Saturday, August 24, 2013

Benu (San Francisco, CA) [2]

Benu Restaurant
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94105
Sat 08/24/2013, 08:40p-11:30p

Benu Exterior

My dinner at Chef Corey Lee's groundbreaking Benu last year was memorable for two reasons. First, it was arguably my best meal of 2012; and second, it marked the only occasion where I'd forgotten to bring my camera's memory card(!). Given the strength of my experience here, I couldn't let the blog stand with those subpar cell phone pics, so a revisit was in order to give the food its proper due.

Benu Tasting Menu Benu Beverage Pairing
Benu's sole menu option this evening was a 17-course degustation priced at $180 per head, plus $150 for the always-superb beverage pairings of Head Sommelier Yoon Ha. Click for larger versions.

thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
1: thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
prager, grüner veltliner, federspiel, hinter der burg, wachau, austria 2011
We commenced with a course that looked humble, but was anything but. The egg itself was pretty fantastic, a spot on homage to the traditional delicacy, and went superbly with the included potage of bacon, cabbage, and cream, a hearty, comforting liquid that added a bit of heft to the surprising lightness of the pidan. The key here, though, was the use of the traditional accompaniment of ginger, which imparted a brightness that just lifted the entire dish.

oyster, pork belly, kimchi
2: oyster, pork belly, kimchi
prager, grüner veltliner, federspiel, hinter der burg, wachau, austria 2011
A singular Beau Soleil showed off a masterful interplay between two complementary facets of richness between the belly and the oyster, but with the bivalve always managing to shine through despite the heft of the pork. I also really appreciated the hint of kimchi spice toward the back end, too. A great little bite.

salmon roe, eggplant, buckwheat, perilla
3: salmon roe, eggplant, buckwheat, perilla
matsuura, narutotai, namagenshu ginjo, tokushima, japan
Buckwheat was used to great effect here, imparting a tempering crunch to the smoky, salty combo of ikura and eggplant, while the perilla added well-placed pricks of mintiness to the fray. A harmony of disparate textures and tastes, and one that was particularly apt against the bright, racy flavors of the accompanying namazake.

anchovy, celery, peanut
4: anchovy, celery, peanut
hitachino, red rice ale, ibaraki, japan
Next, we began a procession of four little courses, all presented on the same transparent serving piece and paired with Hitachino's always-satisfying, somewhat-funky Red Rice Ale. The caramelized anchovy was fantastic, capturing the essence of the traditional snack and showing off a deft blend of sweet and fishy flavors that were dutifully moderated by a hit of celery zing, all while the peanut served as the perfect nutty finish.

faux shark's fin, dungeness crab, caviar, rousong
5: faux shark's fin, dungeness crab, caviar, rousong
hitachino, red rice ale, ibaraki, japan
Chef Lee's famous faux shark's fin soup is off the menu (for now), but the main ingredient was put to good use here. Texturally, the "fin" was fantastic, adding a springy component to the growing intensity of flavors in the course, the sweetness of the crab masterfully offset by the subtle undercurrent of rousong savor.

'xo sausage' with basil curd
6: "xo sausage" with basil curd
hitachino, red rice ale, ibaraki, japan
I was tempted to go Alinea-style here and eat this hands-free, but wisely decided not to. The sausage, enhanced with the qualities of the legendary XO, conveyed a very pleasing depth and savor to it, one that paired just swimmingly with the creamy, herby nuances provided by the basil.

acorn beggar's purse with black truffle
7: acorn beggar's purse with black truffle
hitachino, red rice ale, ibaraki, japan
The last of the foursome was Benu's ode to the signature dish of 80's NYC hotspot Quilted Giraffe. Their beggar's purse came with crème fraîche and caviar, and was itself a riff on the French treat aumonieres. This version might've been even more luxurious: unabashedly savory, lush, and creamy on the palate, with a subtle, yet always apparent overtone of truffle that lasted long on the palate.

multigrain bread, ginseng honey butter
Bread, of course, was also something to behold. The multigrain variety here was wonderfully nutty, smoky even, with a delightfully crisp crust to it. However, the real star was that ginseng-honey butter, which married the zesty notes of the root with a fantastically lush sweetness that just paired with the bread beautifully.

almond tofu, green apple, chia seed
8: almond tofu, green apple, chia seed
Our next course functioned as a sort of intermezzo, its bright, juicy flavors, herbaceous zing, and apple-y crunch providing a bit of a respite from the hefty flavors that we'd been experiencing.

