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.
benu 002 (480x102)

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.
benu 007 (480x429)
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.)

benu 006 (480x321)
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.
benu 009 (480x283)

Taro root with black truffles.
Unlaid hen’s egg.
benu 011 (480x208)
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.
benu 013 (480x355)
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. 
benu 014 (475x480)
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
benu 017 (480x380)

Oyster with porkbelly and kimchi..
benu 019 (480x363)
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.
benu 020 (480x222)

Orange blossom honey fused with ginseng was poured on the butter, to go with slices of  multi-grain bread.
benu 023 (480x317)

We then started the menu proper:
thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
benu 024 (480x309)
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
benu 026 (480x294)
Underneath is a tender spring bamboo shoot. It was topped with pea shoots and a vinaigrette of lovage.  

lobster coral xiao long bao
benu 030 (480x177)
benu 032 (480x270)
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
benu 034 (480x355)

soybean, fermented pepper, black truffle bun
benu 036 (480x355)

benu 039 (480x309)
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.
benu 040 (455x480)

quail stuffed with glutinous rice, wood ear, celtuce
benu 041 (480x268)
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
benu 045 (480x304)
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.  
benu 048 (480x329)

sesame leaf ice cream
benu 049 (480x386)
Nice; candied kumquat on top.

The sommelier offered us small glasses of a local dessert wine.
2003 Calera Viognier Doux
benu 052 (453x480)
Good with the sweets.

dried apricot, osmanthus, almond
benu 054 (480x407)
This was an almond and dried apricot flavored mousse.   Osmanthus is the gelée on the bottom of the dish.  They said it is an apricot-like flower. 

This was an extra, chocolaty dessert. I do not have a description.
benu 057 (480x354) 

Dried apple and persimmon
benu 058 (480x297)

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.

One Response to “Benu, San Francisco”

  1. Blair Says:

    Looks incredible. I have had a thousand year egg and found it interesting to eat but not really that enjoyable. Some day I hope to try this updated version of the ancient technique.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s