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Benu reports? [San Francisco]

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Any Benu reports from Chowhounders?
I'm looking forward to my dinner in a couple of weeks there

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Benu
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

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  1. The 14-course tasting menu is $160 with the matching wine pairing (excellent) at $110.

    2 Replies
      1. re: lizziee

        I won't have time today to write up a report, but there are some pretty good pix of the tasting menu dishes on Flickr for the curious -- http://www.flickr.com/photos/49295916...

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        Benu
        22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

    1. The synopsis: Not transcendent, too technical, and ultimately no soul....

      The long version:

      Benu has been the most anticipated restaurant opening in recent memory. Without a question. I was pretty thrilled to get one of the first seats on its second night. Unfortunately, it was a 9:00 seating so I knew it was going to be a late night considering I was going in for the full tasting menu. Walking up to the restaurant, there is an array of light beaming from the kitchen as large panels of glass separate the kitchen staff from the street-side gawkers. An austere and elegant courtyard welcomes the visitor, with the interior of the restaurant clean and similarly somber in its muted, beige and cream tones. For future bloggers, be warned that the ambient lighting late in the evening is not conducive to great natural photography so I apologize for the darkness of the images.

      Sesame Lavash – served in a specially carved box which separated out the dark, crispy thin rectangles. Black sesame and salt was the predominant flavor and it would be a precursor to the evening that sesame was one of the most-used Asian ingredients.

      2008 Alzinger Grüner Veltliner – Showing a tremendous amount of mineral and spicy qualities, I enjoyed this wine tremendously, but found it a bit too strong with too many citrus components for the following two dishes.

      Thousand-year-old quail egg, black truffle, ginger, scallion – Our first taste and somewhat disappointing. I could not detect any black truffle and the extremely texture of the egg masked its flavors. Moreso than any ginger or scallion, it was the flavor of citrus oil with predominated.

      Tomato, cucumber, dashi, summer blossoms – Perfectly spherical tomatoes with an explosive Molecular “tomato” that displayed a bright squirt of tomato essence. Very clean flavors with the dashi providing that Asian influence of austerity and balance. A nice, light start without overpowering the palate right off the bite.

      2006 Juliusspital Wurzburg, Escherndorfer Silvaner Trocken – in a Matteus-shaped, this delightful wine produced a faint nose of clean, cut grass and fresh apricot. Bright and acidic on the entry, layers and complexity developed in the mouth. This was a fabulous wine which worked considerably better with the next two courses than the previous pairing.

      Mountain yam, bottarga, lime, radish, perilla – The mountain yam crunched like fresh jicama in the mouth and yet blossomed to produce a gooey, gelatinous texture. This was an experiment in the lovely juxtaposition of textures and flavors as the crisp wine cut through the film in the mouth produced by the yam. The bottarga was sliced wafer thin and added a salt component with the perilla a hint of mint and the radish a touch of spice. All the flavors were reserved and slightly muted, were very well conceived and executed.

      Caramelized anchovy gelée, peanuts, lily bulbs, chili, basil – In this dish we are working into stronger flavors, expanding the tasting menu with more contrast, both in textures and components. While both the gelée and the peanuts provided salt, the difference in smooth and hard crunch was balanced out with the bright lily bulbs, chili and basil. I especially liked the wine pairing with this course as well.

      2007 Catatt Sancerre – I was surprised to experience so much cat piss in the aroma. Something I usually get from a Sauvignon Blanc moreso than a Sancerre. This was a wine with huge amounts of lemon rind and acidity that ultimately was very successful with the first of its pairings and less so with the second.

      Veal sweetbread grenobloise, cauliflower, parsley, lemon, caper – Very tender morsels of sweetbread were fried to give a rich, crunchy exterior. The citrus component in the wine played well with the moderately-utilized lemon in the grenobloise. I was especially pleased with the amount of capers but believe my dining companion found them too overpowering.

      Haiga rice porridge, abalone, lemon, sesame – In this regard, this was the first truly unsuccessful dish of the evening. The congee was so overwhelmed with candied lemon as to be a distraction. That citrus was compounded with the Sancerre and reflected in the wine with monumental imbalance. I found the abalone, cut into perfect squares, to be shockingly tough and chewy. The first dish to go completely unfinished.

      Hitachino Nest, Japanese White Ale

      Eel, feuille de brick, avocado, crème fraîche – Hard to detect in the photograph, the four-inch fried feuille de brick was wrapped in a monogrammed slip of paper and nestled in a specially designed platter, with a groove for the savory cigar and a small vessel for its dipping sauce. The crème fraîche was studded with fleur de sel and while the brick-wrapped eel was fun for the crunch factor, again these were muted flavors and no avocado tastes could be detected whatsoever. The Japanese white ale was a great companion beverage, giving the “bar food” mentality a heightened sense of fun with fried bits and beer elevated to haute cuisine. Surprisingly oily, but still fun.

      2007 Prinz Riesling Spatlese Jungler – Lovely aromas of green apple, with a sweet entry. I can see why the sommelier chose to pair with the fake foie gras.

      Monkfish liver torchon, apple relish, turnip, ramps, sorrel, mustard, brioche – Creamy and rich, the ankimo itself was perfectly prepared, complete with a thin gelée. Regrettably, the accompaniments were less than successful with brioche that was too thick and sweet, overpowering the delicate flavors in the liver and the mustard sauce, so creamy and potentially enticing, becoming strident next to the wine and completely diminishing the flavors of the liver. The apple relish showed brunoise sophistication, but failed to complement either the mustard or muted ankimo tastes.

      At this point in the evening, my companion and I conferred that thus far, we were extremely underwhelmed with the evening. There was perfection in the execution, unquestionably. We could see the brilliance and vibrancy of the Asian flavors and the progression that the tasting was taking us, but we had yet to have any singular “wow” dish, although several of the wines were certainly impressing us. Precision dominated yet I could detect no soul or feeling. There was no “chi” or movement of emotion being experienced from the consumption of the food. I wanted and was hoping for transcendence and there was none to be found. But onward…

      1977 Blandings Madeira – An amazingly delightful Madeira showing both rich caramel notes with balanced acidity and depth.

      “Shark’s Fin Soup,” Dungeness crab, cabbage, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard – Finally, a “wow” experience. Coming from the subtle muted flavors, this was an explosion of flavor. The soup consommé was a mixture of earthy mushrooms, crab broth, and the faintness expression of the ham. We were delving into depths of umami and complexity, expanded with the elegance of the truffle custard. Truly an inspirational dish and, ultimately, the highlight of the evening.

      2002 Kiuchi Dainjon Vintage Sake – Intense flavors in this heavy-bodied, full and rich sake.

      Sea urchin, potato purée, corn, celery – After the strong and rich flavors of the soup, I was frankly shocked at the mediocrity of the sea urchin. Expecting the progression of the tasting profiles to continue, we were thrown back into muted flavors but worse than that, textures that were all too similar to define exactly what we were consuming. My dining companion, in taking a large taste, immediately asked, “Where is the sea urchin?” I could detect it, but because it was puréed out as smoothly as the potato and corn purées, the three melded together in a malange of blandness. The only differing texture component were crunchy bits nestled under the pillow of puff; small brunoise of what I assume was either celery and/or corn. It was honestly hard to tell. Neither of us finished it and we both left almost half in the dish.

