While C was still working in Vancouver and scheduled to arrive in San Francisco later that evening, I had an open spot in my calendar to do whatever I wanted. To not waste a moment during this trip (we were only staying for four nights), I decided to grab dinner at one of San Francisco’s many restaurant options. But which restaurant to choose? As luck would have it, I was able to secure a last minute dinner reservation at Benu.
With two Michelin stars and plenty of stellar reviews under it’s belt, many have pegged Benu as a go to dining destination in San Francisco. It is owned and helmed by Chef Corey Lee. Despite his background working in numerous well established restaurants in Europe and America, including being the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, the menu at Benu is heavily influenced by many ingredients, flavours and textures so prevalent and loved in many Asian cultures.
It was a nice crisp December night, so I decided to walk to the restaurant as it was only 15 minutes away from the hotel we were staying at. Turning onto Hawthorne St, I got my first glimpse of the restaurant in the form of two large well lit windows giving a clear view into the kitchen. Peaking through, passer-bys are treated to a display of the chefs and cooks in their element and hard at work.
Following the trail of light, I entered the restaurant’s courtyard, an open space with small bushes sprouting out of the concrete ground. Vines were spread throughout the surrounding walls and overhanging on the ceiling, forming a modern day urban garden of sorts and acting as a buffer zone between the city and the restaurant.
Once inside, the modern and minimalist dining room was quite dimly lit. A big contrast to the shining bright kitchen I passed moments earlier. Beams, some positioned in acute angles, cut the space into sections, but still left the feel of an open floor plan.
Benu offers diners à la carte (which is only available from Tuesday – Thursday) and tasting menus. I settled on the latter and also decided to go with the beverage pairings, which not only includes wine but beer and sake as well.
The courses I had that evening were some of the most well cooked and perfectly executed dishes of food I’ve had. A characteristic I found similar to The French Laundry when I ate there a couple of days later. This was most evident in the crépinette of sea bass and shrimp, duck and braised beef dishes they served towards the backend of the tasting.
The crépinette, which had a slight springiness in it when pressed lightly, was juicy and light. Served with the lettuce and fermented pepper, the dish reminded me very much of Sichuan boiled fish. If only there was more of a lingering spiciness to it, it would have been a perfect reinterpretation.
The duck was cooked just the way I like it - reddish in colour and still rare. Served on the side, the cherry-black olive steamed bun caught me off guard in a good way. It was cloud-like in its fluffiness and just had the right notes of cherry and olive – not overpowering at all. Looking back, my only regret was not finishing it as I was pacing myself for the remaining dishes.
The braised beef was fork tender, having no resistance at all as I cut through it, but surprisingly, not turning into mush and still retaining its fibrous nature as I ate it. The charcoal-grilling provided a hit of smokiness, and the winter “treasures” (vegetables) gave the dish an element of earthiness perfect for the season.
Showing a more imaginative side, there were also riffs on some well known Asian/Chinese dishes such as: xiao long bao, shark fin’s soup and salt and pepper squid.
Rather than being filled with the traditional pork filling, the xiao long bao was filled with lobster corral (a.k.a eggs) giving the filling and broth a richer flavour, textural difference and less greasy finish compared to the original.
The “shark’s fin” soup, on the other hand, was composed of a Jinhua ham broth, dungeness crab and truffle custard. The broth was very deep and hearty in flavour and the dungeness crab meat provided a subtle sweet note which I welcomed very much. Although the truffle custard was part of the dish, I did not notice it as much as the Jinhua broth and the dungeness crab. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as I usually expect a pronounced earthy and musty taste with dishes that include truffle.
The salt and pepper squid was the one course I was most excited and pumped to taste. From the aggressive salty and heat exchange, and the textural differences of chewy and crunchy found in each bite, it represents a perfect bite of food. At Benu, a squid ink cracker is used as an edible base and is sprinkled with diced confited squid, sliced pickled serrano pepper and powdered serrano chili. The cracker, which tasted just like a shrimp cracker, simulated the crunchy batter that usually surrounds the squid. While the confited squid was so soft that it required no effort at all to chew. However, compared to the salt and pepper squid dishes I’ve had in the past, this version was definitely missing the strong saltiness and heat flavours that I am accustomed to. Unfortunate misses, to an otherwise imaginative and out of the box interpretation.
For the beverage pairings, I was served a total of 10 pairings, some spanning two courses, and with my favourite combination coming from the Demon Slayer Junmai Daiginjo Wakatake Shizuoka sake paired with the potato salad with anchovy and eel, feuille de brick, crème fraiche, lime courses.
On its own, I found the fermented rice flavour quite strong in the Demon Slayer sake, but drank alongside the courses changed the flavour characteristic completely. The Demon Slayer sake was surprisingly transformed into a smooth, very drinkable accompaniment and lost a lot of the overpowering flavour I initially tasted. It brought out the natural sweetness in the small bits of fried anchovies in the potato salad and the sweetness in the crispy feuille de brick wrapped eel. In addition, the sake nicely cut through the creaminess of the potato salad, and the sourness of the créme frâiche that was served with the eel. Overall, a perfect drink for the two courses.
As for the other pairings, I enjoyed the lighter, fruitier pairings more (which is in line with my personal tastes), specifically the Weingut Jäger Riesling, 2011 Teutonic Wine Company November Harvest Pinot Gris and 2010 Onward Hawkeye Ranch Pinot Noir.
Throughout the evening, the dining room staff, including beverage director Yoon Ha, were very attentive and knowledgeable. They were able to seamlessly take turns in explaining each course and pairing without skipping a beat, and made sure to always ask how I found each course.
Of the two desserts I was served I preferred the shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate over the spiced pumpkin, cider sorbet, fruits and nuts. The shiso was light, not overly sweet but floral in flavour and had an element of crunchiness from the pomegranate. And to finish of the meal, I was served a selection of chocolates for petit fours.
No doubt about it, my meal at Benu was definitely a successful blend of cultural cuisines and cooking techniques. It resulted in a 3.5 hour tour of dishes that are impeccably executed, imaginative, delicious and refined, which truly gave me an understanding Chef Lee’s cooking point of view, previous culinary experiences and cultural background.
However, despite all of this, I linger at the thought of whether I enjoyed the 13 courses I had that night over the simpler and more casual counterparts of similar dishes and ingredients I’ve had numerous times in the past and have grown to love like an old worn out pair of jeans. I don’t have an answer to this yet, but another visit to Benu in the near future is definitely warranted to find out further.
To view pictures of my dinner and beverage pairings in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
S & C