Benu | San Francisco, CA | Apr ’14 | “saucing”

27 May
  • Address: 22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94105
  • Phone: (415) 685-4860
  • Price I paid (after tax + tip, incl. a $16 beer and $25 supplement): $330/ ~$305 without drinks
  • Courses: (20 main/22 total) 18 savory / 1 bread/ 2 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $15
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Value: 3/5
  • Dining Time: 160 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 7 minutes
  • Chef: Corey Lee (ex. chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, Per Se, Daniel, Lespinasse, Guy Savoy, Alain Senderens)
  • In Own Words: “My family used to run through the cheese section of the grocery store,” he says—in flight from the unfamiliar dairy smell. At home, they kept two fridges, one for Korean food and one for American. “It informed how I see my American-ness versus my Korean-ness. There is some separation there. Benu’s food is about how those two can coexist.” – http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2013/12/17/corey-lee-wise-chef-of-the-west
  • Style: Asian-fusion
  • Michelin Stars: 2

After London, Lee spent time in the kitchens at Daniel and Lespinasse in New York. “You heard about it—there’s this kid that’s a badass and he’s an awesome cook,” Chang says. “He’s a fighter—a tiny pitbull. Nobody’s going to outwork him, and you’re not going to outthink him, either.”

“His commitment to his career was profound,” says Thomas Keller, who hired Lee to work at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City. “It was a rare—that’s an understatement—approach from a man so young, that kind of foresight and ambition and willingness to learn.” Lee was with Keller for nine years. To his physical endurance and mental wherewithal he added finesse, and the confidence to make his cooking personal.

“Thomas Keller was the first chef to do French interpretations of American food,” Lee says. “For him, it was mac and cheese. For me, it might be re-creating flavors from when I was younger, finding a way to refine them. It’s realizing that people can find your own experiences interesting.” – http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2013/12/17/corey-lee-wise-chef-of-the-west

2014-04-25 22.00.07 2014-04-25 22.00.13 2014-04-25 22.00.22 2014-04-25 22.00.38

I approached benu knowing that this restaurant would probably have the highest probability for differing opinions. Dining at Atelier Crenn and Saison the previous days, I had heard nothing but the highest praise for Benu. My maitre d’ at Saison had worked at Benu, and my server at Crenn considered Benu and Meadowood to contain the highest potential for a truly great meal. But at the same time I knew most of the Asian dishes benu would riff on, inside and out. There would be little wow-factor for me in terms of novelty. And it turns out that what would wow me, were the superlative sauces.

I confess to having immediately left my meal at Benu slightly underwhelmed, primarily because I felt I had experienced most of the original touchpoints (Nasi Lemak, xiaolongbao, galbi) in Asian restaurants, and I felt that while they were interesting takes on them, they did not go substantially beyond the original dishes. However, with a month’s reflection behind me, I have substantially revised my opinion of Benu. In my mind, I perhaps came in with the wrong expectations, expecting innovation on top of Asian dishes. The dishes (xiaolongbao, galbi) were brought to a high-pitch of quality, and with the relative paucity of top-quality Asian food in the US, it is heartening to see Benu being a standard bearer for Asian-American cooking.

Saucing. While there were cute little visual tricks in the meal, such as the “oyster, pork belly, kimchi” being served in a Chinese take-out box, and a beggar’s purse being served, the star of the show was the sauces, which relied heavily on aging/fermenting and traditionally Asian condiments like gochujang and Shaoxing wine. They were thick, complex, rich. The dishes which really impressed me with taste combinations – “oyster, pork belly, kimchi” a creamy kimchi based sauced, “wild bamboo fungi and shoots, chicken, cabbage” had a really rich chicken broth that would put the watery cabbage dreck most Chinese restaurants serve to shame, “whole baby sea bream” had an amazing tangy tangerine sauce that I ate off the plate, “Okhotsk sea cucumber” had another amazing peppery sauce with gochujang. “Roast quail” had a cognac glaze with lam kok olive that was addictive. Any restaurant to have two or three amazing sauces has already hit a home-run. To have five, seems like carefulness.

At the same time, Benu is a restaurant that is not particularly tied to California. Chef Corey Lee was originally slated to open Benu in NYC, and it really could open anywhere in America. Benu is not Californian in the stereotypical way (in the way of Manresa or Saison) – relying essentially on the quality of its native bounty and farms. What is distinctive about this restaurant is the care put into saucing, and its mission to modernise American conceptions of Asian cooking. Benu seems the state-of-the-art in Asian-American cooking today.

Rating: 17.5/20

Memory: “oyster, pork belly, kimchi”, “wild bamboo fungi and shoots, chicken, cabbage” , “whole baby sea bream”, “Okhotsk sea cucumber”, “roast quail”, “shad roe, bacon, horseradish, spring vegetables”

Notable Links: Andy Hayler and Ruth Reichl were recently in town, and had very similar menus to my own dinner, that the two of them liked different dishes than I did (and liked different dishes from each other) attests that Benu has no real absolute meh-dishes, just dishes that cater differently to the taste of different diners.