      2007 Franck Balthazar Cornas Syrah – Here again we had one of those amazing moments of experiencing a phenomenal aspect of the evening; a wine with such a gloriously rich and complex aroma that I would have been happing snifting and tasting this wine for some time. Levels of mixed peppercorns, dark woodsy fruits, and distinct rich herbs in the nose, a surprising bit of tannins in the mouth, this was a wine I will seek out for personal consumption.

      Pork belly, sautéed lettuce, onion, spiced sugar, cherry and black olive sauce – An interesting offering of a pork belly which was tender and rich but again, an odd confluence of tastes which were offered that I didn’t understand. On the edge of the plate was a sprinkling of spiced sugar and yet caramelized sugars produced from the grilling of the meat and the sweetness of the balanced and grilled onions, and the sugars from the cherry and black olive sauce should have been sufficient. Yet when drawn together, the only flavor which came to mind was that of Hoisin sauce so I have to confer that this dish was an attempt at deconstructed Hoisin, but why? It was all so sweet as to be distracting. The flavors of the pork and lettuce alone were quite sufficient, even with just a touch of the cherry/olive component, but brought all together in one taste was too cloying and saccharine. The pork was so full of flavor all on its own, demonstration superlative execution and it was the amazing wine which successfully cut through all the sugars in the dish, making it enjoyable.

      2005 Château Potensac Medoc – Contrasting to the tannic Syrah we just finished, this 40% merlot, 60% cabernet blend was its antithesis, with a rich, smooth level wine

      Beef rib cap, Bluefoot mushrooms, mizuna, pine needle honey – Hidden under the mizuna and not detected in the photograph was a small triangle of sausage to accompany the sous vide beef slice. The meat was extremely tender and rich, heightened with the wine pairing. The sausage was not very tender, but I appreciate the earthiness of the mushrooms and darker flavors in the sausage in contrasting with the rare beef.

      2005 Jo Pithon Late Harvest Chenin Blanc - A deep yellow colour, it has a distinctive nose that is deep and sweet. The palate is concentrated, dense and complex with notes of dried apricot and layered spice.

      Melon, sake, mint – Not a great pairing with the wine, we were much happier with this dish on its own as a palate cleanser. With micro leaves of mint placed atop the spheres of assorted melon, there was an infusion of mint as well in the broth that heightened the excellence of the dish.

      Strawberry sorbet, buckwheat shortbread, vanilla – Again, we somewhat marveled at the choice of a wine pairing. Here again we have this bright fruit composition with the buckwheat shortbread crumbled around the sorbet. There were also macerated fresh wild strawberries of exceptional quality but it was an ingredient-driven dish moreso than one of execution and development of flavors. Texturally, I was ready for something with more tooth to it; an actual tuille cookie to bite into or a morsel of cake. We felt as though we just had two relatively simple fruit offerings with neither depth not

      Chocolates – four chocolates were served in a specially carved box presentation which was artistically very interesting for me. The chocolates were a crème catalan with white chocolate, milk chocolate walnut, dark Valhrona chocolate, and a sesame nougatine. We shared these with a tea service and while they were very good quality teas, I would have appreciated the ability to pour my tea into another service pot or a strainer to remove the leaves; once a single cup was poured, the pot continued to brew, leaving me with a remainder that was too bitter and over-brewed.

      The cost of the tasting menu was $160 with $110 wine pairing. To their credit, we asked to split the pairing as neither of wanted to drink that much alcohol, but I believe we were given larger pours than a single pairing. The service was exemplary with one minor mis-step of having our still water replaced with sparkling later in the evening. I’m not a fan of sparkling as it tastes salty to me. We were the last ones out at 1:00 a.m., having sat down a few minutes before 9:00.

      The meal was memorable for its execution and precision. I can understand and appreciate the development of Asian flavors which were being offered, however I feel there was such a preponderance of style over substance to have become a distraction. I wanted an epiphany and that “religious experience” which I have occasionally come to hope for, is far too rare and makes me come to believe that I am truly jaded when it comes to haute cuisine.

      Really dark pictures: http://feast-blog.com/benu/

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      Benu
      22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

      10 Replies
      1. re: CarrieWas218

        Great report! We have a reservation for Aug 25 -- I thought I would give them a chance to settle in.

        A while back there was a menu posted on their website and the a la carte dishes were very attractive. I am getting a bit underwhelmed by tasting menus -- because often as you say in this case they seem to emphasize style over substance and lack soul, etc... So, if I can avoid the temptation of the tasting menu, we may focus on the a la carte menu.

        No menus seem to be on their site now. When the menu was posted, there was one dish (damned if I can remember it now) that required advanced ordering and was for 2 persons. I will call a few days in advance and find out what options are. But if anyone knows what this dish is, please let us know!

        1. re: Thomas Nash

          Thomas, you are thinking of Poularde cooked en vessie - served in 2 courses which was on the à la carte menu.

          1. re: CarrieWas218

            Yes. That sounds like a winner... I will try to pre-order it.

            1. re: Thomas Nash

              FYI, the Poularde requires a 3-day advance notice and can be served in 2 or 3 courses depending on the number of guests. Looking forward to trying it. Should be good.

              1. re: Thomas Nash

                Thomas, since you have some time before your res, you might want to special order the chicken cooked in pig stomach at Hakka Restaurant to have a point of comparison. We had a little trouble with the translation (stomach, intestine, bladder?) when the waiter told us about it during the first chowdown, so I'm not exactly sure which pig innard would be the vessel. But it sounded interesting, for sure.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Yes! I have been thinking of trying the Hakka dish for quite some time, but it will have to wait until September. One stuffed pig's bladder (or stomach, which is maybe what Hakka uses) is all we can take in August. I did order the dish for next Wednesday at Benu and will report back after we recover from the dinner.

                  Poularde en Vessie is a Fernand Point dish, probably his riff on some earlier French extravagance. Point was Bocuse's teacher and taught many of the great French chefs of the last half of the 20th C. The dish is one of those extreme virtuosity French triumphs, like Lievre å la Royale which are described in Bocuse's cookbook and others, and which we have no prayer of replicating in a home kitchen. Or the pressed duck at Tour d'Argent...

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                  Royale
                  1326 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Benu
                  22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                2. re: Thomas Nash

                  On Monday a call from Benu. At first I thought it was yet another reservation confirmation. But after a few seconds I realized that the male voice had said "This is Corey Lee, chef at Benu".

                  We spent 10 minutes discussing how we would like our Poularde en Vessie presented on Wednesday. How many courses? Three. With the tasting menu? I said that might be too much and I was thinking of ordering off the interesting à la carte menu. Corey suggested we avoid a soup since one of the courses would be a soup. We agreed that he would pick other courses for us. No dietary restrictions. Anything we dislike? No, we are omnivores. Anything we particularly like…

                  Our table had our menu on printed cards when we arrived and it looked most interesting!

