Indulgence is my middle name. Okay, perhaps not, but have you ever known a girl more self-indulgent than I? Perhaps you have. But I contend that it’s rare to find someone who would board a flight to SF at 4:30p with a reservation to a 2 Michelin star restaurant waiting for her on the other end of a 6 hour flight.
That’s right, kiddies: instead of going straight to my home for the next week and losing a night, I got off the plane, hopped on the BART to SoMa (South of Market, for those unfamiliar with the neighborhoods in SF), walked a good 6 blocks down dark, scary, pee-smelling streets, rolling my luggage behind me, and then sat down at about 9:30p for a 2.5 hour tasting menu.
To change things up a little, let me tell you upfront what this cost me: $310, including a generous tip for my excellent service. I’d emailed the restaurant ahead of time to ask if there would be a place for my bag, as I didn’t want to be in the way, to apprise them of my food allergies, and – for the first time EVER in my life – to ask that I be seated in an area with proper lighting. All of these things were noted, taken into account, and confirmed when I arrived. And that was just the start of my incredible service.
When all was said and done, I didn’t get to sleep until about 5:30am EST – when I’d woken up earlier that day around 7am EST.
It was worth every last penny, and every last minute of missed sleep.
At this point, you’re probably champing at the bit to hear about the food, but it should also be noted that this conversation occurred mere days prior to my dinner:
me: “Benu or Coi?”
me: “Hmm. I sort of wanted to support Coi because that guy raised all this money for that restaurant affected by Super Storm Sandy, and I dig that.”
SFG: “Benu is closer [to where I work] and it was really good when I went [about a month ago]”
me: “Okay, Benu it is.”
SFG: “Do you know what kind of cuisine it is?”
SFG: “It’s Chinese French”
me: *momentary inner struggle to cancel reservation – I have this intense snobbery about Chinese food, fusion, and then I looked it up and discovered that the Executive Chef at Benu is Korean! but I decided to power ahead and do it anyway* “Like me!” (For those who don’t know, my heritage is indeed French, Irish and Chinese.)
With that, it was done.
I arrived, breathless, a few minutes late for my reservation. I’d had no trouble taking the BART, nor any trouble walking the right way, but I’d simply miscalculated how much slower I walk when I have a piece of pink luggage bumping along behind me, avoiding pee puddles best I could. As soon as I appeared in the driveway of Benu – walking first past the large windows that look into the kitchen, where I could see Chef Corey Lee working – a smiling man tried to help me with my bag. I waved him off and just asked, confusedly, how I get into the restaurant – I was walking up a driveway. He pointed towards doors off to one side and again offered to help me, as there was a short flight of steps leading to the incredibly muted restaurant, but I again declined. I came this far and my sense of independence – particularly just before dining on the most expensive meal I’ve ever had solo – was running high. Extremely high.
As I walked in, someone on the floor saw me and immediately walked over and greeted me. Though I don’t believe he was the maitre d’ – I don’t suppose they had one in the traditional sense – he knew exactly who I was and which reservation was mine. He indicated that I could leave my bag in the foyer and it would be taken care of, then led me to a semi-secluded table and said with a huge smile, “I believe this is the best table in the house for lighting.” When I looked at it, I had to agree: there was practically a spotlight shining on my table, though by no means overwhelming or too bright.
Despite this, I apologize for the quality of my photos.
As I browsed the menu, I decided almost immediately on the tasting menu – there were two items I strongly wanted to sample that were not offered on the a la carte menu.
Having made that decision, I turned to the wine list. After a brief glance, I noted that the Schramsberg blanc de blancs was available by the half bottle. Before I could even fully form my thought, the surprisingly Asian sommelier appeared to offer his services and answer any questions I might have. (I say surprising simply because I don’t believe I’ve had an Asian sommelier in the past.) I asked him if sparkling wine would pair well with my menu choice; he said it would do really well, particularly with the early part of my menu. I made a joke about some people not thinking sparkling goes with everything (something I feel VERY strongly about: sparkling wine is good for any occasion, and bubbles are just so lovely to make anything feel festive!), and he agreed with my assessment that they are good all the time. Validation!
So yes, I treated myself to a half bottle of sparkling wine to start.
