When I heard the Chef de Cuisine of French Laundry, Corey Lee, left to open up his own restaurant in San Francisco, I was really excited. I think we all were, us cooks in the Bay Area, at least. Benu opened in 2012, and was received with very positive reviews. My chef had gone and said it was the best restaurant he'd ever been to. It earned 2 stars in its first year--that's incredible. There are less than 10 restaurants that have 2 or more stars in the Bay Area (including Napa and Yountville), and Benu became one of them in its debut.
Reservations were hard to come by, especially during the time I was trying to go--December 2012, holiday season. So when my concierge finally came through for us, I had very high expectations. This is my account of the Benu experience.
(By the way, I took terrible photos, so I recommend heading here for a much better look at the food.)
thousand year old quail egg, potage, ginger
Thousand year old eggs aren't exactly the best way to ease diners into your food, but Chef Lee starts with one. I thought this was a pretty bold statement, almost strategic on his part. It said: Welcome to Benu. This is what we're about. Deal with it.
Most of my friends don't like these eggs. I love it. It's the poor man's truffle of China. Earthy unlike anything else.
Lee's amuse was an obvious play on congee, Chinese rice porridge, the traditional version being rice with salted pork, ginger, and thousand year old duck eggs. His was perfect. Super savory. It teased your palate to life, preparing it for the rest of the meal.
This was served in lieu of the perfunctory bread and butter. It was just alright. It reminded me too much of WD-50's flatbread, which was also served in place of their bread service. Couldn't stop eating it though...
potato salad anchovy
This was so simple, almost disappointingly so, but I seemed to really enjoy it anyway. It was just potato salad--not a modernist take on potato salad--just straight up potato salad. On top was fried anchovies. That was it. Hella good.
Date's reaction : too fishy.
oyster, pork belly, kimchi
Kimchi is everywhere these days. Lately, but especially in 2012. The food truck scene was blowing up and everyone thought it was a great idea to inject kimchi into everything. Kimchi burrito, kimchi burger, kimchi smoothies--I was over it.
So, I was apprehensive about this one, but it turned out to be the texture that turned me off, not so much the kimchi. The flavor was good. It's a very traditional Korean pairing for ssam, oysters, pork, and kimchi, and it makes a lot of sense. In this case, it was in siu mai form, the wrapper being made of kimchi. Great technique, but it just didn't melt perfectly. It was kind of sticky, and felt very much like a film of pocket Listerine that took a bit too long to dissolve. This didn't keep me from enjoying it though
Date's reaction : too fishy.
eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime
Forget kimchi burritos--someone needs to come up on unagi burritos, or some kind of giant version of this. Nothing to compare it to. It was its own thing. Fragile and delicate in texture, bold in flavor and umami. It was great.
Date's reaction : Good!
monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche
This was easily my favorite course. I've never seen this come off the menu, so it must be a favorite of the restaurant's as well. This was some masterclass ankimo. It was so clean. He served it like foie gras with toasted brioche. He knocked this one outta the park and into outer space.
Date's reaction : too rich. Too fishy.
sake lees, chestnut, satsuma
Lees are yeast deposits left behind after fermentation. This applies to most alcohol. In the case of sake, it is referred to as kasu, and is traditionally used for pickling or marination.
I didn't really understand this dish. It was just okay.
abalone quiche, caviar, rousong
This was very flavorful; a bomb of savoriness. I like how he snuck in the rousong on top. It was good, but it was very similar to the potato salad, only much heavier.
Date's reaction : good, but too heavy.
salt & pepper squid
This was up there. Squid in chicharron form with small diced squid garnished on top. Delicious.
Date's reaction : amazing!
crepinette of sea bass and shrimp, lettuce, fermented pepper
Nothing about this was bad, but it wasn't particularly great either. The flavors were standard of Sichuan cuisine, but it just wasn't elevated in any way.
lobster coral xiao long bao
So good. What an awesome plate design too. Pretty much as amazing as you would imagine xiao long bao at a 2-michelin star restaurant to be. It was like right when I bit into it, a lobster jumped out of the dumpling and just started kicking all kinds of ass.
Date's reaction : She loved it!
beef braised in pear juice and charcoal-grilled with winter treasures
Can't say I remember this one very well...or at all. Sorry.
duck, cucumber, lily bulb, cherry-black olive, steamed bun
Didn't love this one. It's a deconstruction of the traditional roasted duck and steamed bao, but it just wasn't as good as what it was trying to mimic. It was a little muddled, and very French in execution, but I'm not a fan of wine sauces or demis. I'm generally not big on main courses at degustations for this reason.
"shark's fin" soup, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard
This soup was impressive. Supposedly, the faux shark's fin took them forever to get right, but they nailed it. The broth is made of clarified Jinhua ham, named after a city in eastern China where it is produced. (Jinhua ham is very similar to proscuitto, but it might be even older, dating all the way back to 600 AD.) The truffle custard is so baller. There must have been about $50 worth of black truffle in my portion alone.
Date's reaction : wasn't as impressed as I was, but she really enjoyed it.
shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate
This was my kind of palate cleanser. Very straight forward. Shiso is one of my favorite herbs, especially when used with discretion, as it was here.
spiced pumpkin, cider sorbet, fruits and nuts
Very good, but generally, I'm not a big fan of pumpkin and autumn spices, so this wasn't my preference for a last course.
Check out this cool ass box of chocolates though. It arrived as a solid cube then the top half was lifted to reveal all the goodies. I can't remember most of them, but there was a miso chocolate that I liked.
And that was Benu. The food was good. Highly technical. Consistently impressive throughout the meal. But for some reason, I wasn't fully satisfied. I paid quite a bit for this, and it's hard not to take that into account. It was a unique dining experience--I've never had a degustation of Asian-influence--but it's hard for me to recommend for the amount you'd have to spend. I paid $180 for the tasting, not including wine (which we had), but I hear it's closer to $200 now.
To be fair, some dishes on that night's particular menu just weren't my thing. I'm not big on autumn and winter flavors, but I know I probably would have enjoyed their summer menu more. My Sous Chef went around the same time I did, and felt the same way. I've seen some of the dishes from other seasons, and they looked like they'd be right up my alley. Maybe I'll give it another chance someday.
Click on image to enlarge.