Wednesday, November 14, 2012

benu - san francisco, ca
33 hawthorne street
san francisco, ca

as stated in my post on the restaurant, the french laundry was an easy choice for our first dinner in the bay area. once that reservation was secured, however, dinners two and three required much more deliberation. knowing that it may be awhile before we were able to return, i wanted to make the most of the visit and as such was unwillingly to settle for anything less than three of the areas best dining destinations. after the laundry, it was the restaurant at meadowood that was next to make the cut, partially due to its proximity to our hotel in downtown napa. with one slot remaining, i was originally thinking manresa until i realized just how long of a drive it was from napa to los gatos. with chef kinch's restaurant unfortunately out of the picture, i set my sights on san francisco itself, and after eliminating coi and saison, gave my parents the choice of either atelier crenn or benu. given the title of this post and the picture above, their choice was obviously benu, and i will state upfront that i would be shocked if any of the other venues mentioned above could have delivered a better meal.
located in san francisco's soma district, benu is former french laundry chef de cusine corey lee's restaurant. opened in 2010, the cooking at benu can certainly be described as modernist, but what sets it apart is the decidedly asian influence that is not often found in a fine dining setting. the restaurant currently holds two michelin stars, four stars from the san francisco chronicle, and was named to the new york times list of ten restaurants worthy of a plane ride.
after leaving our car with the valet, we were led through a courtyard and into the restaunt where we were then seated at a four top in the smaller upstairs dining room. benu offers two dining options midweek, an al a carte menu along with an 18 course tasting (fri and sat are tasting only). we, of course, selected the tasting menu, with carrie and i deciding to share a wine pairing while my parents opted for a few selections by the glass.
instead of bread, benu serves buckwheat lavage crisps with nori and seasame. as much as i love great bread and butter, this was a welcomed change that certainly helped in the stomach capacity department.
thousand-year old quail egg, potage, ginger
heidler, gruner veltliner, thal, kamptal, austria 2011

to get things started, a popular ingredient in chinese cuisine known as the century egg was used. served in a pedestal bowl with a potage that was poured tableside, the egg's gelatinous texture was more prominent than its subtle flavor, with ginger and other spices being the most dominant notes.
oyster, pork belly, kimchi
heidler, gruner veltliner, thal, kamptal, austria 2011

this was a fantastic one bite course featuring savory pork belly and a briny oyster tucked into a piece of kimchi glass. what i remember most about this was the slow building heat of the kimchi, which continued to intensify long after the bite was swallowed.

potato salad with anchovy
wakatake, demon slayer, junmai daiginjo, shizupka, japan

chef lee's take on potato salad featuring yukon gold potatoes along with anchovies and i believe a bit of chili. i am not typically fond of potato salad, but i loved this take on it and would certainly eat it more often if it was all this good.

monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche
teutonic, pinot gris, maresh vineyard, dundee hills, oregon, 2011

served alongside my favorite white wine of the night was monkfish liver with persimmons, turnips, mustard, and a small slice of toasted brioche. not unlike foie gras, the liver was smooth in texture and very rich in flavor, but was nicely tempered by both the persimmons and the fantastic pinot gris.

sake lees, chestnut, green apple, yuzu

sake lees is a thick rice paste that is left behind at the end of the sake making process. i unfortunately cannot go into detail on this course and honestly can't even tell exactly what is what from looking at my picture. what i can say, however, is that i remember this being a fantastically unusual and unexpected combination of flavors and textures that everyone at the table loved. if i am not mistaken, this was ultimately my father's favorite course of the meal.

eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime
fefinanes, albarino, rias baixas, spain, 2011

this is an ever present staple at benu featuring eel inside fried filo dough with a lime spiked creme fraiche. crisp, savory, and tart, this was a nice three bite course.

omasum tripe, scallop, yellow chive, lovage
fefinanes, albarino, rias baixas, spain, 2011

what was surprising here was that this course was (intentionally) cold despite arriving in a covered dish. if i am not mistaken, this was my first experience with tripe, and i was not crazy about it as i found the texture too chewy and the flavor virtually nonexistent.
abalone quiche, caviar, rousong
ballot-millot, meursault, burgundy, france, 2009

next up was easily the most ambitious and luxurious quiche i have ever had. the open faced pastry crust was filled with an abalone mousse of sorts along with some caviar and a pork product known as rousong.