                  (Some not so great iPhone pictures may be found on my site. I didn't feel like bringing a big Nikon in to take pictures or to use a flash - and it was quite dark. In fact, the lighting seemed to get dimmer for the dessert courses so there are no pictures of those.)

                  http://nashpix.com/Benu/

                  The menu:

                  • tomato, cucumber, dash, summer blossoms
                  A marvelously light summer festival of flavors. The pink globe in the picture was amazing - involving some food chemistry that was explained but I can't really repeat. It is a light tomato broth that is dropped into an alkaline? bath that creates a skin - so you can pop the whole thing in your mouth and there is a burst of cold, refreshing tomato as you break the skin. The other vegetables were in a cucumber broth. Altogether this dish was in the revelatory class.

                  • big fin squid, squid ink pain de mie, summer squash, olive oil
                  Beautifully textured thick pieces of squid, with a black crisp pain de mie contrasting the texture and soaking up the light sauce. (This dish is on the à la carte menu.

                  • spaghettini, karasumi, tomato, garlic, chili
                  Karasumi is a Japanese garam - dried, fermented? mullet roe. It gave the pasta a beautifully balanced flavor. One of the best pastas we have had in some time. Actually this went against the usual al dente dictum and was quite soft. Delightful. (This dish is on the à la carte menu.

                  )

                  • poularde cut en vessie served in 3 courses
                  The vessie was brought out to show us. A soccer ball sized balloon. I didn't dare touch it for fear of a disaster. One picture (actually 2 pictures) is worth a thousand words… Then the 3 courses:

                  • breast, turnips plum, tetragonia
                  Oh my! A beautiful bar shaped piece of tender, supple breast with an amazing soft texture. (The only way I can describe the texture: touching the meat had the soft not quite springy feel of a steak just before it is perfectly rare.) The flavor was light and (as Julia famously said) "chickeny". A few turnips and plums and raw? strips of tetragonia spinach balanced the flavors and textures, as did a slightly sour plum jam. I suspect that this dish will stay in my memory for many years - and that is my criterion for great cooking (like the truffle soup at Bocuse…)

                  •leg, porridge, black truffle, egg, green onion
                  And this may even have exceeded the first course. A big surprise. Expected a plated leg, but out came a bowl of porridge! The porridge was a special rice "polished carefully 8 times so that the germ stayed attached. Very healthy." The hell with healthy - this was dramatic East-West fusion cooking. It was a Chinese/Korean style congee-jook cooked with the broth from the vessie and pieces of the leg and truffles. Maybe what a great Korean grandmother cook would make, if she had a poularde en vessie and truffles… Maybe the best of the evening and will be remembered a long time.

                  • bouillion, abalone, beech mushrooms, cabbage
                  A very dark intensified broth was poured over 2 perfect abalones, mushrooms and cabbage. Delicious and beautiful. I was thinking about the Chinese traditional presentation of a soup course after 2 other Peking duck courses. But here were abalones to surprise us. I wonder if they were actually cooked in the vessie?

                  Poularde en vessie is often credited to Ferdnand Point but it is a classic of French cooking that dates back a very long time. At the presentation, your French great-grandmother would recognize Corey Lee's version. But after that … the influences from a Korean great-grandmother and Japanese kaiseki chefs and modern sous-vide cooking were apparent. This is quite an extravagant triumph. Definitely worth a journey and ordering in advance.

                  Then the desserts:

                  • blackberries, douglas fir meringue, candy cap sablé, natural cream
                  Beautifully presented on a black dish (sorry no picture -- too dark). The light meringue had a woodsy aroma counterpointing the berries and the crunchy candy cap sablé. A spectacular dish. (I have grumbled about the fashion of using candy caps in ice cream and other desserts just because they smell desserty - they are great in risotto - , but Corey Lee changed my mind about that. They were perfect here.)

                  • soft chocolate granache, feuille de brick, banana ice cream, Bourbon caramel, ginger
                  Again a beautiful presentation. Perfect chocolate, wonderful texture plays. A second fine dessert.

                  The sommelier and service were all excellent. They were clearly thrilled by the en vessie which Corey Lee does differently every time based on his advanced conversation with the guest. The wine list (which can get into 4 digits) includes a number of half bottles, which allow you to select appropriately for your menu. We had a Schloss Shönberg Riesling Kabinett which was ideal for the first courses, and a Ramey Cabernet from Healdsburg with the poularde. With desserts, glasses of Tokay Aszu 5 Puttenyos (to honor my grandmother who came from those Hungarian vineyards).

                  The charge for the vessie was $125/person. Total bill before tip was $400. Excellent value compared to other places of this calibre.

                  I am not going to do a direct comparison with Commis or Saison (both excellent) or Coi (also excellent). The only place in the area (other than maybe the FL, which I have given up on because of the reservation nonsense) that one could compare is Manresa.

                  The poularde certainly was as exciting, or more so, compared to some of the best dishes we have had in the last couple of years at Gagnaire's Twist and Robuchon in Las Vegas (best places in the US). Maybe Benu does not quite attain the relentless intensity and revelations of those two greats. Corey Lee is very young and shows the ability to get to their level. You would have to look very hard around the world to come up with as exciting cooking as Benu. If you want to understand what fusion cooking should be (not just dumbed-down Asian for American tastes), Benu is the epitome of a great new East-West merging of tastes and techniques.

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                  Manresa Restaurant
                  320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

                  Commis
                  3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

                  Saison
                  2124 Folsom St., San Francisco, CA 94110

                  Benu
                  22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                  1. re: Thomas Nash

                    Thomas - curious to know if the dinner was $400 per person or something else? We've been considering doing the tasting menu at Benu and substituting the poularde for a portion of the menu, but if the supplemental charge is $125/person on top of the $160/person, that might be a bit steep for us...

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                    Benu
                    22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

            2. re: CarrieWas218

              Too late for me to edit here - but I *know* Sancerre is made with Sauvignon Blanc... Just too little sleep when I was scribing that part!

            3. Here are some brief impressions based on a single visit:

              With the Boulevard people having launched Prospect as a less stuffy, more urban, contemporary place, it should, perhaps, come as no surprise that a TFL alumnus would create something like Benu. No table cloth, black table surfaces. A really thick carpet helps ensure a hushed atmosphere.

              The dining room is surprisingly small if you've been to Hawthorne Lane or Two. Turns out Benu only took over a fraction of the space that made up those previous restaurants.

              Not surprisingly, it's beer and wine only. (Usually a misguided attempt by a chef to prevent diners from ruining their palates with pre-dinner cocktails. Luckily, there are plenty of workarounds for this folly in the immediate neighborhood in the form of bars that serve hard liquor.)

              Food: We had well over half of the a-la-carte dishes on the menu and they ranged from good to excellent. We didn't necessarily have a complete agreement on the quality of the individual dishes, but they seemed in line with what you would expect from an ambitious kitchen run by a former TFL chef. Everybody really liked the beef entree, though. Looking forward to our next visit to see how everything has evolved.

              Service was very smooth and there were only a couple of minor delays between courses. Impressive for a new place. They clearly have the ambition to be a top-notch restaurant and they are executing well. The question, of course, is whether they will live up to people's sky-high expectations. (And the second question would be whether this kind of pricey, but super labor intensive place, could ever yield a decent return for the people who invested in it.)