Once my order was in and my meal began, the pace was steady, uninterrupted, a smooth flow of courses ahead of me such that I barely had time to take notes on my reactions to each dish between being served (yes, I did! I took notes!). Of course, as the night progressed and I drank more, it is entirely possible that I was writing more and more slowly…
Crisp crackers to munch on as I waited for my meal to begin.
First: thousand year old quail egg, potage, ginger; velvety potage that surrounded a quail egg given the ‘thousand year old’ treatment. I’d worried the ginger would be too strong, but instead, its presence was felt only in the form of warmth, balancing the dish with its slight spice, while the egg held its own with its texture contrasting the smooth potage.
Second: oyster, pork belly, kimchi; I absolutely loved this dish. The exterior wrapper was crunchy, light; the oyster was meaty and slippery, while the pork belly added a rich fattiness. The kimchi left a pleasant, lingering spice, the whole bite was warm, and as my notes say: ‘perfect combination of textures’ – I can’t describe it any better than that. The lightest, thinnest, crispest exterior, yielding to slippery oyster meat coupled with fatty, rich pork belly, and the ever so slight lingering heat of kimchi: perfection. If I may be so bold, there have been bites over the years that I’ve thought to myself I would like trays upon trays to be served at my reception: this one makes the cut.
(For those keeping track, the other bite that I’ve put on this list publicly is the foie gras apple macaron from Eleven Madison Park.)
Third: potato salad with anchovy; I absolutely loved the custom plate ware – this flower-shaped bowl was barely larger than an egg cup, with a green glazed interior, and perfect for this bite. Creamy potato salad, bound lightly by oil, covered in crunchy small anchovies that lent an incredibly umami taste and great texture to the overall dish. Another excellent and playful study of textures – smooth potato salad with crisp anchovies. There was no fishiness of which to speak.
Fourth: eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime; a cigarillo with a wrapper bearing the restaurant’s name – to hold so that your fingers don’t get oily – was another study in textures. The crisp feuille held oceany/briny eel, whose flavor was very pronounced, and the creamy creme fraiche was the perfect foil to brighten the bite. Just the right size, too – when I finished, I didn’t feel bogged down or greasy.
Fifth: monkfish liver, apple, daikon, black sesame, brioche; though I took a photo of the brioche, I felt it was unnecessary and barely used it, so I won’t bother showing it here. It was also a little too buttery. As for the monkfish… well, my notes become incredibly verbose here, which leads me to think I may have been just a touch drunk. However, I do agree with them: this was the best, most respectful use of monkfish liver I’ve ever had, rendering it creamy and truly the “foie gras of the sea” (something I’ve heard many people refer to monkfish liver as). “The brunoise was perfect; tiny, even, and just right – the apple, daikon – perfect complement to the smooth liver – crunchy, sweet, juicy.” I was progressively more impressed with the use of contrasting textures at Benu; texture is something I look for in my food, as a dish can be incredibly seasoned and properly cooked, but if the texture is all the same, I eventually get bored of what I’m eating. This was not the case at Benu!
Sixth: sake lees, chestnut, satsuma; this was a great intermezzo or palate cleanser; very playful textures, with rich chestnut, cold, creamy sake lees (the paste left behind when you’re making sake), and tart satsuma chunks.
Seventh: abalone persillade with cauliflower; if my notes are to be taken literally, I may or may not have whispered “You said words I like – cauliflower panna cotta” which I suppose is how my super friendly server described this dish to me. Once again, a great play of textures, with the very creamy, silky, sweet panna cotta (I likened it more to a soft tofufa, or silken tofu, than a panna cotta, which I tend to prefer a little stiffer) topped with crunchy bites. I thought the abalone’s flavor was a bit masked or hidden, but the dish itself overall was still very delightful.
Eighth: chicken velvet, black moss, dried scallop, chrysanthemum; while the name gives it away, I was incredibly surprised by the total lack of texture in this dish. Given that every single course preceding this one boasted fantastic textural plays, this one – with a completely smooth chicken “meatball” whose entire flavor came from the broth, with no texture and very little flavor of its own to speak – threw me for a giant loop. This was definitely one of my least favorite courses of the night, though the broth was resplendent with the flavor of dried scallops (something to which I’m incredibly partial).
