Benu reports? [San Francisco]
Any Benu reports from Chowhounders?
I'm looking forward to my dinner in a couple of weeks there
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103
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/
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103
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!
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.
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...
1326 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103
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.)
• 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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2124 Folsom St., San Francisco, CA 94110
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103
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...
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103
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.)
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103
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.
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.
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).
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103