In my review of Benu this week, I noted ― more observation than criticism, really ― that while chef-owner Corey Lee may have streamlined and modernized the trappings of haute cuisine, a meal there feels very much in the spirit of San Francisco's highest-tier restaurants: hushed, poised, meticulous in its formalities. But as a critic who spends more of his time in bistros and dives than the four-star realm, I was curious about why so much of the advance press would talk up how much Lee was changing up his approach to haute-cuisine food. When I interviewed Lee just before finishing the piece, I asked the longtime Thomas Keller protégé about this quiet revolution.
SFoodie: From what I've read about Benu, it seems like you've personally invested a lot of energy in the aesthetics of the place, for example, designing all the porcelain yourself.
Lee: People think that food is the most important aspect of a restaurant, but all these [visual] things have an impact on your experience when you're there. How can you separate the food from the piece that it sits on? There were a couple dishes that we needed certain shapes for; it was important to design that shape to fit the technique.
In what ways have you departed from what you were doing at the French Laundry?
First thing, definitely, is the aesthetics of the restaurant. It's a simple and austere restaurant. Some people can't get past that it doesn't have certain amenities.