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Corey Lee's haute cuisine at Benu is almost flawless 

Wednesday, Oct 27 2010
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View more photographs in Benu: The City's Newest Entrant into Haute Cuisine.

The salad ($12) that began my first meal at Benu looked like it had drifted across the plate, blown by some wispy forest sprite. Curls of orange mimolette cheese looped around transparent shavings of celery. Leaf-thin panes of bacon leaned against apple wedges infused with beer, and wisps of mustard-tinged foam threatened to engulf walnut pebbles. My tablemate and I lifted each piece with delicate forks and crunched into it with the softest of bites; once the awe over its appearance subsided, we began swirling and mixing the drift, a tornado of our own making, all the delicate flavors resolved themselves into something sturdier and more potent.

Benu's chef, Corey Lee, is capable of some of the most beautiful food being served today. Lee cooked for Thomas Keller for almost eight years, and his four years as chef de cuisine of the French Laundry won him a Beard Award. Last year, at the age of 31, he left Keller's patronage, leading a posse of moneyed funders to the Hawthorne Lane space that used to house David Gingrass' TWO.

The restaurant, which opened in August, is the city's newest candidate for four-star dining since Daniel Patterson opened Coi in 2006. It is very much Lee's place: He designed the china as well as the menu, and is developing a culinary language very distinct from the one he spoke in Keller's kitchen. The language is garbled in places, resoundingly poetic in others. In a milieu that demands perfection, Benu is not yet perfect — but has every promise of becoming so.

The advance press has talked up how much Lee is shaking up the conventions of haute cuisine. Considering Alinea's Grant Achatz serves dishes suspended from hooks, Benu's take hardly constitutes a revolution. The stilted greeting of a doorman whose suit bests anything in my closet was there. So too was the battery of waiters and sommeliers, the hushed room, the expectation that my role as diner was to contemplate an artist's work, not get slightly sloshed and overshare with friends. À la carte dining at Benu starts at around $120, while if you take Lee up on his 12-course tasting meal, the tab won't be much lower than the one at the French Laundry.

That said, the luxury Benu cultivates is the feel of a shopping spree at Roche Bobois rather than a San Francisco Opera fundraiser. The room is cold and serene in the internationally fabulous manner. A thousand small delights await the design geek — slim-stemmed silverware set on smooth black stones; menus attached to metal clipboards with monogrammed magnets that diners are invited to slip in their pockets. There are no tablecloths. This, Lee says, upsets some diners.

The chef's food is also engaged in a direct dialogue with San Francisco hip. There are the requisite form-shifting gels and soils-with-quotes, the same passion for seasonality, and a curiosity-piquing assortment of uncommon meats. The Korea-born chef also integrates Korean, Japanese, and Chinese influences into his food to a degree few other haute cuisine chefs in America do.

Take one night's amuse-bouche: peeled cherry tomato floating in a deep, smoky dashi (broth) next to a jiggly globe, which looked like a transparent egg yolk and exploded into a bright splash of tomato water in the mouth. A strip of beef rib cap ($32), rubbed in soy sauce and chile powder, was flanked by parallel stripes of Asian pear and chestnut purées as well as coins of daikon that had been braised just long enough to transform their funk into a pale sweetness. The steak, as rare as it gets, was the kind of thing you put in your mouth and then thank the gods you still eat meat. The most compelling dish of the night was the rigatoni ($18) with an oxtail, red wine, and star-anise sauce. While the pasta presented a unified rush of flavor, it was an intricate study in contrasting textures: the gelatinous snap of tiny chunks of sea cucumber and frilled curls of wood-ear fungus; the faintly chalky bite of al dente rigatoni; the staccato crunch of diced fennel.

Half of the dishes at that meal didn't resonate in the same way — there was a truffle-flecked risotto ($28) with sweet corn and six nigiris' worth of sea urchin, which was exquisite after two bites and overwhelmingly rich by the time the bowl was halfway cleared. An entrée of chewy squid ($28) and crisp pork-belly cubes, the two meats supposedly united by a strident preserved-plum purée, was all concept and no satisfaction. And the natural maple-flavoring scent of candy-cap mushroom cookie crumbs served underneath blackberry sorbet ($12) proved so cloying it bothered me from across the table.

The 12 courses on the tasting menu I ordered at Benu a month later passed in a quick succession of pleasantries. Here were two small abalone medallions, coated in breadcrumbs and in brown butter, surrounded by microscopic cauliflower florets and bits of lemon. Here was a creamy round of monkfish liver purée, almost indistinguishable from foie gras, accompanied by mustard foam and a brunoise of persimmon. The lows of the first meal were smoothed over, but the highs here were more fleeting and less nuanced. I clutched at some of the flavors as they rushed by, such as the chestnut custard paired with whole cranberries, and let others — an unremarkable thousand-year-old quail's egg, a sugary grape foam that sparred with sea urchin and briny caviar — fade without regret.

The procession of the courses was crisp and regular, and the presentation of the plates by the servers was nigh flawless. Eleven of the 12 courses came with their own glasses of wine, sake, or beer, each poured by sommeliers Yoon Ha and Michael Ireland along with a story of why they were chosen. Most of the pairings were exquisitely matched. The celery and coriander of a German Sylvaner weaved in between the horseradish and yuzu sauces served with a crispy bloom of fried cod milt, and the Madeira accompanying a faux shark's-fin soup echoed the rice wine in its broth. (A few of the reds had a hard time blending in with the food they accompanied, perhaps because it was so delicate.)

Again, the tours de force of the meal were all written in the language Lee is inventing for himself. That faux shark's-fin soup, for instance: The waiter poured a deep broth redolent of ham and dried seafood over great lumps of crab, threads of hydrocolloid-gelled broth that mimicked the texture of shark's fin, and a steamed black-truffle custard; as the truffles diffused into the broth, the soup increased in potency. And in a meal of soft-voiced witticisms, my favorite quip was Lee's reworking of the Korean equivalent of bar pretzels — cubes of anchovy gelée, more a wash of salted-fish flavor than a crashing wave, tossed with poached peanuts, translucent curls of lily bulb, and dried anchovies the size of nail clippings.

If I were the kind of diner who easily parts with $300 in pursuit of gastronomic thrills, I would already be calendaring a succession of reservations to watch Benu evolve. If I were plotting a once-a-year splurge, anticipating a flawless parade of perfect moments, I'd hold off — say, six months to a year. Corey Lee's technique is so exquisite, his sensitivity to aesthetics so acute, that the language he's developing is certain to rival that of Vladimir Nabokov or David Foster Wallace. It's not quite there yet.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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