I really wasn’t expecting much the first time I walked into Benu for dinner. I mean, really what would there be to expect? Sure Corey Lee spent eight years at the French Laundry, four of which were spent as chef de cuisine, and yeah maybe he won a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year. But I guess I’m just not really impressed by, you know, things like experience and public recognition. And c’mon, only 15 courses on the tasting menu? I’m sorry but if there aren’t at least 19 courses, I’m generally not satisfied.
Okay, I’m clearly lying to make a point – Chef Lee’s exceptional reputation, as well as reports of how he intended to reinvent fine dining in San Francisco, preceded Benu’s arrival. To be honest, having had one of the best meals of my life at the French Laundry when Chef Lee was running the kitchen, I couldn’t have walked in with higher expectations. And as you could expect, every meal that I’ve had has surpassed every single one of them.
Although I’ve been three times now, the most extraordinary meal thus far, and the one I’ll be focusing on in this article, was on my second visit, when I decided to go all out on a Tuesday night and get that 15 course tasting menu ($160) with accompanying wine pairing…at 10 pm. The pain of waking up at 7:30 the next morning didn’t even cross my mind – Benu is the type of restaurant where you should either go big or go home.
The all-white dining room, a model of minimalist design, makes you feel like you’re about to have an important meal the second you walk in the room. While the space has been met with mixed reviews, some believing the décor to be too sterile or severe, for me the strikingly unadorned walls combined with the subtle, refined details of the table settings exudes an air of polished sophistication. There may not be any white tablecloths, a former emblem of fine-dining, but who needs white tablecloths to signify haute cuisine when you’re seated at a beautiful, custom-built table made from a rare black wood imported from Africa? Personalization and the careful consideration of every single detail, even one as small as giving the diner ample leg room by severely cutting the size of the table base, is Chef Lee’s modern reinvention of fine-dining.
You may already know that you’re in for a world-class meal, but here’s one thing you probably don’t know: at this particular restaurant, you must order the wine pairing ($110). Thirteen glasses may sound overwhelming, but ordering anything else should be a crime. The man behind the wine, Yoon Ha, is undoubtedly one of the best sommeliers I’ve ever met for three reasons. First, his wine pairings are incredibly diverse, including wines from multiple regions, using familiar varietals from unknown and esteemed wine makers alike, and incorporating uncommon selections such as sake, beer, and madeira. Secondly, he makes these pairings approachable by describing why a particular wine was chosen in a way that you can completely understand. Finally, his selections are just downright impeccable. You know that moment of revelation, when the wine picks up on subtle flavors in a dish that you would never notice without it? When wine so perfectly complements the food that it’s able to elevate the cuisine to a totally new level? That’s the kind of experience you can expect here.
Of course, you don’t need to be thoroughly liquored up to appreciate how amazing the food is. The precision of each dish is staggering, starting with the shockingly thin membrane of the amuse bouche: a sort of sphere containing a Ginger, Citrus, and Star Anise liquid that surprises you with a sudden burst of freshness. Such precise technique can be seen in the perfect placement of carefully sliced radish atop a Pouch of Sesame Tofu and salmon roe, or in the microscopic brunoise of cucumber accompanying my favorite dish of the meal, the Monkfish Liver Torchon, with turnip and salted plum.
Courses such as the Sea Urchin with sunchoke and green apple, the Crispy Cod Milt with pickles, mizuna, butternut squash purée, and green yuzu, or the “Sharks Fin Soup” speak to Chef Lee’s Korean heritage but avoid becoming cliché through the use both modern science and traditional French technique. His admiration of rare ingredients is also noticeable in the inclusion of items such as lily bulb, accompanying the caramelized anchovy and peanut - another highlight of the meal.
Finally, each dish is a beautiful illustration of balance – balance of every sensory perception: heat, texture, and flavor. The Crispy Cod Milt, which I’d liken to a creamier version of sweetbreads, is an excellent demonstration of this balance. The warmth of the cod milt and the purée contrasts with the cold pickles, the fermented brininess of the pickles matches the fishy character of the cod but also keeps its fatty richness in balance, while the cod milt’s subtle sweetness is highlighted by the butternut squash purée and small drops of yuzu syrup.
While the food is meticulous and exacting, one of the best things about dining at Benu is that the attitude of the service does not follow the same guidelines. Of course service is always professional, but things like strict service paths and stern demeanor are given up in favor of smiles, and friendly, personal service. And let me tell you, after thirteen glasses of wine and a few inappropriate jokes, it’s nice to be surrounded by people that aren’t scared to laugh.
I left Benu with one thought, “Finally! Now I have a choice when I want to go super luxe in San Francisco. Coi is no longer SF’s only child of modern fine-dining!” Although Benu is relatively young and continues to evolve, it has already carved out its own unique niche in the fine-dining landscape, establishing its place alongside the Bay Area’s finest restaurants.
22 Hawthorne Lane
San Francisco, CA 94105