Ninth: salt and pepper squid; this was nothing like any salt and pepper squid you’ve ever had – unless you’ve eaten at Benu recently. A chip of sorts, I was encouraged to eat this with my fingers by just picking it up and biting. Okay! this reminded me of a shrimp chip (a la Chinese cuisine), but thicker yet airier; it was topped with a white powder and pickled bits to keep your palate interested and was truly innovative. I’m not sure I’d liken the flavors to salt & pepper squid, though; I can’t tell you what it tasted like, but I definitely did not think “oh, yes, salt & pepper squid, but run through a molecular gastronomy mind.” Don’t get me wrong – this was very tasty – but I couldn’t find the correlation.
Tenth: lobster coral xiao long bao; this was one of the two dishes I was really interested in sampling. So much potential here – either way, I could have been over the moon, or disappointed entirely. Unfortunately, the answer lies – as most things in life – somewhere in the middle. The inside of each xiao long bao (soup dumpling) was intensely flavored, the lobster making a prominent appearance, with a very savory broth cradling the entire thing. The vinegar added to the experience, though it wasn’t necessary. The main failing here, then, were the wrappers; gummy, thick in areas, and not quite the right texture. A slightly less egregious failing were the flat metal chopsticks given to me with this course (my flatware was changed with every single course, nothing left behind); they were terrible for picking these up and I was lucky I didn’t pop the delicate dumplings. I do not have acute chopstick skills (something my family mocks constantly), though I did grow up using them [poorly], so I’m not sure how people with less skills than I manage to eat these without losing all the precious broth before they can be consumed.
Eleventh: crepinette of sea bass and shrimp, lettuce, fermented pepper; this was a really meaty piece of fish with some nice spice on the grilled lettuce, but not quite as standout as I hoped. Admittedly, when I saw the piece of fish, I immediately thought of the striped bass “en paupiette” from Cafe Boulud, which was also a huge, rounded piece of fish. Unfortunately, while this fish was cooked properly – extremely tender – it did not hold a candle to that dish. Irrespective of my misconception, though, the fish itself lacked a bit of seasoning; swiped through the pepper on the bottom of the plate, it livened up, but solo, it was just a thick piece of fish/shrimp.
(While I’ve sadly never blogged my meal at Cafe Boulud – and never will, for many reasons – you should all take it upon yourselves to make a special trip, because it was AMAZING. Chef Gavin Kaysen is a genius.)
Twelfth: eight treasure duck; topped with gold leaf, goji berries, black truffle, all of which lend themselves to the “treasure” part of the name – though mostly, I didn’t feel they added much to the dish. The truffles were fairly muted, and gold leaf is… flavorless… though the goji berries added a nice chewy texture to the dish. Funny enough, this dish almost – in terms of once I cut into it – reminded me of a dish from Corton, another meal that I’ve never blogged and unlikely ever will, for very much the same reasons I will never write about Cafe Boulud. (There was a guinea hen ballotine at Corton with such an incredible flavor to it, cooked perfectly, just amazing, that this duck dish resembled in terms of texture and meatiness.) While this duck was in pieces – so not quite as dizzyingly meaty – it was also incredibly savory, though the dish as a whole fell slightly flat for me. Perhaps because I don’t particularly care for the dish after which it’s modeled, either… (eight treasure rice)
Thirteenth: beef braised in pear juice and charcoal-grilled, broccoli, burdock, charred scallion; I will say that braising hasn’t yet ceased to amaze me as a versatile means of cooking. My piece of meat was tender beyond belief – I’ve heard of pear juice (Asian snow pears in particular) being used as a tenderizer, but holy wow. I was intrigued that though this was listed as braised, it was still medium – I always think of braised as low and slow, long cooking times, though I myself braise cucumbers on a regular basis and know this to not always be the case. In any case, I found this a truly lovely dish, lightly sweet with crunchy bits as the perfect complement. While some might say it’s just a piece of meat, it was a piece of meat treated with the utmost care, a lot of flavor drawn out of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Fourteenth: “shark’s fin” soup, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard; this was the other dish which piqued my curiosity and stirred me to order the tasting menu. I wanted to know more about this faux shark’s fin; I have eaten my share of shark’s fin in my life (and please, please, please, leave your preaching and lectures for somewhere else; I am NOT here to defend nor apologize for what I eat), and Chef Lee really hit it on the head here. Though I haven’t had enough shark’s fin to claim to be an expert in the slightest, the main takeaway I have from past experiences eating shark’s fin is that it is entirely a textural experience. In appearance, it resembles glass noodles, but the texture is slightly stiffer – shredded cartilage, really – with a very unique chewiness to it. The flavor could only be described as the barest hint of ocean, though that might be imagined or simply from the soup within which it’s generally served. Here, it was served in a broth… well, actually, I asked my super knowledgeable server about the faux shark’s fin, and he explained that the shark’s fin was actually made from the broth in which it was being served, using … I want to say a special type of gelatin, but I don’t recall the exact word he used. Suffice to say, I was duly impressed with how exact the shark’s fin resembled the real shark’s fin I’ve had in my limited expertise. The rest of the dish was tasty, with the custard listed as ‘interesting’ in my notes – I didn’t think it added to the dish, but neither did it detract.
