To say I went into benu with high expectations would be an understatement – this was a meal I was so excited about that I literally could not wait to visit and after back-to-back disappointments at Commis and Meadowood plus a long day of interviewing I actually went so far as to change my reservation at the last minute from Wednesday to Tuesday; a change that only happened because of a last minute cancellation but a change that nonetheless landed me a prime two-top at 7:00pm.
Having already mentioned the circumstances of the visit my excitement to visit Corey Lee’s kitchen should not really be a surprise despite the mixed reviews of other writers, gourmands, epicures, and bloggers – Lee is the chef primarily responsible for a four hour 21-course meal that I still consider one of the three best of my life, a chef who still answers his own e-mails just as he did at the French Laundry, and – having sat next to one of his expeditors two nights before at Commis – a chef who commanded the unbridled respect of his staff…again, expectations were high.
Departing the SFMoMA and walking a few blocks I found benu without difficulty and after watching Chef Lee direct his team from the center of the enormous and pristine kitchen through a large picture window I next attempted to find the entrance – a not uncommon occurrence I’d assume as the valet stood his post and directed me with a smile to the courtyard, a large serene space decorated with Japanese Maples, wooden benches, and large round stones – the very antithesis of the busy street outside. Making my way up the stairs to the restaurant’s entrance the doors were opened by a young man and within moments I stood at the top of another stairwell looking down over the vast expanse of the minimalistic dining room.
Greeted first by the hosts and then by sommelier Yoon Ha at the top of the stairs as my table was prepared it was literally seconds upon entering the restaurant that I realized the well mannered and professional-yet-friendly service of Lee’s previous employer would be on full display at benu and surely this did not change from the moment I encountered the valet to the moment I walked out there door – without belaboring the point every single member of the team was flawless in their presentations, descriptions, and most of all ensuring that I was having a great time. Led to my seat by the host and subsequently greeted by my captain, Vincent, a menu was presented and after making sure there was nothing on the a la carte menu to tempt me I ordered the tasting menu without a second thought – nineteen courses for $180 – a veritable bargain compared to the $450 for 21 at The French Laundry.
With decisions made and Yoon stopping by again to ask me if I desired pairings I explained my low tolerance for alcohol to which he suggested “perhaps a glass of champagne to start out with” and on agreeing I received a flute of Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne – crisp, bracing, only slightly fruity – tasty and complimentary to at least the first six or seven courses of the menu.
Awaiting my first course as I browsed the room – at this point only part full but to be seated at capacity by eight o’clock – I personally enjoyed the openness of the high ceilings and intentional support structures. Consisting mainly of shades of white and tan with sturdy black woods providing a bit of hard contrast to the plush carpets and microfiber seatings the room was decidedly Asian in feel, yet at the same time comfortable while the light overhead soundtrack helped sift out the background noise. While some have noted they find the room to be a bit cold, the use of ample lighting and a few small paintings added a splash of color that reminded me a bit of Alinea or Guy Savoy Las Vegas – simple, but far from boring – the focus on the table instead of the walls.
With my champagne poured and the menu at my side to follow along the first bites of benu would be the house “bread service” of Buckwheat Lavash with toasted nori and sesame seeds – a quintet of crisp crackers with notes of brine showing only slightly over the nutty herbal tones and an excellent way to cleanse the palate between courses without taking up much capacity (something even I would need over the course of the next three and a half hours.)
Beginning the listed menu at this point and incidentally delivered by the young man I’d sat next to at Commis who noted “I thought you were dining with us on Wednesday” the night’s amuse would be entitled “Thousand Year Old Quail Egg, Lily Bulb, Ginger” and served in a pedestaled bowl this thickened soup (nearly a rice porridge) would prove to be an excellent introduction to what would follow as the balance of briny egg and savory ginger paired nicely together while myriad spices including notes of onion and coriander punctuated a slight smokiness on the finish.