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              Benu
              22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

              1 Reply
              1. re: nocharge

                It took a bunch of visits but I have finally warmed up to this place. The food has only gotten better and better. More important than the technical perfection is the fact that it's delicious. The service is stellar if unhurried -- this is not a place where you will be in and out in half an hour. The staff is smooth, friendly, and knowledgeable. My only reservation concerns the ambience. If I'm going to be sitting down for 3-4 hours, I'd like the environment to be warm and comfortable. Maybe like Kokkari or the Dining Room. Benu comes across as somewhat cold and while the chairs may look stylish, they are not ideal for a long dinner. Still, the food and service are compelling enough that I'll happily overlook any issues with the ambience.

              2. Does anyone know if walk-ins are accepted or if it is reservation-only

                8 Replies
                1. re: vulber

                  According to their Open Table entry, they accept walk-ins. However, given that they supposedly are booked full until October, I wouldn't try it. They don't have a bar. But if you want to take your chances and it doesn't work out, there are a number of decent dining options in the area.

                  1. re: nocharge

                    I was thinking of showing up at 5 and waiting for a half hour...not a good idea?

                    1. re: vulber

                      Vulber, please do and report back. It would be interesting to know if they are reserving any tables for walk-ins or if, in fact, the reports of them being 100% booked are true.

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        it probably won't be for a few weeks, but i definitely plan on doing so.

                        if they continue to be successful, i anticipate a raise in prices soon, and i want to get in before that

                        1. re: vulber

                          You are too late. The tasting menu went from $120 to $160 in four or five days before they even opened. :-)

                          1. re: Paul H

                            And the tasting menu price will change based on the ingredients used so it may go up at any point.

                            1. re: sf_duke

                              They increased the price of some of the entrees by $2 compared to the menu that was published on sfgate a couple of days before the opening.
                              http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/paolo...

                              1. re: nocharge

                                Good to know. Thanks for the heads-up.

                2. My wife and I somehow scored reservations for Friday night. We were quite excited to try the place and expectations were high. I can’t really fathom the pressure Corey Lee must have been feeling. Our expectations were exceeded and we had a fabulous meal. Overall, we were pretty blown away. The flavors were interesting, varied, and crisp. Each dish gave us something new and delicious. Perhaps we had a few quibbles here and there, but no dish disappointed and we felt the quality/value ratio was quite high (we did a la carte--3 dishes each plus a shared dessert). We would definitely go back (though perhaps next time for a special occasion and not just on a whim).

                  The long report:
                  Before we get to the food, a shout out to the service. Pierson, our captain, was wonderful and answered our myriad questions. Michael, the sommelier, also answered all our questions and spent a good deal of time talking to us, which was nice given we were just ordering a few glasses of wine and nothing too fancy. The rest of the service team was great as well—just enough attention and the right amount of description of the food. You knew what you were eating but didn’t have to sit through a lecture for each course.

                  We opted to go for the a la carte menu as there were a few items that struck our fancy and the tasting menu seemed like a ton of food. Pierson told us that the portions were small and the menu set up so that each person could order an appetizer, a pasta, a fish and a meat. We decided to each order three dishes instead of four and that turned out to be the perfect amount of food.

                  The amuse was a dashi broth with a tomato water sphere (the only bit of molecular stuff I saw in the meal) and some tomatoes and cucumbers. It was a really refreshing taste, almost like essence of gazpacho.

                  For the first course, my wife ordered (we shared everything) the lobster bouillon which had a béarnaise custard, some tarragon, some veggies and a few pieces of perfectly cooked lobster. A spectacular dish. The most lobster-y broth I have ever had and the custard was a great way to make the dish more substantial but not heavy. I ordered the sweetbreads. These were perfectly cooked with a delicious lemon caper butter sauce with some cauliflower florets. We love sweetbreads and these did not disappoint.

                  For the second course, my wife ordered the risotto with black truffles and sea urchin. This was delicious and rich. There was some corn in the risotto which was gave a nice hint of sweetness. My only issue was that the truffles overpowered the uni a bit, but I therefore just had to enjoy the uni on its own. I ordered the sablefish. The plating of this dish was remarkable. It looked like a miniature forest thanks to the beach mushrooms. The fish was cooked perfectly and the sake broth was delicious.

                  For the third course, my wife had the lamb, which was 2 lamb chops (1 bone) that were marinated for a day (according to Corey) in citrus, apple and some other stuff and then pan sautéed. They were extraordinary—perfectly cooked, great lamb flavor. It came with nice slices of garlic sausage and some perfect potatoes as well as some succulents--who knew those were edible and tasty. I ordered the beef rib cap. The chef swore this was not done sous vide, but I am not sure how they got these pieces of steak to be perfectly medium rare all the way to the edge with just a millimeter of perfect char. The bluefoot mushrooms on the side were great. My only issue was the beef sausage it was served with was sort of tasteless, or at least overwhelmed by the rest of the dish.

                  For dessert, we shared the blackberries. I can’t describe this well, but it involved berries, some cream, Douglas fir meringue (which was delicious and the second time pine was used as an ingredient), some cream and a crumble made with buckwheat and candy cap mushrooms. I was quite surprised with this dessert in that many times desserts at a place like this go over the edge of creativity and just aren’t satisfying. This was both creative and delicious. And importantly for us, not too sweet. A nice way to end. (besides the chocolates which were also delicious).

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                  Benu
                  22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                  1. Had the opportunity to experience Benu and it did not disappoint. From the exceptional level of service from the wait staff to the flawless execution in techniques and flavors from the kitchen, every area of the restaurant was covered. The dining room was unlike any other in the City with the Egyptian cotton carpet flooring absorbing the noise in the dining room. From the moment we entered the courtyard into the foyer to our table, we were always escorted by someone.

                    Now to the important part...the food. We ordered from the a la carte menu and pre-ordered the poularde en vessie (young hen cooked in a pig's blatter). All I can say is WOW!!! The texture was absolutely delightful with wonderful but delicate flavors. Every dish was perfectly executed. The portion size was typical for this caliber of food and expected, but well worth it. The carnaroli risotto incorporated all of my favorites...risotto, uni, corn, and black truffle. All the ingredients worked wonderfully together. And to top it all, the uni was Japanese sea urchin...major plus!!!

                    A huge thank you goes out to all the staff at Benu for a wonderful evening. Definitely will be back assuming I can secure another reservation sometime soon. The feel of the dining experience is what you make of it. Some were formally dressed in suits and ties. We were more casual (sans jacket) and just enjoyed the experience. The wait staff was very personable without compromising on service. Very refreshing and something that will bring me back for more. Great food, fantastic service, comfortable atmosphere, and a wonderful staff.

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                    Benu
                    22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: sf_duke

                      Thanks for everyone's reviews. I have reservations this Saturday and am trying to determine whether to go with the tasting menu or a la carte and order the Poularde cooked en vessie. You think they could possibly incorporate that into the tasting menu? Or is that overkill? Thanks in advanced.

                      http://fattyshaddy.blogspot.com/

                      1. re: klaw

                        The Poularde and the tasting menu will definitely overkill you! Pick one or the other and come back if you think it is worth it.

                      2. re: sf_duke

                        What a revelation! Fantastic service and most of all, the food! Wow, if you took the French Laundry before it became a cliche and gave the menu a Northeast Asian sensibility, you would get Benu. I was at Lincoln in NYC last Sunday and it was a disappointing experience. There was simply a lack of confidence in the execution of the food and service. Benu was quite the opposite. The tasting menu built up from delicate flavors to an umami joyride. The meal was capped by an invitation to tour the kitchen with Chef Corey Lee.