Fifteenth: cucumber, sour cherry, black olive; another refreshing palate cleanser; the freeze dried cherries were a deliciously chewy part to the larger whole, with the cucumber ice and savory black olive balancing everything together.
At this point, you wonder if I was full. You wonder have I been finishing everything. Yes, I cleaned the plate every single course, and was thoroughly enjoying myself. However, I did not feel bursting at the seams; I wasn’t hungry, but I was also not super full.
As I mentioned, the courses came out at a steady pace, and I wasn’t really left to be bored or feel full for very long.
Sixteenth: cheesecake, raw pistachio, umeboshi; it’s no secret that I’m not a dessert person. It isn’t generally the course I spend my night yearning towards, and it isn’t generally the course I remember meals by. However, I can appreciate a well thought out, highly crafted dessert like anyone else… and this was not it. Sadly, this was like eating a ball of sweetened cream cheese – and while I adore cream cheese, I do not adore eating a ball of it, lightly sweetened, rolled in pistachio. No sir. The dehydrated cream cheese “chip” lying on top was pleasant, at least, but could not and did not save the overall dish. This needs a lot of work.
I did not finish this course, and cutely, two of the servers who had been clearing my table, marking it for the next course, and so forth, separately asked with concern if everything was alright. They were too nice, too pleasant, and I felt too put on the spot to tell them that this course was a disgrace to the rest of everything I’d eaten that night, so I simply demurred and said I’m not much for dessert (which is not a lie).
Seventeenth: chocolates; I’m hard pressed to tell you what each kind was at this point. I did not eat all of them; however, I did eat the sesame one – and liked it – though I did not care for the molds they’d used, which left obvious seams on the chocolates. Call me picky. You’re a 2 Michelin star pastry chef; you should be pickier than I am. In any case, I did think the presentation was very cute… and I was happy when the server mentioned that the coconut chocolate had been left out of my selection, ha (due to my allergy, which I’d included in my email).
Overall, I was thoroughly pleased with my experience. Service was above and beyond to make me comfortable as a solo diner – chatty but not TOO chatty servers – and the food was creative, innovative without seeming weird or different just for the sake of being such, and most of it far exceeded expectations in terms of taste. Presentation was great as well – I had a fantastic time, and was really glad I’d decided on a whim to treat myself to this meal.
While I wouldn’t say everyone should go out of their way to go to Benu – as in, I don’t know if I’d say take a special trip to SF just to dine there – if you’re in the Bay Area and looking for a fantastic meal from start to almost finish (I hope they take that cheesecake dessert off the menu, or change it drastically soon, seriously), I highly recommend considering Benu as your choice. It is worth every penny – and if you don’t want to do the entire tasting menu, they offer an a la carte menu for part of the week. Check out the website for full details.
After I happily paid my bill and chatted with my server a bit longer – while my phone charged a bit, since it was dying – I went on my merry way, walking the short distance to a bar near Saison to wait for SFG to finish work.
Honestly? the perfect first meal in SF for 2013. Thank you, Chef Lee, for quietly disproving my preconceived notions against someone of Korean descent blending Chinese and French cuisine flawlessly.
Cheers! more posts on SF to come shortly.