With dishes arriving every five to fifteen minutes depending on the size of the course (more time followed larger courses) my second course of the evening would be presented by an Asian female with a quiet voice and instructed to eat this quickly as the shell may melt “Oyster, Pork Belly, Kimchi” would prove a dazzling bite utilizing sweetened kimchi glass to contain the smoky and briny/crispy and creamy surf and turf combo.
With Vincent now returning and presenting a number of the upcoming courses as we discussed the places I’d been thus far in the Bay area (both past and present – including discussion of my Extended Tasting of Lee’s cuisine at TFL) my third course would be presented as one of his favorites and with my very first bite I immediately understood why. A lesson in balance and refinement described simply as Monkfish Liver, Salmon Roe, Buckwheat, Daikon this dish would typify the sort of cuisine I’d experienced from Lee in the past as the creamy ankimo paired beautifully with the briny eggs while the crunchy buckwheat and slightly bitter radish provided a stark textural foil. Three to four bites in its entirety this was the sort of dish I came to benu expecting and as exemplary at it was it would only be my third favorite of the night.
Realizing, I’m sure, that the liver was a hefty highlight-reel dish its follow-up would be a bit less dramatic in flavor yet plenty interesting in texture and presentation. Described as “a sort of palate cleanser, if you will,” Green Apple Granitee, Cucumber, Pistachio, Olive Oil Pana Cotta would arrive in a low bowl and slightly sweet yet smooth and refreshing it served its purpose admirably – a dish proving that even the intermezzos at benu would not be underwhelming.
Moving next to one of Lee’s signature dishes present since the opening of benu, Eel, Feuille de Brick, Crème Fraiche, Lime would be presented as a sort of fried pastry spring roll encasing smooth, sweet eel with just a touch of pepper. Tasty and just a touch funky on its own the roll was served alongside a dollop of crème fraiche with a touch of grated lime for dunking, a nice accoutrement that served to temper the eel without masking it.
Told that my next dish was a new concept debuted shortly after the ankimo preparation had changed from a torchon to its current format, “Caviar, Chervil, Radish, Sea Urchin Butter, Brioche” would prove to be yet another outstanding dish borrowing Chef Keller’s recipe for brioche and pairing it with pure luxury in the form of prime osetra caviar atop a curl of rich uni butter. Rich, decadent, and entirely delightful the only way this dish could have been better would have been if it were double the size and the brioche swapped out for a warm replacement halfway through.
Arriving on the heels of the brioche, “Conch, Tomato, Green Orange, Dashi” would feature a much lighter flavor profile than its predecessor and with the acidity clearly used to tenderize the typically rubbery shellfish this ceviche-esque presentation was again quite impressive in taste though a bit difficult to navigate as the diner was instructed to slurp the admixture from a shell which seemed intent on dribbling from it’s pointy end.
For the eighth course of the night a bit of whimsy crept into the menu with “Salt and Pepper Squid,” a clever take on the Chinese classic featuring a crispy Shrimp chip topped with sliced jalapenos, chopped green onions, and dehydrated squid. Tasty, briny, fun, and a nice textural changeup between a number of softer courses.
Greeted again by the fellow from Commis we chatted for a while about other restaurants in the Bay and our respective impressions of each before my next dish, “Jasmine Chicken with Dates and gold leaf” would arrive. Always fond of chicken and fowl dishes I fully expected this to be one of the better tastes of the evening, but all things being equal it just was not as good as I’d hoped largely because of the jasmine tea broth, a slightly cloying and overwhelming tone that served to blunt the flavors of not only the bird but also the dates. Perhaps a case of too sweet too soon, and not a bad dish at all, but simply not as restrained or balanced as the rest of the evening.
Moving next to the XLB I really do not have much of a frame of reference as to what makes this dish “good” or “bad” save for the quality of the soup and the skin, but while many have strong opinions on this I will simply note that to me Chef Lee’s “Foie Gras Xiao Long Bao” was excellent; delicate wrapper, admirable shape, and a soupy interior tinged with the palate notes of truffle and small bits of liver – I liked it every bit as much as I expected I would.
