimchi in the beginning until end.
- The whole thing was warm and inside was a small raw (?) oyster which popped like a bubble and filled my mouth with briney oyster juice.
- I think the oyster was raw or gently poached but it was hard to tell because it was sitting on top of warm pork belly.
- The pork belly was also stuffed inside and it was minced up and the size of rice.
- It was tender, fatty and rich and I wasn’t expecting it to be minced up like that.
- In shao mai the pork is executed as a meatball, so this texture was a surprise.
- There were different layers of savoury meat and seafood flavours and the inside was creamy and moist, but the outside crisp.
- There was a slight spice from the kimchi shell throughout, but it had the tendency to stick to the teeth.
- It did not stick from being sticky, but from being a dry gel sheet.
- The kimichi shell had the same texture as a baked wonton wrapper.
- It is not a texture I really like because it tends to be too brittle and disruptive, but gel sheets are often like that.
- It was still a very good hors d’oeuvre and an unique combination of ingredients I would have never considered combining.
Anchovy Salad – 4/6 (Very good)
- I remember many Asian kids (especially Taiwanese) bringing fried anchovies as a snack to school, but I was not one of them.
- Traditionally these fried anchovies come in packages with fried chilies and roasted peanuts, but I wasn’t introduced to them until after elementary school.
- However, that version is a traditional Chinese way of enjoying fried anchovies and this was more inspired by Korean cuisine.
- Myulchi Bokkeum (stir fried anchovies) are a popular side dish in Korea. It is ideal with beer and replaces the American peanuts.
- I am a huge fan of anchovies and the natural umami they have, so the more the merrier.
- These caramelized and fried anchovies were generously sprinkled over a scoop of ancho chili Yukon Gold potato salad and fresno chile.
- Fresno chilies are a bit spicier than jalapeños, but similar. It wasn’t that spicy, but there was heat.
- Each chili was curled to the shape of the anchovy and placed carefully on top for the perfect pop of colour and amount of heat.
- The crispy anchovies are likely marinated in sweet soy, rice wine and sugar.
- They are sweet, salty and nutty from added sesame oil and sesame seeds to finish.
- They taste like salty sweet fish jerky and I love them for texture and flavour – think Asian Crunch N’ Munch.
- The potato salad had some hard boiled eggs so it was a bit like an egg salad too. Asians love egg salads and eggs in general.
- There were also finely minced celery and cucumber and a bit of ancho chili for heat.
- The potato salad was almost mashed and it was quite starchy in texture with a touch of mayo to bind everything together.
- I loved the flavours of the dish, but the potato salad component seemed a bit basic and homestyle for this caliber of restaurant.
- Feuille de Brick, crème fraîche, lime
- With all due respect to the custom made dishes, but this reminded me of an ash tray especially with the “feuille de brick” cigar, or even cigarette with the benu white wrapper.
- I wasn’t sure what chef was trying to do here.
- At first I thought Chinese “Yan Yan Sticks and Dip” (a childhood snack similar to Pocky sticks), and then I thought maybe fish n’ chips or a modern spring roll.
- It was a very thin strip of eel wrapped up in a tight cigar (feuille de brick).
- The feuille de brick tasted like many layers of egg roll wrappers.
- It smelled savoury and a bit oily and it was darker in colour.
- I’m not sure if it soaked in too much oil during the frying process or if it needed an oil/oil temperature change.
- There was some green onion and eel inside and the inside was a bit gelatinous which is typical of eel’s texture.
- The crispy thick wrapper was so thick it was a bit chewy too.
- It contrasted the fatty eel skin well, but I was hoping for more eel meat flavour and texture.
- It was very rich and a bit greasy, but delicious with the crème fraîche accented with lime salt.
- The crème fraîche was phenomenal and it made me feel like I’ve never had crème fraîche before (far from the truth).
- It was very savoury crème fraîche with a pop of lime salt and the texture was of whipped marshmallow cream.
- It was thick like mayo with a good tang and acidity which cut through the heavier eel stick.
- There was a nice build up of Asian inspired snacks, but this was the only one without an obvious point of reference.
To be continued…
… sneak peek…
Monkfish Liver – Apple, green almond, black olive, brioche
Chicken Velvet – Black moss, chrysanthemum
Asparagus – Shrimp roe mousseline, morel mushroom, walnut, pea shoots
That’s a nice take on congee by Chef Lee…one could use a Portuguese Caldo Verde as a base also. The oyster,pork belly, kimichi hors d’oeuvre looks grand…I could eat a lot of those. The eel dish is a plaything, I opt for monkfish liver. The sablefish custards looks like a take on Chiwanamushi. the food is beautifully presented. Yea, this more to your tastes than the French Laundry. I mean: pork belly, monkfish, sable fish, eggs…wait where’s the duck confit ?