No matter how long you’ve lived in this area, if you call San Francisco “Home” then let’s just admit it: we’re really lucky. Anyone who shares my passion for food and feels a constant craving for culinary exploration (…I suddenly feel like a cross between Magellan and KD Lang…) is well aware of how lucky we are to be in such a gastro-centric city. Much like how amazing attractions like Alcatraz or Giants games get taken for granted because they’re are so many amazing things to do here, it’s easy to overlook just how lucky we are. It’s rare to take a step back and think, “Whoa, buying goats milk butter for my day-to-day needs is not normal. That’s pretty cool.” For me, one of those wake-up calls came when I was introduced to the man I consider the finest sommelier I’ve ever known. His name is Yoon Ha, he works at Benu, and let me tell you my friends, he is one of the finest industry all-stars you’ll ever meet.
“You’ll notice juicy blackberry and boysenberry with hints of dried currant” will never be a sentence that comes out of Yoon’s mouth. The whole snobby, uptight “wine-know-it-all” personality is completely eliminated from all of Yoon’s interactions with customers, despite completely being a “wine-know-it-all”. I say that in the most loving way possible. Yoon has the honor of being a Master Sommelier, number 197 in the world. An honor that took years of study and is only given to the most passionate, dedicated people in the business. Suffice to say, this man would be considered a “wine snob” by most.
However, his approach to wine and relating it to the customer is a rare, rare entity. Rather than listing 10 adjectives to describe the beverage he’s pouring, which mean absolutely nothing to a novice wine appreciando, he tells the complete story behind each of his choices. And, he describes the flavors of each pairing in such an approachable way that even the most inexperienced diner can understand where he’s coming from and grasp what he’s tasting in each pour. For example, rather than describing a sake as somewhat floral and aromatic, or a bit on the dry side, he’ll tell you about the place where it’s made – a distillery (if that’s the correct term) at 12,000 ft. in elevation, in the mountains of Japan, where only the purest mountain water is used in the distillation process. A place that doesn’t use man-made bacterial cultures in the fermentation process, but has chosen to dedicate an entire room (and therefore, much more money) to creating the perfect environment for cultures to grow naturally and consistently. There are no flavor adjectives in that description, and aren’t you already excited to taste it? Don’t you already feel luxurious in simply having the chance to have a sip of what he’s describing?
You’ll notice that I described a sake pairing – not something not a traditional choice for a wine pairing. Which is yet another thing that makes Yoon special – he’s not afraid to venture outside of what’s “normal.” And, his palate is so good that you’ll never be let down by, say, a beer or sake pairing. For example, recently with the Lobster Xiao Long Bao (one of the standard offerings on the tasting menu), he went outside the comfort zone and paired this dish with a sour ale – not what I was expecting. But the sour, umami aspects of the beer went so perfectly with the vinegar puddled below the dumplings that it actually elevated the flavor of an already delicious dish to a new level. A moment of personal joy that I couldn’t have experienced without his particular selection.
But, of course, it’s not just the experimental pairings that have pushed me to the verge of tears in the middle of a meal (and yes, Yoon has made me break down). My first “Oh My F!@#King God” moment came from a more “standard” pairing – a Reisling Kabinett (Langwerth von Simmern, Erbacher Marcobrunn, Rheingau, Germany 2007) paired with Monkfish Liver Torchon served with cucumber and salted plum. The first time I had this pairing was so incredible that I actually returned the next night to order the same thing (a rare decision for a restaurant like Benu, I’m sure). The next night I ordered this dish off of the a la carte menu and demanded the same wine pairing, unaware that it would be served with kumquat. This slight change threw the pairing off so completely that I actually voiced my disappointment, not expecting anything to come of it. But, because the staff at Benu are such rockstars, they actually sent out the tasting menu version that I had tried the night before, and once again, magic was in the air and I caught a glimpse of that perfect trifecta of wine, main ingredient, and secondary flavors. It was then that I truly realized how special Yoon’s palate is – the slightest change to the dish, from cucumber to kumquat, changed the pairing completely and had I not demanded the same pairing, something more suitable would have been poured.
Blah, blah, blah, highfalutin wine lingo, blah blah blah – what it comes down to is Yoon is a true wine master. So much so that he carries a wine katana at his side at all times and can call forth the power of the wine gods using their ancient, lost language. Obviously this isn’t true, but you get the picture.
Yoon – caramel corn clearly isn’t enough to thank you for giving me some of my most memorable dining moments. I’ll have to upgrade to late-night In-and-Out burgers to truly express my gratitude…