salt and pepper squid
rodenbach, flemish brown ale, grand cru, belgium

it is not often that i forget to photograph a dish, but it unfortunately happened at benu. the salt and pepper squid course was basically a squid ink chip studded with bits of squid and a variety of spices. this was very tasty, and the belgian sour ale that was served with it was one of the best brews i have had in recent memory.
lobster xiao long bao
rodenbach, flemish brown ale, grand cru, belgium

benu has always had a xiao long bao (small steaming basket bun) course, although before the ban it featured foie gras as opposed to the lobster variety we had. xiao long bao are a popular dim sum item, and given my inexperience with authentic ethnic foods, this was my first time with the buns. delivered with the warning that they contained a hot soup and that we should enjoy in one bite, i eagerly picked up my first bun with the provided chopsticks and after dipping it in the vinegar sauce popped it into my mouth. i loved the texture of the skin and the explosion of soup along with the tender lobster nugget. given the length of the tasting menu, benu could easily get away with serving just one bao per diner, so to me getting two enjoy two of them was nice.
fresh noodles with lobster and fine herbs

following lobster with lobster, the noodles here were of excellent texture and the lobster was spot on.

steamed chicken, date, celery, cognac
schloss schonborn, riesling kabinett, hattenheimer pfaffenberg, rheingau, germany, 2003

the chicken here was rather bland, but the sweetness of the dates/cognac sauce and the astringent backbone of the celery made this an interesting course.

rabbit cassoulet with black truffle bun
onward, pinot noir, hawkeye ranch, redwood valley, california, 2010

this was a hearty course for sure but not one of my favorites. the cassoulet made with rabbit meat was just ok and although the bun featured black truffle and a rabbit confit filling it was surprisingly bland.

beef rib, pear, broccoli, burdock, charred scallion, fermented pepper
chateau fortia, chateauneuf-du-pape, rhone, france, 2009

although well prepared and flavorful, i really do not remember anything about the beef course standing out. the paired chateauneuf-du-pape, however, may have been my favorite wine of the meal with red berries up front and a nice bit of lingering spice on the finish.

"shark's fin" soup, dungeness crab, jinhua ham, black truffle custard
blandy's, verdelho, maidera, portugal, 1968

this is lee's most well known dish, a faux "shark's fin" soup (are the quotes a tribute to keller?) that the chef created with a group of food scientists. lee's take on the this traditional chinese wedding soup is made with a rich black truffle custard, a salty jinhua ham broth, and sweet dungeness crab meat. the combination of the above flavors mixed with the unique texture of the faux fin made for one of the trips most unique and delicious courses.

shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate

similar to the sake lees course, this served as a palate cleanser and was again quite unusual in both texture and combination of flavors.

spiced pumpkin, cider sorbet, fruits, nuts
domaine du fresche, anjou coteaux de la loire, loire valley, france, 2010

our main dessert featured pumpkin in several different forms (cake, taffy, gelee, ect.) along with an excellent cider sorbet. the flavors here were definitely very good, but it was the various textures (broken record lol) that made this standout to me.


the meal ended with an intricate display of terrific chocolates.

from the moment we were led through the restaurant's courtyard until the check was dropped at the end of the meal, benu delivered on all fronts. per the text above, it is quite obvious that i really enjoyed the food, with even the meal's weaker courses bringing something unique to the table in either presentation, ingredients, or flavor combinations. as for the service, the staff at benu really stood out to me. everyone we encountered seemed really passionate about the restaurant, and based on the questions we asked as well as the ones we overheard from other tables, there wasn't anything they did not know about the food. i was most impressed with sommelier bobby conroy, whose in-depth descriptions of the characteristics of the wines as well as why they were paired with each course was above and beyond anything i have experienced in the past. benu is more than worthy of its two star michelin rating, and given that i am really unable to rank my three bay area dinners in order of best to worst as they were all fantastic in very different ways, i would not be surprised if they were bumped up to the three star level alongside the french laundry and meadowood.
Benu on Urbanspoon


  1. My husband and I went to Benu last summer and it was the best dining experience I've had to date. The food was top-notch and the service was wonderful. Glad to read that you had a lovely experience as well. :)

  2. thank you for the comment :-) benu is a world class restaurant for sure.