Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hot New Benu in San Francisco

Precision and Perfection Worth the Cost?
22 Hawthorne Lane (at Mission), San Francisco
SOMA neighborhood
PH: 415.685.4860
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Last Wednesday, I went to dinner at one of the most highly anticipated new restaurants in San Francisco – Benu by former French Laundry chef de cuisine Corey Lee. And it wasn’t even my idea.

My friend suggested it and he was the one who made the reservations on OpenTable soon after Benu opened a little more than a month ago. Now getting a reservation is a two-month wait.

Benu is in the home of the former Two, which before then was the classic Hawthorne Lane. Chef Lee has created a destination, fine-dining restaurant that is garnering a mix of buzz in these early days, ranging from amazement and accolades to skepticism and puzzlement (most of the latter tied to questions of whether the $160 price tag for the tasting menu is worth it).

When I arrived for our early reservations (seatings are staggered from 5:30 to 10 p.m.), and immediately got a preview of the kitchen with those exposed windows walking on Hawthorne. The large kitchen is showcased, with Lee often in the center under a spotlight as he puts the finishing touches to the night’s dinner.

The kitchen takes up what was formerly the dining area of Two, and the dining area is where the back kitchen was once housed. As I walked to the back to enter the restaurant, I began to feel calm from the serene, zen-like garden in the front with miniature Japanese maple trees.

The interior is just as zen-like. Some people might call it sparse or neutral. I can see the philosophy of keeping the ambiance simple in order to showcase the food, but my dining partner thought it lacked charm.

By the way, my friend didn’t want to be named in this review. So I’m calling him DP, for dining partner. DP reasoned that he didn’t want mutual friends who read this blog to know he dropped $160 for Benu’s tasting menu. I guess in this economy, it does seem outrageous to spend that much for dinner without some kind of special occasion. As for me, it was a big chunk of money, but if I’m willing to spend weeks eating Vietnamese sandwiches to save up for this one special dinner, then I’m going to tell everyone about it and take lots of pictures. ;-)

Benu (an Egyptian word that means phoenix) also offers an ala carte menu that seemed interesting but I knew I was going all the way with the tasting. Here’s how the evening of food unfolded.

The night begins with this box of lavash made with sesame and nori, the Japanese seaweed. DP liked it and I thought it was thin and crunchy, probably a lighter alternative to a bread basket, but I didn’t think the nori flavor was that distinctive. It was very subtle, much like the overall design of Benu.

The first course was a thousand-year-old quail egg served with Lonsdale. Of course, this tiny egg is not a thousand years old, but it’s a play on a Chinese preserved egg known as a thousand-years-old egg. Chef Lee has several items on the menu that takes their inspiration from classic Chinese (or maybe Korean since Lee is Korean-American) dishes. The taste of the quail egg was spot on, and the texture was luscious despite it being such a small bite.

The quail egg came with a Lonsdale, which is a cocktail drink from London. And Benu’s version was beautiful with a brilliant lime green globe that bursts and colors the rest of the bowl like a cold soup with bits of apple. DP liked it a lot but I thought it just reminded me of an apple martini. The actual liquor taste was, not surprisingly, subtle with an almost back-end flavor.

Then came a sea urchin dish. You can’t see the sea urchin (which is my favorite new dining ingredient, a.k.a. uni in Japanese) because it’s encased in a white globe, which is the almond tofu, topped with caviar and sitting in a sparkling grape foam.

This complex dish was a mix of flavors, from the savory taste of the uni with the soothing almond tofu and saltiness of the caviar. The grape fruit provided a light sweetness to everything.

Side note: Along with the beautiful presentation of the dishes, the plates and bowls used to deliver the food were exquisite. Chef Lee worked closely with his vendors to design each plate, bowl and platter. In some ways, it was like each container was designed specifically with the dish in mind.

Next came the last small bite of the tasting menu, which was a pan-fried abalone served with a grenobloise sauce, cauliflower bits, caper and lemon. I appreciated the dish was nice and hot from the kitchen, which indicated that the tasting course is orchestrated and timed perfectly to ensure that each dish is served at the perfect temperature to enjoy the food. The warm abalone made it easier to eat it, making it tender with a slight bite instead of how abalone can be chewy. The light grenobloise sauce with the slight lemon flavor was a nice complement. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night.

