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Benu 02-26-11

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  • Ridge Feb 27, 2011 03:26 PM
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We ate at Benu last night for a birthday celebration. It was a mixed bag. I found the atmosphere there very un-relaxing. The wait staff were courteous but were ultra formal and looked miserable. No one smiled or showed any kind of enthusiasm. I wanted to stick my tongue out at them and yell “Lighten up!”. It’s one thing to have a formal atmosphere at a restaurant but here it’s taken to the extreme and it felt out of date. If I am going to spend a lot of money on a meal I would rather go someplace slightly more relaxing.

Onto the food:

We had the chicken cooked in pig’s bladder which you special order. Special ordering the thing is an ordeal in itself. It was just ok. It was served to us in three courses. First the breast was served. It was incredibly moist but kind of bland. Then the leg meat served with pork belly. It was ok but completely unmemorable. I was surprised at how small the portion of dark meat was. Then a consume. Again it was just ok. I couldn’t believe the rave reviews I read about this dish.

Next we shared some courses. All were good to excellent, although the portions were very small and the prices very high.

We had:

Sea cucumber stuffed with a seafood filling. An interesting and flavorful dish.

A fried Abalone dish with cauliflower. This was very good.

We ordered two pasta dishes which I thought were the highlight of the meal although the portions were small:

Acorn pasta with iberico ham. Really delicious. The flavor of the ham and pasta was very satisfying.

Risotto with uni. I have had uni-pasta combinations at other restaurants and they tend to never be as good as you hope. This one was amazing and I wish I got it as a main course instead of the chicken.

For dessert we ordered olive oil cake and a chocolate pudding dish. Both were surprisingly mediocre. After dessert they brought out some chocolate truffles from Napa that were excellent.

Overall I left feeling like the place was trying too hard to be the French laundry: super expensive, too many waiters, tiny plates, food saturated with as much butter and cream as possible. I was expecting the food to be a bit more bold and the Asian flavors to be a bit more prominent in the food but it seems like the Chef is going for a more restrained refined style. He would be well served by trying to break away from the Keller mold. Perhaps our experience would have been different if we ordered the tasting menu but we left underwhelmed although the pastas were quite memorable.

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Benu
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

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  1. We did the tasting menu recently and enjoyed it but there is a certain lack of soul which permeated the entire experience. Best thing I ate all night was a monkfish liver torchon with turnip, apple, and brioche. Another highlight was a piece of pork belly, topped with cabbage, fermented red pepper and an oyster. Fatty, briny, earthy, and spicy. Impressive. A faux 'shark fin' broth spiked with crab and ham floating over a firmly packed black truffle custard. And a great braised piece of beef rib with pear, endive, dates and watercress. Passion-driven precision seems to be the kitchen's style. And it's as precise as can be. Just wanted some loose ends. Benu's food says, 'we're here to meet your very high expectations and can successfully pull off the French Laundry style with Asian-oriented ingredients.' Mission accomplished but nothing more.

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    The French Laundry
    6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

    Benu
    22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

    2 Replies
    1. re: ChewChew

      So given that this is the former chef de cuisine of French Laundry, which would seem to indicate that his conceptualization and execution would not be any worse than when he was at French Laundry, why was it still impossible to get a table at French Laundry? Does this logically prove that French Laundry was more hype than substance? Itzhak Perlman is equally impressive on the violin whether he's performing in one concert hall or another.

      1. re: mikeh

        But if you stick Mr Perlman in a barn, the acoustics won't be as good. The French Laundry is an established international destination with 3 Michelin stars. That can't be replicated overnight.

        Aside from that, it sounds like the qualms voiced about Benu--too uptight, service formal to the point of making diners uncomfortable--match my qualms with the French Laundry. The only thing exuberant about the food was the amount of artisanal butter incorporated in each dish and number of mignardises at the end. It was a great meal, but it wasn't an experience I have a visceral need to repeat.

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        The French Laundry
        6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

    2. What did it cost?

      5 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        $160/pp for 15 or so courses. Another $110/pp if you want wine pairings.

        1. re: ChewChew

          I have only been to French Laundry once and really enjoyed it although the food was heavier than I like. My meal at FL was definitely more memorable and consistent than at Benu. The pistachio po de crème I had at French laundry is something I will never forget. I love Asian food and had high hopes for Benu because it sounded like well executed food with an Asian flair. And I would say that the uni risotto was just spot on and amazing. Unfortunately the rest of the meal was more uneven. For comparison, last fall I had a very memorable meal at a similar though much more experimental restaurant, Baume in Palo Alto. I meant to write a review of that meal but time got away from me (long story short: wonderful meal. Favorite dish was deconstructed thai red curry prawn. My only complaint with Baume was that some of the molecular gastronomy things seemed unnecessary) Compared to Benu the service and atmosphere were warmer at Baume. Overall the food was more memorable and interesting at Baume.

          Baume
          http://www.baumerestaurant.com/

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          The French Laundry
          6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

          Benu
          22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103

          1. re: Ridge

            Ridge,
            Thank you for your great and observant comments.
            Perhaps people can keep in mind that FL has been in business quite a long time, but Benu is really brand new. I wonder how Benu will evolve over the next decade.

          2. re: ChewChew

            Those prices are online. I was asking about this meal.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I think our meal came out to a bit over $100 per person excluding wine.