For course eleven I would receive abalone for the third time in three days but this time it would be done right – very right and without a doubt the best savory dish I had during this visit to California. Listed on the menu as “Abalone, Potato, Caper, Lettuce” it was these ‘basic’ ingredients that formed the dish, but what truly made the dish shine was their preparation – the potato sieved and the consistency of whipped cream, the lettuce warm yet maintaining its texture, the caper dissolved into the emulsion over top, and the abalone sous vided and then tossed in panko and esplette before being pan crisped – everything was flawless.
Still swooning over the abalone when Vincent returned and asked how I was doing on capacity since “some people tend to get full around this point” I joked with him about the 20+ courses at The French Laundry stating “if everything remains this good I’ll keep eating till the kitchen stops sending me food” and with that the next course to arrive would be the night’s pasta course of “Fresh Noodles, Shrimp Roe Butter, Tarragon, chicken Jus.” Seemingly plain on visual inspection but obviously not in the olfactory department the first thing I noticed about this dish was the scent of tarragon and chives, a pleasant aroma that on taking a bite of the house made noodles gave way to briny notes of the shrimp and chicken stock. Clearly intended to be an upscale take on ramen it was a dish both comforting and rich – a nice segue into the heavier courses that would follow.
For the thirteenth savory of the evening I would receive Chef Lee’s second menu mainstay (aside from the Eel,) a dish appropriately served with quotes entitled “Shark’s Fin” Soup with Dungeness Crab, Jinhua Ham, Black Truffle Custard. Having never had legitimate Shark’s Fin Soup it was explained to me that the ‘fin’ in this case was actually made of the same ingredients as the stock but modified to form a collagenous texture similar to real fin. Salty and savory with top notes of pork and the sweetness of the crab occasionally peaking through this dish started out well but would turn out to be worthy of signature status largely because of the custard – a creamy amalgam that rises to the palate on mastication with a tone indistinguishable from that of fresh truffles being shaved tableside.
With my love of both duck and celery well documented the next course would be one of the most anticipated of the evening and true to form the team at benu did not disappoint. Delivered as a rather hefty portion, “Duck, Celery, Cherry, Shaoxing Wine” would prove to be my second favorite savory of the night (and of the trip) featuring a flawless round of moulard duck with crispy skin stuffed with an admixture of duck rillet, foie gras, milk and shallots alongside crisp slices of celery and creamy celery root puree. Already intense, aromatic, and moist the duck was subsequently topped with a fermented rice wine not dissimilar to sherry that brought all of the flavors to a point while the celery constituents acted to mellow the palate between bites.
Before the arrival of the next course on the tasting menu Vincent stopped by again and having mentioned my comment about eating until they stopped feeding me to the kitchen asked if it would be okay for Chef Lee to add another savory to the end of the meal – an obvious yes – and with that the young female server would arrive with the menu’s final savory, “Beef Braised in Pear with Sunflower and Mushroom.” Generally not a fan of beef but willing to trust it in the hands of a great chef as part of a long tasting menu this was actually a surprisingly strong presentation rooted in atypically lean short ribs cooked slowly in pear juice and served with fibrous mushrooms, sliced pears, pear puree, and toasted sunflower seeds. Achieving where the jasmine chicken had lacked in balancing sweet with savory this dish would work well both on its own and for the surprise that would follow.
For my “bonus” course, the sixteenth of the evening, I was told by Vincent that this dish had just been created that day and was likely to find its way onto the tasting menu soon. More than willing to play guinea pig, “Pork Rib glazed with caramelized clam jus, chili pepper, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, cauliflower forms” would again show the team’s skill with sweet meets savory, and this time with a little bit of heat tempered only by the cauliflower the fork-tender meat literally fell off the bone without any need for a fork. Largely inexperienced with fish sauces outside of my rare venture into Thai cuisine I was additionally impressed by the slight funk of this dish – something I don’t generally anticipate from pork, but a nice effect for just that reason.