cold noodles, pickled hearts of palm, shrimp roe, mint
9: cold noodles, pickled hearts of palm, shrimp roe, mint
von hövel, riesling kabinett, sharzhofberger, mosel, germany 2008
Pairing in stellar fashion with the vibrant acidity of the Kabinett Riesling were some of the best cold noodles I've encountered. I loved the umami-rich base of the dish, courtesy of the shrimp, a focused, almost profound thrust of ocean-y goodness that was keenly countered by the light, delicate flavors of the noodles and palm. Even better? The pin pricks of piquancy that were enabled by the use of ginger and mint. I wouldn't have minded going through a big bowl of the stuff!

lobster coral xiao long bao
10: lobster coral xiao long bao
duchesse de bourgogne, flemish red brown ale, belgium
Next, we come to what has become perhaps Lee's most well-known dish, a masterful homage to the humble xiaolongbao. It was just so utterly, ridiculously xiang, an umami explosion (both literally and figuratively) with an incredible depth to it that satisfies in the basest ways possible. I'm not sure if I liked 'em with or without the vinegar (a wonderful foil to the paired Duchesse, by the way), but no matter, I'd love to demolish a whole bamboo basket of these beauties.

pig's head with lentil hozön and bönji
11: pig's head with lentil hozön and bönji
duchesse de bourgogne, flemish red brown ale, belgium
Also fantastic with the Duchesse was this schmancy souse, its stupendously porcine quality joined by countervailing hits of ferment-y, tangy, and sweet flavors, the result of the hozon and bonji now being produced by Momofuku frontman David Chang. Perhaps the best head cheese I've ever had.

whiting, crispy mushroom, haiga rice, burdock, charred scallion
12: whiting, crispy mushroom, haiga rice, burdock, charred scallion
cuilleron, marsanne, les vignes d'á côté, rhône, france 2012
The whiting, surprisingly, just might've been my favorite course of the evening. The thing that struck me most about the fish was its texture, which I'd describe as firm, but springy, with an almost gelatinous quality to it that I found immensely satisfying. On the palate, it was delicate, nuanced, and really took on the mouthwateringly savory flavors of the accompanying rice, while the scallion added a fantastic jolt of smoke and astringency to the mix. And those mushrooms? Some of the best I've had--perfect.

roast quail, lettuce heart, mustard
13a: roast quail, lettuce heart, mustard
cristom, pinot noir, sommer's reserve, willamette valley, oregon 2011
Getting into the more substantial courses now, quail was roasted beautifully, showing off two distinct, yet complementary facets of the bird in flawlessly done breast and leg presentations. Adding to this was a subtle undertone of sweetness that worked out really well, emphasizing the savory qualities of the quail, while the lettuce imparted a fantastically light, charred, counterbalancing quality to the dish. Delish.

Kippin dried abalone 25 head Kippin abalone from Iwate, 2008, potato purée, tender kale, braising jus
13b: 25 head Kippin abalone from Iwate, 2008, potato purée, tender kale, braising jus [$230 supplement]
el maestro sierra, oloroso sherry, jerez, spain
In place of the quail, diners also had the option of Kippin abalone from Japan's Iwate prefecture, oft considered some of the best in the world. Priced at $230 a pop, it was costlier than the entire rest of the menu, and quite easily the most expensive single dish I've had. The awabi was of the 2008 vintage, and was prepared by braising in a stock of chicken feet and pork neck for 18 hours. The result of all this was the best cooked abalone I've had--meaty and a bit gelatinous to the bite, with a great growing depth and complexity to it that was tempered in part by the potato and greens present. Also of note here was the wine pairing, with the Oloroso coming to us nutty and oxidative, and also super dry on the palate. What was interesting was how the Sherry seemed to become sweeter upon being paired with the mollusk.

beef braised in pear juice and charcoal-grilled, lily bulb, sunflower, fermented pepper
14: beef braised in pear juice and charcoal-grilled, lily bulb, sunflower, fermented pepper
clos st. jean, châteauneuf-du-pape, rhône, france 2008
Next, Brandt beef was braised overnight, resulting in a dish that one of my dining companions likened to an "elevated galbi." Texturally, the meat was tender, but not mushy, with still some structure to it, while its dark, bovine flavors worked faultlessly with the sweet-ish sauce and the whisper of spice toward the back end. The lily bulb served to balance out the sheer heft of the meat, and what I liked even more was the use of sunflower seed, which acted as a fantastic accent piece with its nuttiness and crunch.