                        Here are the photos:

                        http://www.facebook.com/jewelofrussia...

                        -----
                        Benu
                        22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                      3. i'll add my two cents in there. Would love to hear someone criticize or agree or disagree with details of my assessment.

                        In a nutshell, benu met the (impossibly high) expectations i had. right now it is the best i've had in sf proper (price adjusted) - a bit better than coi, quite a bit better than quince. Compared to the the 2 and 3 star michelin-meals i've had in tokyo, kyoto, paris, la, vegas, nyc (about 15), i'd say it ranks right in the middle. pretty awesome for somewhere a 10 minute cab ride away that has been open less than a month.

                        This place has even more potential, but isn't there yet: top #5-10 us, top #10-20 worldwide, #1 chinese/korean outside asia, maybe anywhere. i'll probably go back to try the ala carte menu in a few months, but not until i've returned for manresa's ala carte at least two more times, and tried both saison and commis.

                        I can't put my finger on it, but it lacks soul the same way masa in new york does -- this will improve with time, just not sure how much. I hope the economics / marketability allow it to embrace even more chinese and korean influences in unique ways, and become less a french laundry spinoff (disclosure: i've never been to french laundry or per se, but have the book, and have heard many reports.)

                        (overall favorite)
                        - wine menu was very affordable - awesome.
                        - the dishes played off each other and the meal featured symmetries: dashi to shark fin soup, tomato cucumber to melons. buckwheat bread to buckwheat dessert. this was great, wish there was even more.
                        - lots of chinese influence in dishes - awesome. wish there was even more.
                        - loved the silverware and one unique lidded dish. wish there was even more korean or chinese art on the dishes.

                        (overall in-line)
                        - they should include a kim chi somehow in a dish. Perhaps garnish the beef course with 2 or 3 different kim chi's.

                        (overall least favorite)
                        - tiny chunks of seafood. the menu is expensive, they could be more generous with seafood ingredients.
                        - with there were more seasonal vegetables and fruits, and not just as garnishes
                        - i don't like eating dishes with tweezers. 7 kinds of melon isn't impressive if half are the size of a pea. i'd rather have two three perfect bites of melon than 7 tiny ones.

                        (dishes favorite)
                        - buckwheat crackers: perfect. best 'bread' ever.
                        - shark fin soup: excellent, maybe better with more shark fin. the truffle is okay..
                        - conjee: i think it would be more interesting with 7 spring herbs instead of chicken, or just more abalone flavor instead of chicken flavor.
                        - dual fish appetizers were great.

                        (dishes in-line)
                        - eel: creme fraiche overpowered the whole thing. better with a lighter puree.
                        - beef: give sausage more chinese influence. it was just german - felt out of place.
                        - chocolates: i want the same thing as my neighbor. don't make me split them. no unity to their flavor. improve or leave out. symmetry of a richart tasting. perhaps chocolates flavored with some of the spices or fruits used in the meal.
                        - thousand year old egg - give me more. it is too small. prepare 1000 year old egg two or three ways, perhaps.
                        - monkfish liver: loved its inclusion on the menu. fix the brioche: it is big, clumsy, and terrible. make it small and perfect like masa in new york. bread is cheap, not to mention used sparingly in the meal: make it count. i didn't think it was any better than the $4 ankimo i get regularly at ino, but that's okay i guess.

                        (dishes least favorite)
                        - strawberry dessert: strawberry quality was terrible - they didn't taste of fresh strawberries. i don't know if it was because they were cooked, but the strawberries i gorged on from real foods the night before were infinitely better. I liked the inclusion of buckwheat, but didn't like the texture of it. perhaps if it was bigger chunks it would have been better. i was hoping for the buckwheat-soy cream cake they show on their website.
                        - potato corn uni: uni chunk was too small. could make it a vegetable dish like arpege does with their 'hummus'.
                        - veal sweetbreads: the meat inside could have been anything. if you are going to use a rare meat, i think you should serve it so you can appreciate its flavor and texture. otherwise, good. they could have included a 1000 year old egg tempura and an abalone tempura instead to increase links.

                        (service favorite)
                        - overall people were very friendly helpful and professional - better than quince, a little less good than manresa.

                        (service least favorite)
                        - my only real complain is they didn't offer to call us a cab at the end of the night. we were standing on the street corner across the street from a strip club for a good while trying to hail a cab.
                        - the pacing between courses was uneven and slow at times, but i didn't really care.

                        (decor)
                        - modern is good -- if there is enough art and natural tiny gardens and flower arrangements to focus on. there weren't. add more flower arrangements and wall art.
                        - make use of their cement garden out front. we should wait for a cab here, and maybe be given a treat.

                        -----
                        Benu
                        22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Dustin_E

                          Have to say, I don't get how this places so high in your rankings based on this report: I counted 12 dishes, of which you thought 4 were good (and that included much of the seafood, about which you noted portions were too small)., 5 were so-so, and three were bad. So, how does that get to be best in SF and one of 5 to 10 best in US? Are your rankings based on your experience or based on your expectations of potential?

                          1. re: susancinsf

                            My initial report from last Saturday was about 2000 words, so if you care to read the whole thing and see pictures, please feel free to check it out at http://fattyshaddy.blogspot.com/2010/...

                            We had the tasting menu ($160) and shared a wine pairing ($110) for my wife's birthday
                            and basically had the same menu that everyone has referenced so far, so I thought I'd just sum up my experience quickly.

                            Following the bill, we toured the mammoth, gorgeous kitchen where Chef Lee took a few moments to chat with us. Given the stress and expectation of his new venture, he was extremely cordial and gracious for our patronage. We've met other well known chefs before and have never felt so welcomed in a kitchen. His attitude and warmness made us appreciate this dining experience even more and he really portrayed a down to earth guy who does what he loves. After taking pictures of the restaurant outside, he even waved goodbye to us as we strolled past the kitchen window back to our hotel.

                            There were certainly high expectations of Benu given Chef Lee's resume and the evening did not disappoint. For a two week old establishment, our service staff was superb, one of them being our server when we dined at Coi. Our primary server was kind and informative, humoring our many questions and genuinely enjoying his job. He wasn't bother by our picture taking (with flash) and provided many insights to the sense of family that was being built at Benu. Our sommelier (formerly at Quince) was equally wonderful, sharing his deep knowledge and passion of our pairings without any judgement to our lack of understanding. He even cleared dishes and folded napkins throughout the evening.

                            Although I felt the first few offerings were less than stellar (not a big fan of the quail egg or anchovy gelee), still can't believe that congee is on a tasting menu, and was underwhelmed by the monkfish liver torchon, I have never experienced a meal with so much creatively and finesse that introduced innovation and imagination through such a unique integration of ingredients. Chef Lee's combination of preparing classic dishes perfectly, the veal sweetbreads and beef rib cap, to his avant garde approach to the eel, shark fin soup, and sea urchin potato puree made the dining venture a memorable, delectable and gratifying affair.

