Benu, San Francisco
March 22, 2016
Corey Lee worked nine years for Thomas Keller, starting in the kitchen at The French Laundry, then helping him open Per Se in NYC and finally returning to The French Laundry as Chef de Cuisine. He left in 2010 to open Benu in the SOMA district of San Francisco. He was awarded three Michelin stars in October 2014. Linda and I went for dinner on February 19, 2016.
The décor is starkly modern, reflecting the precision of the cuisine. This was the view from my seat back to the front door.
We started with glasses of Schramsberg California sparkling wine. The printed menu of the evening, with ten courses, was on the table. After discussion with the amiable and helpful sommelier we ordered a bottle of 2012 Kepler, Viognier/Roussanne/Grenache Blanc Eldorado, Sierra Foothills.
This was right with the early and middle courses.
The first course on the menu was simply titled “small delicacies.” It turned out that this included nine delicious small bites before the second menu course. As there were no printed titles or descriptions for the nine delicacies, we have made up our own from the servers’ descriptions. The titles below starting with the second course, or quail egg, are from the printed menu given to us.
The first small delicacy was:
Caviar from Sacramento, winter melon porridge over chicken cream (the crunchy bits under the caviar are smoked onion bits.)
This was a generous portion of very good local caviar. The garnishes underneath were well chosen to set it off. Fortunately we still had some of the sparkling wine to go with this.
Tuna marrow (yellowfin) with aged mandarin peel. This was all a gel that slipped down in one spoonful or drink.
Taro root with black truffles.
Unlaid hen’s egg.
The thin slices of black winter truffle were full of flavor with the soft taro root providing a good, absorbent background.
The hen’s egg seemed to be mostly for its curiosity value.
Charcoal-grilled abalone with pickled ramp.
The chewy abalone slice had a good flavor enhanced by the slightly acidic ramp pickle shard.
Monkfish liver steamed in plum wine, with buckwheat and plum.
Monkfish liver is sometimes called the “foie gras of the sea.” This slice lived up to that description. Buckwheat and the crisp nori wrap added some texture.
Lamb tartare on crispy cod
Oyster with porkbelly and kimchi..
A translucent dried kimchi cone was filled with soft pork belly, topped with a briny oyster. This was as delicious as it was pretty.
Eel taco – with eel rectangle inside feuille de brick…with mountain yam.
Orange blossom honey fused with ginseng was poured on the butter, to go with slices of multi-grain bread.
We then started the menu proper:
thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
The traditional Chinese cured egg was set on ginger with a potage of cabbage and bacon poured on at the table. David Chang wrote:
“The century egg distills everything special about Benu into one single bite. The century egg, at least traditionally, is notoriously difficult for Western diners to wrap their heads around. It is sulfurous in smell, bouncy in texture, alien in appearance. But Corey is insistent—insistent that his diners broaden their minds, and insistent that he can do things others can’t. His egg is better—tamed but still wildly delicious, a perfect intersection between technique and understanding of what came before. This one small dish clues you in to what lies ahead at Benu: ancient techniques, updated, reformulated, and ultimately improved.”
wild bamboo fungi and shoot
Underneath is a tender spring bamboo shoot. It was topped with pea shoots and a vinaigrette of lovage.
lobster coral xiao long bao
The dumpling in soup had a subtle seafood flavor. The steamed dumplings were filled with a lobster meat and lobster roe filling; they were served with a vinegar sauce, that may be traditional, but did not add anything for me as the lobster was so good.
sablefish, black trumpet, mustard, charred scallion
soybean, fermented pepper, black truffle bun
There were complex fermented flavors in the soybean dish which went well with the truffle purée and steamed bun.
We were almost finished with our white wine so the sommelier chose a red wine to serve me a glass to go with the last two courses.
quail stuffed with glutinous rice, wood ear, celtuce
The breast of the roast quail (in front) was stuffed with sticky rice, which added needed moisture and flavor. The thigh and leg (in the back) was crisper.
“shark fin”, crab, Jinhua ham, egg white
This is one of the signature dishes at Benu. It features faux “shark fin,” made from a hydrocolloid gel, in a broth of double chicken stock and ham. Lovely flavors.
We were served a cup of « kamcha », fermented green tea with fermented forbidden rice.
sesame leaf ice cream
Nice; candied kumquat on top.
The sommelier offered us small glasses of a local dessert wine.
2003 Calera Viognier Doux
Good with the sweets.
This was an extra, chocolaty dessert. I do not have a description.
Dried apple and persimmon
My descriptions above do not properly convey just how good this meal was, nor do I know how to do so. I quote again David Chang: “ancient techniques, updated, reformulated, and ultimately improved.” The third Michelin star is surely deserved, although I cannot think of another Michelin three-star restaurant anything like Benu.
The service, pace, ambiance and quiet noise level were all excellent. We had a superb evening.