shellfish consommé and raft, Jinhua ham, chrysanthemum
15: shellfish consommé and raft, Jinhua ham, chrysanthemum
blandy's, verdelho, madeira, portugal 1968
Benu's famed "shark's fin soup" may be off the menu now, but its rather profound broth was put to good use here, serving as a complement to the intensely ocean-y, briny flavors of the shellfish, while the whole shebang concluded with a delightfully peppery tint on the close. The wine pairing here was spot on too, the '68 Madeira conveying a surprisingly youthful exuberance with its trademark oxidative, nutty, and raisin-y qualities.

sake lees sherbet, strawberry, yuzu
16: sake lees sherbet, strawberry, yuzu
The sweet stuff at Benu is now the charge of new Pastry Chef Courtney Schmidig, who comes to the restaurant from The French Laundry and replaces Christopher Bleidorn (who went to Atelier Crenn). She got off to a strong start here with this deceptively simple dessert. I adored how the funky, earthy, yet saccharine notes of the kasu was conveyed, set against the sweetness of strawberry with just a smidge of yuzu tang on the midpalate.

sesame white cake with salted plum sesame white cake with salted plum
17: sesame white cake with salted plum
uroulat, jurançon, southwest france 2011
Let's just say that we were all a bit shocked when an honest-to-goodness, old-school cake was placed on the table for our main dessert. It was a bit dissonant given the hypermodern aesthetic at Benu, but the contrast was pure genius, and we all appreciated the communal aspect here, of slicing and serving the cake to each other "family style." Concept aside, the cake was pretty damn good. The plum, however, really took it to the next level, imparting a salty/sour component that really worked wonders with the sweetness here. I'd love this in a larger size as a birthday cake!

Once again, Benu managed to impress, delivering a virtually flawless meal that showcased Chef Lee's deft hand in marrying his contemporary leanings with Asia's vast culinary playbook. The food effectively conveys and honors those traditions, but never verges on trite or contrived, utilizing just the right amount of modernist flair in the process. At the same time, deliciousness was never compromised, and the comforting, cozy flavors that one expects are present in all their glory, with only occasional dalliances in the overtly cerebral. And, as expected, beverage pairings were spot on as well, really linking up with the cooking in creative and effective ways. The Benu team is doing some great work here, and I'm looking forward to see where they all take this. Time for three stars?


Anonymous Julian said...

That abalone! It reminded me of a dish I had years ago at Pacific's Edge in Carmel that is still to this day the best preparation of abalone that I've had.

Where else in SF are you planning to eat? I was just there two weeks ago and had a phenomenal meal at SPQR. I was thoroughly impressed with the entire experience, from the service to the food to their policy of not answering the phone during service.

Monday, September 02, 2013 10:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great review! looking forward to trying Benu. i was told that going in December is a great time to go.

if you have a chance while in San Francisco, definitely, definitely hit up Saison - they are doing some phenomenal things there right now. i had an absolutely mindblowing meal there this saturday, which was even better than the previous day's dinner at Manresa (which itself is excellent and had some standout dishes).

Tuesday, September 03, 2013 8:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mention that the abalone is "2008 vintage." What does this mean? Fresh shellfish, sure, but abalone given vintage dates like wine? Never heard of that. I am old enough to remember fresh abalone on SF menus.

So are they canned? Frozen? Pickled? Dried? Can you get them fresh?

Tuesday, September 03, 2013 6:04:00 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Great review Kevin. Glad you were able to go back with a new battery.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous SG said...

I must make a trip to Benu...

Wednesday, September 04, 2013 11:46:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Julian: I'm back from SF already unfortunately. I was only up there two days for a wedding. Also went to Atelier Crenn, which will drop in the next couple days.

Anon: What's particularly good about going in December? I've actually been to Saison before, pre-move, but do really want to try it out again now that it's in a new spot.

Anon: It means that the abalone was harvested in 2008, and has been aging all this time, developing flavor and complexity, much like wine I suppose. As such, dried abalone is considerably more expensive than the fresh version (which you can definitely get, at many sushi bars in fact), as we can see here.

Evan: It was the memory card that screwed me, not the battery. ;)

SG: Indeed. It needs to be near the top of your list for the Bay Area.

Thursday, September 05, 2013 2:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

kevin, i was told by someone connected there that there would be good truffles in December, and that would be the optimal time to go for that. Saison's evolved quite nicely and it's superb right now, hitting such high notes with ridiculous consistency. new spot's comfortable as well. for reference, i love visiting Providence in LA, but i've never had shellfish like i've had it at Saison. anyway, i don't mean to derail the thread - i enjoyed your Benu review!

Thursday, September 05, 2013 8:39:00 AM  

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