                            -----
                            Benu
                            22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                             
                            1. re: susancinsf

                              thanks for the reply susaninsf. You're right - I have labeled them differently now as favorite, in-line and least favorite -- i mean relative to the rest of the meal. so it should average out to "so-so" or in-line. also, i comment to say how i think i would like it better - i definitely don't mean i didn't like it as it was, though. i'm more curious if any other chowhounders have similar tastes or thoughts.

                              It definitely isn't 5 to 10 best in US -- only has potential to be.

                              i thought the two seafood dishes at the beginning were great - as tiny appetizers served together (like they were). the uni in the potato puree and the abalone in the conjee were too small. a la carte dishes looked like they featured more uni / other seafood.

                              I think it is ever-so-slightly better than coi, but they are different enough the comparison is not a great one (coi really focuses on vegetables). Truth be told, i'm not a huge fan of any > $75 meals in sf proper, and only manresa in the bay area i return to regularly. i've had a fantastic chez panisse downstairs meal, and then a much less spectacular one. so instead of returning to a favorite, i've been trying a lot of new ones. anyway, I really hope over time benu grows to become tied with manresa for my bay area favorite. in the grand scheme of things, i think it is really great -- just has tons of potential to be an worldwide-favorite, which i don't think it is just yet.

                              thanks again!

                              1. re: Dustin_E

                                of the really expensive, really highly regarded places i've tried, this is where i'd put benu:

                                arpege
                                kanda
                                tsukiji yamamoto
                                manresa
                                urasawa

                                bartolotta
                                le bernardin
                                masa (nyc)
                                pierre gagnaire (paris)
                                tawaraya ryokan

                                kanamean nishitomaya
                                kikunoi honten
                                benu <=================== right here.
                                coi
                                chez panisse
                                daigo
                                hiiragiya ryokan
                                ledoyen
                                acquerello
                                alex

                                gary danko
                                kappa
                                jai yun
                                quince
                                marinus
                                kaygetsu
                                la folie

                                but i think it probably has potential to grow to be in the #5 to #7 range...

                                1. re: Dustin_E

                                  Got my Benu review up. We did an a la carte tour a couple days ago.
                                  http://www.foodnut.com/597/benu-resta...

                                  Some interesting highlights..
                                  His old boss Thomas Keller is a partner in this new venture and has a wine locker by the front door.
                                  There is a chef’s table for 2 in the kitchen.

                                  Must gets:
                                  carnaroli risotto, sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle ($22) was the first reference quality dish. The creamy risotto was very well done, and filled with bits of corn. Lots of well-prepared fresh sea urchin lined the surface. We had a lot of sea urchin recently at nearby Ame that just paled when compared to this. This good-sized dish anchored our pasta course.

                                  sablefish gratin, cabbage, rice, beech mushrooms, spicy pepper, Asian pear ($26) was the superior fish of the evening with tender, creamy textures, logical combinations, and a well portioned size. Beautiful, yet tiny beech mushrooms.

                                  sea scallops Emmanuelle, endive, grapes, verjus, almonds, brown butter ($24) were excellent. Both sauteed scallops were cooked perfectly and included caramelized crusty tops. One scallop was chopped in two, while the other scallop was encrusted with almonds. The crunchiness of the nuts along with the scallop’s texture made for very memorable bites. The 2 sauces were nice but unnecessary to enjoy the freshness of the scallops.

                                  beef rib cap (tender cap of the ribeye), bluefoot mushrooms, mizuna, pine needle honey ($32) was one of the better dishes at the evening. Very tender beef cooked to a nice juicy medium rare and accented nicely with the exotic mushrooms. The Japanese Mustard gave this dish its Asian flair.

                                  dry-aged “pré salé” lamb rack, garlic sausage, potato confit, chanterelles, lemon peel, coastal succulents ($30) was an excellent dish with a perfect level of saltiness. High-quality lamb possessed no gaminess and came in two good-sized pieces. It had been marinated for a day in a citrus, apple solution. The ’sausage’ was more of a high-quality deli thin cold cut of lamb.

                                  Cheese dessert course – specially made and selected by Andante Dairy, Petaluma ($16) was excellent, featuring top caliber cheese. We choose samples of all five, which seemed to show a slant toward softer cheeses. Two goats milk cheeses (one with rosemary, the other with thyme), two cows milk cheeses (entralto, Montgomery’s Cheddar), and one combination (cadence). Our favorites were the goat cheese selections. The Monterey Jack was superb, something that is rare in this category. The warm gluten-free mini baguette was superb.

                                  Misses:
                                  spaghettini, karasumi, tomato, garlic, chili, Parmigiano Reggiano ($16) was asked a bitter aftertaste that mystified us. Even our waiter couldn’t really pin down the culprit. Pasta doesn’t seem like a strong suit. Why not add a Asian noodle dish?

                                  duck breast, gizzards, carrot, leek, mustard, pumpernickel ($28) had one fairly rare chunk chewy of duck covered with a strong sauce. The included mustard didn’t really add to the dish either.

                                  -----
                                  Andante Dairy
                                  Petaluma, CA, USA, Petaluma, CA

                                  Benu
                                  22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                   
                                   
                                   
                          2. Atmosphere: Was the 'inspiration' here art gallery or unfurnished apartment?

                            Food: Wonderful flavors in the monkfish torchon, scallops, rib cap. The duck breast a complete failure. Chocolate ganache was satisfying, and the chocolates a bit of overkill. With respect to the chocolates, what is the long term use of that precious (and clearly expensive) box which limits the size and shape of confection offered?

                            Less effusive reviews benefit all.

                            Intentional? Contrived? Fascinating? Yes.

                            -----
                            Benu
                            22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: noBS

                              excellent! would love to hear more of your less effusive reviews.

                            2. Sincere thanks to Cary who graciously gave me his reservation last week. I tried to make my own reservation previously, but opentable said it had no availability for the next two months. Benu was also kind enough to increase the seating from 2 to 3 the day before although we had to arrive at 6. This worked out perfectly, because we had the tasting menu which took 3.5 hours to finish.

                              The tasting menu differed from the online menu in that the sea urchin came on risotto, the abalone was not on rice porridge, and the melon, sake wasabi dessert was replaced with a sweet rice sorbet and pine needle infused honey. No amuse bouche is offered.
                              The parking valet attendants were very helpful and guided those of us who did not drive inside to the restaurant. The dining area is surprisingly small, and the whole restaurant is very well designed and decorated. There is no bar. I almost sat on one of the little tables in front of the benches in the waiting area as they reminded me of ottomans.

                              Service was exceptional. Although the servers were not dressed in suits, like at Gary Danko and Quince, their service was just as impeccable. Napkins got folded whenever anyone left the table, and water was quickly refilled. When one of us had to move her car from her office to the valet and we informed the servers to bring us the next course anyway, they brought a plate cover to keep the food warm.

                              For me, the best dish of the tasting menu was sea urchin with risotto, and coming in second was monkfish liver, but I'm a foie junkie anyway. Deep fried eel in a paper wrapper was great both in taste and texture.

                              The chef's riff on shark's fin soup could not outdo and made me crave the original version. I liked the truffled custard at the bottom of the soup but could not differentiate the taste of the ham due to the saltiness of the soup. The veal sweetbread was okay, but I prefer it sauteed instead of deep fried.

                              The most surprising dish to me was the beef rib cap which looked like thinly cut slices of tender beef jerky. I still wonder how they were able to char each beef slice, but still have the beef so tenderly cooked.

