Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Benu - 12/01/2012

22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 685-4860

My first visit to Benu came within a year of its inception and though I found the meal impressive I thought that the restaurant still had some untapped potential. Since my visit the restaurant has garnered a slew of accolades including two Michelin stars. One of friends who visited the restaurant over the summer declared their meal at Benu the best of the year and another called it his favorite restaurant in the city. With that in mind, I thought another visit was more than warranted.

thousand-year-old quail egg - potage, ginger
jäger, grüner veltliner, smaragd, achleiten, wachau, austria 2010
Benu's tasting menu almost always features some form of pidan. The black color is the result of preserving the eggs in alkaline clay which also alters the consistency of the yolk and adds a slight whiff of ammonia on the palate. The potage provided a silky savory depth and balance while the ginger complimented the quail egg's intense egginess.

oyster - pork belly, kimchi
jäger, grüner veltliner, smaragd, achleiten, wachau, austria 2010
I found the variation this dish muddled during my previous visit, but this iteration was far more structured. Built around a riff on Jayook Bokum, a Korean dish featuring stir fried pork belly and kimchi, this tiny bite mixes the heady porcine richness of the belly with the savory funk of the kimchi. The oyster is more subdued this time around, adding a delicate silky texture and subdued briny finish.

potato salad - with anchovy
kiminoi "emperor's well," yamahai junmai ginjyo, niigata, japan
The coating of tiny fried anchovies added a touch of whimsy to the dish, its sweet salinity reminiscent of Sonomama Iwashi, a dried anchovy snack that I used to eat as a kid. The potato salad itself displays a classic flavor and hearty substance quite at odds with the delicate crunch of the anchovies. Featuring two fairly unassuming ingredients, this dish made for a surprisingly effective combination of Eastern and Western flavors that deftly encapsulates what Lee is trying to accomplish at Benu.

eel - feuille de brick, créme frâiche, lime
kiminoi "emperor's well," yamahai junmai ginjyo, niigata, japan
Another seemingly constant fixture on Benu's menu is this "eel roll." The savory eel is wrapped in a thin layer of crisp phyllo that provides a countervailing churro-esque sweetness . Though I enjoyed the floral tang contributed by the lime zest, I found the thick créme frâiche a bit overwhelming texturally.

monkfish liver - persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche
teutonic, pinot gris, maresh vienyard, dundee hills, oregon 2011
Sometimes referred to as the "foie gras of the sea" Lee uses the ankimo as a surrogate for the now forbidden fatty duck liver. During my previous visit I thought the ankimo's texture and flavor were a bit off but wasn't the case this time. This version had a creamy texture and richness on par with the finest torchon from The French Laundry but with an abundant Mackerel-like fishiness that remains true to the dish's origins. The persimmon and turnip give restrained notes of both sweetness and bitterness to compliment the liver. This ended up being my favorite course of the night, perhaps I missed foie gras more than I realized.

sake lees - chestnut, green apple, yuzu
Here we have a playful little ice cream made from sake lees. The dish featured a multifarious blend of flavors from the fresh crisp tang of the green apple to a vegetal astringency from the celery to a weighty nuttiness from the chestnut all tied with the overarching sweetness of the yeast.

abalone quiche - caviar, rousong
lorenzon, mercurey, champs martin, 1er cru, burgundy france 2010
The appearance of rousong drew appreciative murmurs from several of my companions who had fond memories of the stuff from their childhood. For my part, I was more impressed by how the intense salinity of the caviar interacts with the creamy filling and flaky crust of the quiche. The abalone itself plays more of a textural role though I did get some of its more subdued brine on the finish.

salt and pepper squid
rodenbach, flemish red brown ale, grand cru, belgium
Lee's contemporary take on salt and pepper squid is built around a chip made from squid ink. The chip itself is extremely reminiscent of a shrimp cracker with bits of squid to give the dish a some textural substance while the garlic and chili give the dish an enticing herbaceous bite. Not a perfect replica of the dish, but the inspiration is readily apparent.

