When asking fellow foodies how they would describe the dining experience at Benu, a friend of mine, well-versed in the art of fine dining, described it simply as, “The Asian Laundry.” However, after dining there on several occasions, I found this label to be a bit unfair as I wasn’t drawing parallels, but rather, I was noticing the glaring differences: the atmosphere and table settings at Benu are stark and more austere than the welcoming, cottage feel of the Laundry; the tasting menu is made of 15 courses which express Chef Lee’s Korean heritage, rather than 9 courses that communicate the restaurant’s sense of place; a feeling of grandeur is created by openly displaying Benu’s impressive, imposing kitchen, versus the quaint mystery hidden behind the closed doors at the Laundry.
When I considered the entire dining experience created at Benu, I just couldn’t understand my friend’s statement. But, when I started thinking about how I would describe Chef Lee’s cuisine for this article, just the food itself, I began asking myself, “How is it a reflection of this chef’s identity?” Yes, every dish is immaculate, and sure there is an obvious Asian influence, but is there anything that goes beyond the glossy Asian finish and dives deeper into this particular chef’s individuality? Is Benu’s cuisine more of a reflection of the chef himself or of his French Laundry pedigree?
I find myself leaning towards the latter. Despite differences in atmosphere and ingredient selection, the chef’s approach towards his menu shows signs of the Laundry’s influence. I’m not saying that Benu’s menu is in any way just a rip off of what’s served at the Laundry. On the contrary, his use of obscure, Asian-focused ingredients creates a cuisine that is singular in taste. However, the way in which the “fine-dining” menu is conceived and executed seems to originate from Keller’s vision. For me, this vision is found in the types of ingredients used (a wide array of proteins and other high-end items), how they should be sourced, the technique used in their preparation, and the way a dish is composed. In this way, the food doesn’t seem to purely emulate Corey Lee’s identity.
But who knows. Maybe meticulous, clean, austere, precise cuisine is actually a perfect reflection of Corey Lee himself. Maybe this man’s heart lies in this sort of precision, and his true voice is manifested in the exactness of the food, rather than the conceptual basis of the cuisine. For me, it’s this exactitude that sets Chef Lee apart and speaks to his individual philosophy towards food.
Now, looking at the bigger picture and not just strictly at the menu, how is his identity expressed in the restaurant as a whole? Does a unique perspective come out of those walls or does the dining experience at Benu seem to be derived from Lee’s previous residence? When thinking in those terms, there is no question that Benu has a very clear, individual character and that it is in no way, simply, “the Asian Laundry.”
It’s Chef Lee’s approach to fine-dining that gives this restaurant its unique character. In interviews, Lee has described his vision of fine-dining as a personalized experience, one where the chef’s individual tastes are emulated in every detail. In the food, refined technique and top-quality, uncommon ingredients are used to create a menu that is comprised of unexpected, unique flavors.
In terms of atmosphere, Chef Lee has said that food cannot be separated from the plate on which it’s served. Thus, the visual aspects of a restaurant are just as important as the cuisine, and the atmosphere of a fine-dining restaurant must reflect the sophistication of the food. At Benu, the meticulousness of the food is mirrored in the meticulous attention to detail and extensive customization (the tables, table settings, porcelain, etc…). Likewise, the large, open, all-white dining room emulates simple sophistication, a minimalist approach that mimics the refinement of the cuisine. Therefore, in all aspects of the dining experience it’s Corey Lee’s presence, not that of any other chef or restaurant, that is painted all over these walls.
So, after thorough consideration, do I agree with my friend’s original statement? Absolutely not. While in one sense this comparison is flattering (I could think of a few worse places than the French Laundry to be compared to), despite certain similarities Benu differentiates itself from its predecessor. The moral of the story: with his first solo endeavor, Corey Lee has successfully carved out a unique niche in San Francisco fine dining.
Now, with comparisons and long-winded analyses aside, let’s talk about the food…Continue to Benu Part 2