                              The strawberry dessert was better than the sweet rice sorbet, but the taste of the pine needle infusion was both distinct and very memorable. As I focused on my coffee and sampled one of the tasty walnut paste filled chocolates, the next thing I noticed was that the remaining seven pieces of chocolate had mysteriously and quickly disappeared. My co-diner’s response? That’s what you get for taking so long.

                              My Korean co-diner noted that some of the tasting plates reminded her of Korean dishes. She thought the best dish was the caramelized anchovy gelee, which reminded me of firm ocean jello (that's a good thing). She also liked the pork belly which was surprisingly tender and basically melted in your mouth.

                              She thought the worse dish was the geoduck clam. Like me, she also thought the shark's fin soup was not that great although she liked the fresh crab.

                              The surprising thing about the tasting menu is that each dish is deceptive in that it does not have that much food on it. We all thought we would need to hit another restaurant after we completed three dishes. Sometime between dishes six to eight, we all thought we were going to explode, and would not make it to dessert.

                              Now, the question is would I go back? Most likely not for the tasting menu, but probably for the a la carte menu if there is an ingredient I like. To put it into perspective, I've been to Fleur de Lys and Acquerello for their tasting menus, and I would definitely go back anytime and pay again for their tasting menus. I would place Benu's tasting menu in the same category as Masa's, La Folie and Gary Danko. While it's very good, I would not want to pay for it again, but I just had to try it.

                              -----
                              La Folie
                              2316 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109

                              Gary Danko
                              800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

                              Acquerello Restaurant
                              1722 Sacramento St., San Francisco, CA 94109

                              Masa's Restaurant
                              648 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94108

                              Benu
                              22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: bejiita

                                Thanks for the report.

                                Has anyone queried them about their vegetarian offerings or if they can do a vegetarian tasting menu?

                                1. re: Cary

                                  Other diner stated that for her, the best dishes were the sweetbreads, abalone vol au vent, and eel stick with creme friache. Her best dessert was the sweet rice sorbet.

                                  She thought the worst dishes were the tomato dashi, geoduck, and anchovy gelee.

                                  -----
                                  Benu
                                  22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                              2. Had a very fine meal there on saturday. The food was very adventurous and the combinations worked. Not a transcendent experience like the Laundry or Fat Duck, but certainly exceptional. None of us liked the room at all- cold without any soul. The tables and place settings, menus and serving plates all very tastefully done.
                                The staff has not hit their mark yet- they wandered into the room unsure which table got the dishes in their hands and we were given the wrong dish on a few of our courses.
                                Ordred a la carte, 5 courses. Brought 3 bottles of wine and were charged $40 corkage for each.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: keithgg

                                  $40 is kind of steep, how good is their winelist? I haven't heard much about it.

                                2. Am going there tonight...can anybody tell me what the attire is? Do I need to wear a coat and tie?

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: oaklandguy

                                    No jacket is required, but you would probably feel out of place if you dress extremely casually.

                                    1. re: oaklandguy

                                      You would be fine with dress pants, button down collared shirt, dress shoes, and no coat or tie.

                                    2. Went last week for the first time and it was a really elegant experience. But if I had to look back at it, I would say it's like when you see something soooo perfect that you wonder if it's real or fake or if it has substance. I'm still not sure about it although I have to say all the dishes had real flavor and tastes along with being extremely beautifully presented. I think what I was looking for and felt I didn't get were any "wow" moments. There's not a whole lot of molecular gastronomy other than your basic gels and "faux" ingredients.

                                      I would say that it's nice to see a fine-dining restaurant that blends in some nice authentic Asian flavors. Being Chinese, the flavors were more comforting and familiar rather than surprising. Maybe for non-Chinese diners they might be more excited about the flavors being different.

                                      I really liked the garden in the front. The dining room is what you'd expect in fine dining place, really sparse and minimalist. Every detail about the dinnerware seemed specifically designed for the plate.

                                      I did the tasting menu ($160) but opted out of the wine pairings. Service is great although didn't feel they really knew the ingredients of the dishes. And later that night I had an oolong tea that was so fragrant and I asked my server where it was from, hoping for a name of the variety and the importer and instead he told me China. But the thing is, virtually all oolong tea comes from China or Taiwan, which is like China. So the sophistication of the level of understanding of the servers need more educating.

                                      For the food, there were some really nice dishes like the pan-fried abalone and eel feuiile de brick. I also liked the beef the way it was nicely prepared. The faux shark fin soup was nice with the black truffle custard, although I felt the faux shark fins texture was masked by the added vegetables. It should have been spotlighted by itself.

                                      Here's a more detailed step by step review with photos: http://singleguychef.blogspot.com/201...

                                      Sidenote: I mentioned to my friend that I thought it was a bit odd that the kitchen doesn't really send out an amuse bouche or give parting gifts like I've experienced at other tasting menus. I did feel like I got enough food with all the courses we got, but I guess it makes you feel more special when you get tiny stuffs before or after that's not included in the price of the tasting menu. I felt that aspect about Benu was a bit lacking, making the dining experience feel more like a business transaction than being welcomed into a home. What do you guys think?

                                      -----
                                      Benu
                                      22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: singleguychef

                                        Singleguychef, I'm trying to decide whether or not to bring my (Chinese) parents to Benu - they really love trying new and interesting things at upscale restaurants, and I've had a few experiences where they've been disappointed when a preparation or flavor was too Chinese (as in, something they could get for 1/20th the price in San Gabriel Valley). Did you feel that the flavors and preparations were refined/interesting/different enough from the dishes that inspired them?

                                        -----
                                        Benu
                                        22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                        1. re: daveena

                                          Hmm, that's a tough one. I will say that Benu changes its menu seasonally and it's been awhile since I visited, so I can't comment on what might be on the current menu.

                                          But if he's continuing to do the trend I saw, which was a lot of Asian influences in minimalist fashion, then I might venture to say your parents might not be impressed because the familiarity may make them think they could have gone to Chinatown and get something less fancy but more satisfying. At least, I know that would be my mom's reaction since she's not easily impressed by overly dressed dishes.

                                          For example, I think my mom might be interested in a meal at Commis, because while also minimalist, it's creativity is different enough to bring her surprise. But if she went to the tasting menu at Benu at the same time I went, I think she wouldn't have that many surprise, and in some ways think the chef was being pretentious. Again, you probably know your parents better than me and how they react to high-priced meals. If they like fine dining and being pampered, then Benu is an option. But if they like surprising new flavors, the slant toward Chinese cooking may not be much of a departure.

                                          Again, this is based on my visit when it first opened. I think the threshold question I would ask of any recent diners is: "Does any current dish have ginko nuts?" If any current dish does, then I would say Chef Lee is still working in the Chinese influences. ;-)

                                          -----
                                          Commis
                                          3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

                                          Benu
                                          22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                          1. re: daveena

                                            As a Chinese person, I didn't think the Chinese influences were that noticeable. For example, unless they had told me that "faux shark fin soup" was a take on shark fin soup, I would never have made the connection. To me, the cooking seemed to have more korean influences than chinese or japanese -- in a "Jewel in the Palace" kind of way, if you or your parents are familiar with the korean soap opera.