Another favorite dish was actually an ensemble of three parts. The eel course included eel made into a feuille de brick (looking like a cigarette) served with avocado crème fraiche, a bowl of caramelized anchovy with peanuts and lily bulbs, and finally a little cube of mountain yam and shrimp soufflé.

Both DP and I enjoyed the eel feuille de brick, which had a wonderful unagi taste and perfectly fried. (I know this was probably deep-fried, but hey, it was a small feuille de brick.) The crème fraiche was OK although I enjoyed the eel alone. The shrimp soufflé, while moist and tender, tasted just like any old sponge cake or pound cake, but didn’t have any shrimp flavor. And the caramelized anchovy, which came in the form of gel cubes, were overpowered by the peanuts.

I felt this particular course, which took up a bit of space with all the individual plates on the table, were all good by themselves, but I didn’t see how they worked together. It was a very disjointed ensemble of a course.

Next came the monkfish liver torchon. Monkfish liver is a very special dish when going for sushi, and Benu’s version was beautifully presented with tiny cubes of pear on top and served with mustard and one tiny turnip.

The monkfish was served with beautifully golden brioche that I used to spread the rich monkfish liver on. The monkfish wasn’t that smooth for a spread, but it was still a wonderful flavor that captured the monkfish liver taste, and the slight sweetness of the pear was a nice touch although it was hard to keep the tiny pieces on top of the liver spread. I totally enjoyed this dish, especially with the well-made brioche.

The next course is a signature dish of Chef Lee, a faux shark fin’s soup served with Dungeness crab and a jus made from jinhua ham. Shark fin is quite controversial these days because the use of shark fin in Chinese dishes has resulted in the over-fishing of sharks, many caught just for the fins and then tossed back fin-less. Lee attempts to delivery the flavor and texture of the shark fin but without using actual fins from the shark.

DP never had shark fin’s soup, but I’ve had many growing up in a Chinese family in Hawaii (before it was banned). It’s a very special dish in Chinese restaurants (and often quite expensive) and I felt Lee’s gel used to create the tiny strips of shark fin was spot on. In the photo, the shark fin is the tiny strips sitting on top of the crab meat. Unfortunately, Chef Lee serves the “shark fin” with strips of cabbage and carrots for color, but the crunchiness of the vegetables confuses the eater, IMHO, of the actual gel-like texture of the shark fin.

The soup made from jinhua ham, however, provided an authentic flavoring that reminded me of a lot of Chinese dishes (albeit not traditional shark fin soup). An added component was a black truffle custard on the bottom of the bowl, which provided a wonderful creamy texture to the soup with flavor and texture similar to a 1,000-year-old egg. Because the jus is made from jinhua ham, similar to Chinese sausage, it can be quite salty to some people but I’m used to this level of savory tastes in Chinese dishes.

Then we had a pumpkin porridge with lobster and black truffle. This was a tasty bowl of beautiful orange soup, which had more of a light texture like foam. I didn’t get much of a lobster taste, but there was a definite seafood flavor. DP says he could taste the lobster, and he appreciated the pumpkin seeds that provided a contrasting texture to the bowl.

Heading into some of the heavier courses, there was this colorful dish of pork belly, sea cucumber and wood ear mushrooms. DP and I observed that pork belly is one of those courses that every San Francisco restaurant has to offer these days. And while I love it, I do feel I’m near saturation point with pork bellies.

Benu’s version is slightly more like Chinese BBQ pork, with a slight red coloring, but the flavor is authentically Chinese with tender texture. I enjoyed the combination of the pork belly with tiny balls of cucumber. The sea cucumber, which has a squishy texture, had the slight heat from fermented pepper, providing a mix of flavors in this dish from sweet and savory to cool and spicy hot. It was a well-thought out and complex dish.

Then came the Eight Treasure duck, another play on a traditional Chinese dish of the same name. This was DP and my least favorite course of the night. While I love duck, this stuffed duck plate had odd flavors that didn’t seem to serve the duck well. Traditional Chinese eight treasure duck refers to the use of eight ingredients, often herbal things like gingko nuts. When I inquired about the eight ingredients in Benu’s dish, the servers admitted that the name is more about the inspiration than the actual literal interpretation of eight treasure duck. There were ginko nuts, but also non-traditional ingredients like pine nuts, foie gras, and black truffle. There were hints of Asian flavors, but those Asian flavors weren’t necessarily my favorites. (BTW, those are edible gold leaf sprinkled around the dish.)