*This is a post from the road, with spotty wi-fi and all. It may have more typos than usual, and definitely has less links and details than I would like. Apologies.

2014-04-25 22.11.57 2014-04-25 22.13.12


2014-04-25 22.17.19 2014-04-25 22.17.381. thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger (4/5)

    • The century-egg process of harsh alkali, is paired with a neutral potage. This was reminiscent of the century-egg porridge one finds at dim-sum restaurants. What was particularly interesting about this preparation was the choice of quail eggs (higher yolk to white ratio) than chicken or duck eggs. I enjoyed it, but it did not differ much from the standard century-egg porridge recipe elsewhere.

2014-04-25 22.24.49

2. braised abalone with toasted grain jelly (4/5)

    • abalone from Big Island in Hawaii
    • yuzu and barley for toasted grain jelly

2014-04-25 22.29.30 2014-04-25 22.29.45

3. oyster, pork belly, kimchi (4.75/5)

    • miyagi oyster, creamy,  and savory. not the main player. oyster gave it a creamy texture
    • Great. A novel combination, take-out box style is paired with oyster and pork belly. A bold flavor of kimchi.

2014-04-25 22.34.45

4. eel, feuille de brick, crème fraîche (4.75/5)

    • creme fraiche with lime salt
    • feuille dough, freshwater eel

2014-04-25 22.42.39

5. anchovy, celery, peanut (3.5/5)

    • caramelised anchovy, celery, peanut
    • Nasi Lemak combination. (anchovy, peanut form the complements to the Singaporean/Malayan dish Nasi Lemak) usually paired with cucumber for freshness – here celery. Ultimately what makes the original Nasi Lemak dish delicious is the creaminess of coconut rice, and the greasiness of fried egg and chicken wings. Therefore I felt it lacked a creamy counterpoint.

2014-04-25 22.44.43 2014-04-25 22.44.49

6. homemade sunflower tofu (3.75/5)

    • Made from Sunflower seeds, real sunflower flavor
    • fermented sunflower tofu

2014-04-25 22.49.43 2014-04-25 22.49.56

7. xo sausage with basil curd (3.75/5)

2014-04-25 22.53.30

8. beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak (3.5/5)

    • purse made from acorn flour, black truffle, iberico ham, red onion, quail egg yolk inside the beggar’s purse

2014-04-25 22.56.16

9. salt and pepper squid (4/5)

    • squidcracker, with squid meat
    • chilli powder, fried garlic powder, confit squid, pickled serrano chilli
    • good mix of tastes, a two/three-bite dish. rather insubstantial

2014-04-25 23.00.34 2014-04-25 23.02.26 2014-04-25 23.02.53(bread) orange blossom honey/wild ginseng, McClellan farms butter.

    • poured over the butter, for dipping with the bread

2014-04-25 23.04.01 2014-04-25 23.04.2110. wild bamboo fungi and shoots, chicken, cabbage (3.75/5)

    • a Chinese banquet dish, which could have been quite insubstantial – however the richness of the broth saved it from a being a mere bitplayer. the lightness was intentional. usually the light vegetable dish is the one I like least about Chinese banquet menus, because it (usually cabbage) contains neither texture nor has it been braised with meat long enough for it to complement the sweetness of cabbage.

2014-04-25 23.12.31

11. shad roe, bacon, horseradish, spring vegetables (4.5/5)

    • shad roe (which I made bottarga with in April, tossed perfectly with a squeeze of 1/4 lemon, (European) parsley, and al dente spaghetti) has a 3-4 week season every year when the saltwater shad spawns, and can only be found in the colder waters of the Northeast. It was easy to find it in Rhode Island in spring, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the restaurant had imported it from the northeast. What I especially like about shad roe is the size of shad eggs – small enough to have a macro-texture, large-enough to be distinct if you really want to emphasise it (like curing it for bottarga, as I did). The size occupies a happy medium.
    • here you can read a paean to shad roe: http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Rite-of-Spring-Shad-Roe.

As a meal, it’s terribly sophisticated and satisfying. And it makes me feel part of a legacy of legendary bon vivants: Joseph Mitchell, the midcentury New Yorker’s streetwise columnist, gathering tales of the Fulton Fish Market over an early-morning shad roe omelet at a fishmongers’ hangout. Or Eartha Kitt singing Cole Porter: “Why ask if shad do it? Waiter, bring me shad roe.”

    • here at benu, wrapped in bacon, and grilled. the day I had it was the last day on the menu!
    • bacon added a savory flavor, though the actual presence of bacon was unnecessary, since it had imparted its flavor to the shad roe fully.