                                        2. If anyone wants to try Benu, don't be put off by the early reports of the place being booked for months. There are tables available on OpenTable for tonight, and for now it looks like you can get in almost any time you want.

                                          -----
                                          Benu
                                          22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: Paul H

                                            Isn't it telling that the over-hyped restaurant of the year has last-minute tables available?

                                            1. re: CarrieWas218

                                              Well they do have cancelations at the last minute. I know The French Laundry has at times put tables on Open Table at the last minute.

                                              -----
                                              The French Laundry
                                              6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

                                              1. re: CarrieWas218

                                                it's pretty common for popular restaurants to release tables at the last-minute

                                            2. First, thanks to the great reviews on this thread that contributed to our decision to dine here - it was an enjoyable experience. Thought I would add a post about what we had for dinner at benu last Saturday:

                                              Pictures here: http://insert-food.blogspot.com/2011/...

                                              Thousand-year-old quail egg, ginger, potage
                                              A traditional flavour combination, reworked with a European twist - this dish would prove to be the first of many that reflected Corey Lee's background at The French Laundry. The almond potage had a nice, silky mouthfeel and the ginger meringue was pleasantly spicy with the cured egg. A good, if rather safe, start.

                                              Caviar, bone marrow, lobster

                                              Homemade tofu
                                              Abalone, chrysanthemum, moss
                                              Fantastic - one of the best dishes of the evening. The silken tofu was absolutely outstanding, and the chrysanthemum broth was light-bodied but assertive in flavour. I enjoyed the texture of the abalone slices, which were very nicely cooked.

                                              Oyster, cabbage, pork belly, fermented pepper
                                              The braised pork belly was wrapped in cabbage, and a single oyster was mounted atop it. This was then topped with a veil of gojuchang gelée. Here again, a reinterpretation of familiar flavour combinations. I loved the taste and texture of the gojuchang veil, but thought that there was too much protein (delicious as it was) for the poor little cabbage leaf.

                                              Xiao long bao - (1) foie gras, (2) shrimp & black truffle
                                              Sadly, quite a disappointment. The fillings were fine - in fact, I likened the shrimp & black truffle to an Asian version of Trio/Alinea's "Black Truffle Explosion". However, none of us could get over the texture of the dumpling skins - they were very thick and gummy, overshadowing the insides.

                                              Unagi, feuille de brick, crème fraîche, lime

                                              Monkfish liver torchon
                                              Turnip, cucumber, salted plum, brioche
                                              One of the smoothest and most delicious torchons I've ever tasted - this was the second high point of the meal. It was served with a beautiful mini-slice of warm, toasted brioche (not pictured). I absolutely loved how the various accoutrements played with the creamy, musky monkfish liver. In particular, the bitter notes from the radish and the bright cucumber were excellent foils for the unctuous torchon. To me, a dish that demonstrated the kitchen's potential when everything clicks.

                                              Wild sturgeon, black trumpets, cauliflower, ginger

                                              White sausage, black bread, XO sauce
                                              You don't miss something until it's gone - that about sums up how I felt about the XO sauce. While benu's house-made sauce tasted great, I just felt like something was lacking because it was strained to a perfectly smooth consistency. I wanted bits in my sauce! That aside, the broccoli florets were a very nice touch, bringing in some vegetal notes that paired well with the savory sausage. The squid ink wafer was also a contrast with the spongy sausage.

                                              "Shark's fin soup"
                                              Dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard
                                              Everyone at the table agreed that this dish was a bit of a misnomer - the soup itself was terrific, it just wasn't anything close to shark's fin soup. Calling it such was a disservice not only to the original, but to the bowl in front of us. Rather, this was a splendid black truffle soup - the consomme was rich and fulfilling, and the custard brought out the umami flavours. The crab was meaty and perfectly cooked, but I struggled with the overly chewy texture of the faux shark's fin.

                                              Poularde cuite en vessie

                                              Breast
                                              Celery, black trumpets, green almonds, date
                                              As the post title would suggest, this was the highlight of the meal - one of, if not the best piece of breast meat I've ever eaten. It was covered with a celery glaze and served with various celery preparations on the side. I applaud the kitchen's bravery in putting out such an unabashedly celery-flavoured dish, but I felt there was just a bit too much of it for me. The chicken jus was beautifully savory, an elevated Thanksgiving gravy. We were also lucky to catch green almonds in season, and their subtle tang and fleshiness were nice accompaniments.

                                              Leg
                                              Shrimp roe, English peas, spring onion
                                              Another beautifully cooked piece of the poularde. The peas and spring onion bulb were also perfectly prepared. However, the shrimp roe sauce was overly salty, diminishing my enthusiasm for the dish. Visually, I enjoyed the cues from the dichotomous plating of the food - whereas the breast was served on a completely white canvas, the dark meat was presented on a deep black background.

                                              Milk-fed baby lamb
                                              Spring vegetables, parmesan bouillon
                                              For some reason, the thing that strikes me most as I recall this dish is how beautiful the asparagus was - it was painfully delicious, and I could've eaten a basket of them in the intensely savory broth. The lamb itself was faultless, served as a loin stuffed with lamb mousse, and some house-made lamb fennel sausage as garnish. A single borage flower added a nice colour element, and it's fresh taste served as a micro-palate cleanser.

                                              Pear-braised beef
                                              Lily bulb, celery, shiitakes

                                              Fennel sorbet, rhubarb, sesame
                                              The strongly-flavoured sorbet was amazing, together with the fluffy white sesame meringue and crunchy black sesame crystals. I thought the rhubarb paste was overly saccharine and gooey in consistency.

                                              Banana, burnt acorn, ginger
                                              Three ingredients prepared in multiple ways. The banana ice cream was fantastic - this kitchen apparently knows its way around frozen products. Ginger was present in the form of two delicious foam dots and a rather unappetizing gelée (left foreground). The burnt acorn took form as a praline (left background), a custard (cylinder on right), and a bread pudding with the banana (under the ice cream). A wonderful dessert with obviously successful combinations, but somewhat incongruous with the season - who thinks of burnt acorn in the Spring?

                                              White chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate

                                              Mignardises - La Forêt chocolates

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: shouzen

                                                Nice photos! In reading your review, I felt like you had the same reaction I did, which was that it was a very refined and interesting meal, but some consistency issues ... a bit in the food, a bit in the service. I agree it seems Lee is still refining his vision. I'm surprised he attempted xiao lung bao. It is the "it" food at the moment in Chinese cuisine, but so many wonderful authentic versions out there, Benu's version is bound to draw poor comparison unless he knows he can really deliver on the basics like the thin wrapper.

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                                                Benu
                                                22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                              2. Roughly how long is the tasting menu at Benu and if you get a late booking i.e 9-10pm has anyone had them "rushing" the service etc?

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: Dapuma

                                                  Kind of an old thread but I thought I'd mention that at an event last evening I was getting a book signed by Ruth Reichl (such a lovely woman!) and she mentioned that she had one of the best meals she'd had in recent memory at Benu on Wednesday night. I was dying to ask for more details but there were lots of others in line behind me :-).

                                                    1. re: dordogne

                                                      Thanks, wasn't up yet when I posted! I understand she was being taken to Bao Bei and Hawksworth in Vancouver. Something tells me they won't be any competition for that meal.