Moving appropriately from sweet savories to savory sweets the first of my desserts would arrive in the form of a double shot glass harboring “Malted Rice Tea, Pine Nut, Pine Needle Honey” – a tasty rice syrup resting atop honey panna cotta with a few cooked pine nuts floating around for textural effect.
With coffee offered and accepted the first of two proper desserts would arrive on a small plate with the muted colors of orange and green hidden below a white froth entitled “Melon, Sake sorbet, Lemon Verbena Scented Tapioca” and while not particularly enthralled with any of the ingredients on their own the end effect was actually quite nice – a bittersweet fruit salad as it were with the cantaloupe and honeydew adding a sucrose note to the bitters of the sorbet while the mellow lemon tones pervaded on swallowing.
For my final dessert before the menu-denoted mignardises I would receive “Sweet Corn Tofu, White Chocolate, Almond, Chili” along with a relatively mellow yet smooth coffee service in a porcelain pot. With coffee poured and sweetened to my liking I looked over the dessert – a yellow dollop centering a pool of white – before taking a bite and true to the previous sweets this final course would prove an exercise in subtleties with the small ball of tofu the very flavor of creamed corn without the lumps and its surrounding admixture a pleasant balance of mild cocoa tones and almond milk with only the slightest touch of heat.
Sitting back and relaxing at the end of a journey that had taken me through some of the very best flavors of my visit to northern California Vincent returned with a refill of my coffee and the final items of the menu – a collection of chocolates displayed on a pedestal made specifically for the restaurant and including the flavors of White Chocolate Passion Fruit, Cherry Walnut, Toasted Sesame and Soy, and Dark Chocolate Caramel with sea Salt. With each bite tasty but only the sesame/soy bon-bon particularly memorable I was subsequently handed the bill and told to take my time while an invite was extended to visit the kitchen and meet Chef Lee and the team – an offer I gladly accepted.
With the bill paid and a signed copy of the menu already in hand it would be a good ten minutes spent chatting with my servers before I finished my second pot of coffee and made my way back to the kitchen with Vincent’s lead. A far cry from the intimacy of The French Laundry kitchen I stood and watched as the immense kitchen worked largely in silence for perhaps five minutes before Chef Lee took a break in the action to say hello and thank me for coming in. Returning his thanks specifically for having now served me two of the best meals of my life and more than forty outstanding dishes I was again impressed by just how humble he was and at the same time how I could tell he was itching to get back to the kitchen to do what he knows best.
Again thanking my servers before making my way to the now chilly streets the trek to my car was a brisk one and as I walked I reflected on the meal just passed – an exemplary one no doubt – and tried with some success to avoid comparisons to my meal more than two years prior at The French Laundry simply because such comparisons, while logical, are simply unfair. Sure the French Laundry was a better overall meal, but for myself that meal came at a substantial price tag and while a couple dishes (specifically the desserts and the chicken) at benu were not quite as perfect as those in Yountville the majority were on the par while the setting and service are simply “different” – neither better than the other, just a different yet entirely welcoming vibe at each and both well worth the effort to visit.
While some may claim that benu is an “Asian Laundry” and others seem to feel it has not yet reached its potential for my largely inexperienced palate when it comes to most Asian cuisine the only way I can sum up the experience is this; At The French Laundry Corey Lee was creating immaculate cuisine in the style of Thomas Keller with his own twist while at benu Corey Lee creating immaculate cuisine in his own style based on skills refined under Keller and either way Corey Lee is a masterful chef who helms world class restaurant. Barring unforeseen circumstances there is not a doubt in my mind that someday I’ll have the opportunity to experience his skills once again and hopefully sooner rather than later.