2014-04-25 23.18.49

12. pig’s head with lentil hozõn and bõnji (3.75/5)

    • hozon (a miso-paste-analogue applied to non-soy products, namely fermented nuts and grains) and bonji (a soy-sauce-analogue applied to non-soy products) are products dreamt up by the food-entrepreneur David Chang of Momofuku. Benu is I think the only restaurant outside of the Momofuku chain I have encountered these products in. The two (Benu and Momofuku) share a similar commitment to bring bold Asian flavors to an American audience
    • taste of the Chinese sausage lapcheong, with Shaoxing wine, dates, and black peppercorn
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hozon
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonji

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13. lobster coral xiao long bao (4.25/5)

    • good, xiao long bao with lobster. sauce = yuzu(?) and banyeuls vinegar

2014-04-25 23.33.35

“five tines a winner”

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14. whole baby sea bream, spring onion, lily bulb, aged tangerine peel (5/5)

    • tai. deboned painstakingly
    • done in a gently steamed style (literally, qingzhen, which means “lightly steamed”). raw radish and raw lily bulb. hard to see how it could have been improved upon.
    • usually chinese sauces aren’t edible by themselves. but this aged tangerine sauce was just restrained enough to be sticky sweet, eat-off-your-plate

2014-04-25 23.47.32 2014-04-25 23.47.45 2014-04-25 23.47.58

15. Okhotsk sea cucumber stuffed with shrimp, cucumber, perilla, fermented pepper (supplement) (4/5)

    • Okhotsk Sea == off the east coast of Russia, from Sakhalin Island.
    • peppery, good sauce, with gochujang – the sea cucumber itself had a pleasant hard gelatin flavor, but there are limits to how exciting a homogeneous mass of gelatin can be, even with a sea cucumber as excitingly-shaped as this one. (do I use it to comb my hair or what?)
    • but the action was all in the sauce.
    • a savory and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gochujang

2014-04-25 23.57.2116. roast quail, lam kok olive, dandelion, walnut, hot mustard (5/5)

    • the apogee of saucing tonight – (quail from Wolf Ranch, Northern California) – with a bitter horseradish, cognac glaze, Michigan cherries and Lam Kok olives. It was earthy, coffee-ish, and reminded me of the champagne pork ribs (sauced with some hard liqueur and coffee) I like at Singapore’s old-school Teochew eating-house Por Kee

2014-04-26 00.10.4917. beef braised in pear juice with oyster plants (3.75/5)

    • shortrib cut, galbi. brisket-like in taste and tasting of harsh low-quality beef. (though I’m sure the kitchen did not skimp, but that was the effect) not a fan of this cut of beef.

2014-04-26 00.20.50 2014-04-26 00.20.56 2014-04-26 00.21.02 2014-04-26 00.21.17 2014-04-26 00.21.2618. “shark’s fin soup”, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham custard (4.25/5)

    • shark’s fin is made from an artificial soy base, the manufacture prompted by Chef Corey Lee’s attempt to incorporate the wavy and pliant but crunchy texture of shark’s fin without using the actual product. the product he came up fulfils the _crunchiness_ of shark’s fin alright, but doesn’t have the pliancy of real shark’s fin. Benu faux-Shark-fin Veracity: 50%
    • the taste profile is similar to the classic Chinese soup “Buddha Jumps over the Wall”, which is characterised by scallop, ham, chicken, abalone and shark’s fin). Here the seafood taste was provided by dungeness crab, and the ham custard gave it the pork flavor.

2014-04-26 00.33.14 2014-04-26 00.33.4219. sake lees sherbet, strawberry, nasturtium (4/5)

    • a play on “strawberries and cream”
    • nasturtium for pepperiness, needed more. taste of nasturtium didn’t come out

2014-04-26 00.46.46 2014-04-26 00.47.1120. fresh and dried yuba, almond, white chocolate (5/5)

    • not bad for texture
    • really profound almond flavor, with white chocolate. The soft form of yuba was a bit unnecessary, but the crisp type of yuba, with almond streussel and almond tuile was a textural delight.

2014-04-26 00.55.23 2014-04-26 00.55.34mignardises.

2014-04-26 01.05.19 2014-04-26 01.05.54 2014-04-26 01.06.54 2014-04-26 01.07.00

3 Responses to “Benu | San Francisco, CA | Apr ’14 | “saucing””

  1. gbansal542 June 9, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

    Thanks for reading my conversations! I have a really great conversation with Corey Lee of Benu that I will be posting soon. Since you have been dining at all these great restaurants in Nor Cal I have to write up my conversation with Alice Waters whom I recently interviewed which hopefully you will find interesting as well. My friend Rene Mathieu is a big fan of Dominique Crenn and you can find him on one of my earlier posts.

    Happy dining!

    • kentiong June 11, 2014 at 3:42 am #

      I would love to see your conversations with Alice Waters! Marvelous reads (esp. the recent Robuchon one.)

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