The main meat course was the beef rib cap served with a fresh roasted chestnut and a sauce with goji berry (another nod to the use of Asian ingredients) and a celery foam.

I thought the meat was perfectly cooked, with a nice seared flavor from the grill marks. DP liked the fresh chestnut, and I liked how the heaviness of this dish was countered by the refreshing celery foam. This (and the earlier pumpkin porridge) was a nice signal of the fall season.

As we moved into dessert, we received a malted rice sorbet. This white sorbet sat in a white bowl, so this was definitely one of the most difficult courses to photograph with everything pretty much looking like a white blank canvas. The taste, however, was different. DP noted how most sorbets are made from fruit, so it was interesting to have the rice flavor, just like eating rice pudding, but with the light texture of sorbet. This worked as a palate cleanser as the main dessert course arrived.

The main dessert course was another beautiful and colorful plate using huckleberries as a theme. There was the huckleberry sorbet served with lemon curd and vanilla sponge cake and yogurt foam, decorated with a huckleberry gel ribbon and actual fresh huckleberries.

All the parts of this dish blended well. The sorbet had an amazing texture that was like frozen yogurt, creamy but firm. It was a texture unique to Benu, I believe. Another nice touch was the use of crunchy graham cracker-like topping. This was a very enjoyable dessert, and a nice end to the dinner.

But of course, it wasn’t totally over because we were treated to this tray of chocolates as a final treat. The chocolates are made exclusively for Benu by Wendy Sherwood, a former pastry chef at the French Laundry who recently opened a chocolate store in Napa called La Foret.

The four pieces of chocolates offered a nice mix of flavors and textures, but many of the flavors and textures – while luxurious – seemed quite familiar. They had a definite French chocolate quality to them, but I wanted to be surprised.

That kind of was the theme for the night. Every plate at Benu was complex and perfectly executed, but there were few surprises or wow moments for me. I did enjoy the experience and felt satisfied by the portions of food (I feel sometimes tasting menus can leave me hungry for more), but maybe wanted a bit more twists and turns along the journey. I did appreciate the nods to Asian flavors in such a high-end environment, but because many of these flavors were those that I grew up with, maybe that’s why I wasn’t as surprised about the dishes?

The service was what you’d expect from a fine-dining establishment, with friendly servers who are attentive. This may be an indication of Benu being so new, but I did feel the servers weren’t as informed as they should be about the ingredients of the dishes. With a reputation like that of Chef Lee, you would expect a lot of food lovers to dine here, which means the servers should be prepared to be peppered with a lot of questions about the dishes. I found that many of my questions had to be referred or checked with another person. While our server was gracious to find the answers, it just seemed like you’d have more confident in a place when the servers are just as excited as the chef about the dishes.

But really, I felt that’s just a nit-picky comment (as often comes out of my brain from these complex tasting menus). Overall, I enjoyed this well-orchestrated dinner at Benu that provided a nice calm experience highlighted by satisfying flavors. Benu will most likely be a place for many special dinners and celebrations, and I hope as Chef Lee tweaks his menu with the changing seasons, he’ll add more surprises for entertainment to go along with the solid tastes and beautiful presentation.

Single guy rating: 4.5 stars (French Asian excellence)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Benu on Urbanspoon


Nate @ House of Annie said...

awesome dinner, from start to finish. The sea urchin in almond tofu sounds amazing.

Did the goji berry play any part in the beef rib cap plate besides decoration?

Single Guy Ben said...

The goji berry gave the overall plate a real Asian taste, but I'm actually not a big fan of gogi berry, so I didn't bite into it too often, although there were only two or three berries.

Hungry Dog said...

Wow. What an experience! Thanks for documenting it so well. I'd like to try it, just need to save my pennies for a bit.

Carolyn Jung said...

I can't wait to go there, myself. I know, I know, I wrote a story for Food Arts magazine on the construction of Benu, but haven't had a chance to see it now that it's all done and open. The tasting menu you had looks exquisite. And I've heard many people rave about that faux shark's fin dish. Can't wait to taste it, myself, some day soon. ;)

foodhoe said...

That looks like a lovely feast, I'm sorry my piggybank just isn't big enough to save up for these types of meals... although I admit that I spend so much better than I save. I love the presentation of the food, especially that huckleberry ribbon on the dessert, but the abalone dish is the one I most want to try... However; Single Guy, I disagree that you can ever OD on pork belly!