lobster xiao long bao
rodenbach, flemish red brown ale, grand cru, belgium
This was one of my favorite courses of the night. The plump little dumplings are stuffed with a fine filling of lobster and a dense coral laden broth that reminded us all of a lobster bisque but without the weighty cream. Delicious on its own, the flavor was absolutely sublime when taken with the funky tang of the rice vinegar, which was deftly complimented by the tart bite of the Rodenbach. My companions and I all agreed that while the flavor was otherworldly, the skin left something to be desired particularly the overly doughy and dry cap still we wished that we could have ordered these by the dozen with some beers.

steamed chicken - date, celery, cognac
schloss schönborn, riesling kabinett, hattenheimer pfaffenberg, rheingau, germany 2003
With an elegant simplicity this dish looked like it would have been right at home at The French Laundry. The chicken itself is one of the most delicate preparations that I've ever had with an almost silky feel to the bird. The accompaniments mesh beautifully giving the dish a slightly sweet yet herbaceous flavor subtly reminiscent of Chinese herbal medicine.

rabbit cassoulet - with black truffle bun
bodegas paso robles, solea, central coast, california 2005
This was the most polarizing dish of the night. While we all adored the black truffle bun with its ephemeral musk, silky tender texture and delicate rabbit sausage the table was more divided on the cassoulet itself. Half the party found it too salty with not enough rabbit to balance the starch on the dish while others found it a refreshing if forceful change from the refined feel of the meal.

Hokkaido sea cucumber stuffed with shrimp - cucumber, lily bulb, fermented pepper
bodegas paso robles, solea, central coast, california 2005
I've always enjoyed the texture of sea cucumber though I can understand how it could be something of an acquired taste. The quivering jellied texture of the hollowed out cucumber is filled with crisp shrimp providing a multifaceted texture. The enticing spice of the fermented pepper enriched the mixture's gentle salinity while vegetal bits of cucumber and sweet starchy lily bulbs provided a countervailing levity.

beef rib - pear, broccoli, burdock, charred scallion, pine nut
château fortia, châteauneuf-du-pape, rhône, france 2009
The beef was one of the highlights of my last meal which paired the unctuous meat with a Asian pear to temper the richness. This was a more typical beef preparation with the ribs exuding plenty of beefy savor accentuated by abundant marbling. The fruits and vegetables proved to be a complex multifarious compliment but I preferred the purity of the meat on its own.

"shark's fin" soup - dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard
blandy's, verdelho, madeira, portugal 1968
Here we have Lee's famous shark's fin soup. Last time the broth too heavy-handed but this had a far lighter color and exhibited more of the umami essence instead of the hammy vigor of the previous iteration which is shaded by a delicate sweetness from the crab. The "shark's fin" has a texture reminiscent of the real thing though perhaps a bit less complex. A black pool of custard cuts through the refined flavor of the soup with a brash explosion of truffled grandeur.

shiso - white chocolate, almond, pomegranate
The shiso and white chocolate made a surprisingly effective combination, the herbaceous verve of the former and the creamy sweetness of the latter are further complicated by the bright crunch of the pomegranate seeds.

spiced pumpkin - cider sorbet, fruits and nuts
kiona, chenin blanc, icewine, red mountain, washington 2010
Built around squash and cider, a classic pairing of quintessential Autumnal ingredients their ripe spicy sweetness is augmented by a melange of accompaniments. The result is a chaotic mix that convey the overarching sensation of Autumn but lack the finesse of the previous courses.

A delicious quartet of chocolates provided a fitting end to a surprisingly strong meal.

I'm happy to say that the last year and a half was well spent and Benu's growth has more than met my expectations. There were clear similarities to my previous meal, but the food as a whole feels more polished with each course telling a cogent story of superlative technique coupled with Lee's culinary vision.

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