Early this year I did the tasting menu at Benu in San Francisco. It seems that I’m interested in doing expensive dining less and less these days. The bar is set so high for the experience when a high price is required. However, there are a few places that I know won’t fail to amaze, that I would be happy to revisit anytime my wallet can handle it.
Benu, the tasting menu only fine dining restaurant in San Francisco is one of those places. They know before you sit down how many times you’ve dined there, or if it’s your first time. Bill Addison said that ‘More importantly, the food at Benu bridges East and West like nothing I’ve ever tried before.’
Fusion is a lofty goal for any chef, a more dangerous eight-fold path. Chef Lee is a native Korean with a lofty pedigree and a reputation for ‘brainy’ cooking, says Addison. It’s been high on the list for some time.
Entering the restaurant is a calming experience. A stone exterior with hard lines and tasteful lighting. It feels like an empty space, but closer observation reveals so much in the shadows.
Outside the door several projects are ongoing. A row of large onggi ( traditional Korean fermentation vessels) are arranged in active use, drying hoshigaki (persimmons), and string suspended fermenting soy cakes are also found just outside entrance. The cool climate and high humidity of SF is likely perfect for fermentation and no doubt similar to South Korea.
Though I didn’t lift these lids to see, I’m guessing that they were in use for the production of Benu’s in-house doenjang. Known to be highly labor intensive, taking at minimum one year, doenjang is made by fermenting soy cakes, re-hydrating them, and then fermenting them again resulting an a sour/salty/rich paste that is a staple in all Korean households. . The by-product is a type of brewed soy sauce called hansik ganjang used for mostly for soups, and is gluten free. The best versions are aged for several years before use, I forgot to ask how long they are aged at Benu.
Jazz music plays on a vinyl in the small waiting area. A record player free of fingerprints, and a collection of books by the Chef.
The table setting is minimalist and tasteful. Everything feels good in your hands, the weight of the chopsticks, the size of the water glass (Hario, borosilicate glass from Japan). We made a point to quiz the waiters regarding the sourcing and found they know the origin of nearly every material, from the specific type of wood in the table or the small rectangular marking trays.
It would not be a proper eastern influenced meal without a warm towel to start, I would’ve happily taken off my shoes should we have been asked.
The sommelier team at Benu is exceptional; probably one of the most elegant Champagne services I’ve ever seen was performed by M.S Yoon Ha. Yoon joined Benu from La Toque in Napa Valley, where they were accredited with having one of the best “wine pairing programs” in the U.S. by Food & Wine magazine and earned a James Beard Award nomination for Best Wine Service. In 2012, Yoon became one of less than 250 people worldwide to have passed the Master Sommelier Examination.
With a firm touch on the bottle cage, and a serviette fold I’ve been trying to duplicate for a while now (featuring a origami-like 6-8 napkin folds I’m guessing) we started with a bottle of Champagne Agrapart Extra – Brut. This 100% Chardonnay sporting Grand Cru fruit from Avize was the perfect pairing for every single dish that came to the table.
I adored the coupe glass as a serving vessel, which allowed the bouquet of the wine to lift through right to our nostrils.
The starting courses were delicate and piquant, I particularly enjoyed the caviar chawanmushi variation and the kimchi paper oyster bite.
The knife scoring on the squid rendered it texturally interesting against a backdrop of Soon Dae (Korean blood sausage). Soon Dae is my favorite rendition of blood sausage, opposed to the English variety as it features rice to soak up the blood.
Another custard with black truffle also was excellent; by now we were 5 small courses, or ‘tastes’ in, and ready to begin the meal.
Why a hexagon? Why 24 circles. I wanted to delve deep into a black hole of Wikipedia research beginning with the significance of the number 24 in Asian culture, but I didn’t want to ruin dinner with my sweet birthday girl pulling out my phone to research.
Butter Journal offered up this explanation: “Chef Lee’s butter is like a work of art in flavor and design. The butter is drizzled with ginseng-infused orange blossom honey and topped with Sinan sea salt. (Sinan sea salt is produced in the Sinan Archipelago of South Korea) Warm sprouted grain bread complements the disk of butter that is embossed with a honeycomb pattern.”
Crispy frog legs were delightful; it’s rare I’ve eaten the leg of an animal that I didn’t enjoy and frogs are no exception. This was a playful rendition with a piquant amphibian flavor I find so nostalgic.
The barbecued quail was brought out before carving. I thought at first it was a bit under charred, but my feelings were assuaged greatly after it was served. A distinct umami note to this dish that I couldn’t place at first, yet then I realize it must be coming from the condiment.
It reemerged sliced perfectly with a variant on a ssamjang sauce, which I’ve been thinking about ever since. It was no doubt produced in-house from the doenjang I saw fermenting outside. The flavor differed by a mile compared to the commercial/enhanced product that I am mostly familiar, which is made by mixing commercially available doenjang with shallots, thai chilies, garlic, and green onion.
This presentation of the quail was most certainly on the rare side of medium rare, which I was surprised to find gave it an entirely novel texture and flavor. This was my favorite protein of the evening.
At this point, we were finished with the Champagne and I was feeling the effect. I don’t recall what this course even was, but I do remember thinking it was one of the best of the tasting. The most verdant kale leaf steamed to perfection covering… something.
Black cod is easily one of the best things on the planet to smoke. While the presentation here was clean and simple, it felt a bit uninspired. The taste was excellent. Maybe it didn’t need anything.
Etienne Sauzet from the Vineyard Brands portfolio is indeed a grand wine of Burgundy. 2014 is turning out to be a favorite year of mine all over Europe (especially Mosel and Alto Adige). Lavish aristocratic fruit on the nose with some pull back from the mild oyster shell acidity, flanked by a richness and a hint of toffee from French oak. My two other favorite cru’s in Burgundy being “La Truffiere” and “Les Folatières” were also on the list, but I wanted to keep the cost of this meal under a mortgage payment.
A deconstructed pork belly bun arrived which was a highlight as well. My only complaint here was that I wanted more of the rolls, which may or may not have been flecked with black truffles. Sending more than one would not seem in line with the Benu style, which by this point I was stating to observe as minimal and focused.
Our final main was a sous vide selection of wagyu beef; spiritually a variation of galbi with the accompanying salt dispenser (which dispersed so slowly it seemed to liberate grain by grain). It was executed to perfection, though I would be surprised if the bone was actually cooked with the meat.
By this time I was just eating with sheer delight and noticing less and less, but this beautiful course had an almost kaiseki feel to it, a broth poured over gingko nut with mushroom and vegetables. Very nice palate cleanser.
A melon flavored granita (or was it lychee?) appeared as we were rounding out the final dessert courses. If there was any weakness at Benu for this meal it was the dessert courses, this being one of the course I probably could have done without. It served it’s purpose in cleansing the palate, but I think something better could’ve taken it’s place.
Followed by a birthday music box.
After a few final snacks including beautifully done hoshigaki a simple wood bill was placed upon the table. We saw these hanging outside earlier, and I am told all the kitchen stagiaire’s are required to massage them once a day by hand.
After dining at Benu I am eager to try Monsieur Benjamin, his Hayes Valley follow-up on Gough Street. This was one of the most expensive tasting menu’s I’ve ever done given the addition of the wines we selected. I can certainly say it was worth it, by far. I would go a step further to say it is the best tasting menu I’ve experienced on the west coast to date. Creativity, execution, whimsy, and balance were all present. Days later, I still was pondering if there was some secret, ‘Lost’ significance to the butter, some secret hatch under the table to take us to Asian culinary wonderland.