Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Benu (San Francisco)

January 2013

22 Hawthorne Street, between Folsom and Howard Streets, San Francisco, USA
Tel: +1 415 685 4860

Update: Benu won its third Michelin star in the 2015 Guide.

An alumni of Daniel and French Laundry, Chef Corey Lee's daring endeavour in opening a Modern Chinese restaurant in the heart of the SOMA district in San Francisco has been duly recognised by critics and diners alike. Benu now has two Michelin stars and is known for Chef Corey's vision of preparing innovative food using traditional Chinese flavours and ingredients with Western cooking methods.

Interestingly, before we got to the entrance of the restaurant, the side of the building was dominated by large windows which gave passerbys walking along Hawthorne Street a very good view of the Benu kitchen and the many chefs hard at work preparing that night's meals. The main entrance to the restaurant was further in and after passing the private parking area, we ended up in a quiet zen-like courtyard, on the side of which the main door was located.

We were warmly welcomed and seated despite being 45 minutes early. The dining room was very dimly lit and intimate, and the service throughout the night was excellent. From a decent wine list, we chose a bottle of the 2010 Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay which was very sophisticated and was perhaps one of the better Chardonnays we've had in recent times.

Thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger: This was very good. A very nicely aged quail egg paired well with the thick vegetable soup.

Oyster, pork belly, kimchi: This looked and tasted like a 'siew mai' but with a hint of spiciness from the kimchi.

Potato salad with anchovy: A very savoury and sweet starter with marinated anchovies on a bed of potatoes. The anchovies reminded us of the Chinese dried fish snack.

Eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime: The 'cigarette' of eel in a pastry skin eaten with the creme fraiche in an 'ashtray' was very good.

Monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche: We loved this. The fish liver pate was very subtle and was delicious when spread on the very buttery brioche.

Sake lees, chestnut, satsuma: The chestnut, sake lees (a residual liquid from the making of sake - with very strong sake flavour) and Japanese orange in this glass were fantastic.

Abalone persillade with cauliflower: We thought the flavour of the abalone didn't come out from under the strong fragrance of the parsley and other herbs. It was an unremarkable dish.

Chicken velvet, black moss, dried scallop, chrysanthemum: This was a silky smooth chicken 'custard' in a delicious Chinese herbal soup.

Salt and pepper squid: This was a cracker made with squid ink and with chunks of squid. It was simple yet tasty.

Lobster coral xiao long bao: Perfectly executed xiao long bao accompanied by a dipping vinegar. The lobster meat was sweet and the soup wasn't, for once, so hot as to burn my tongue when I ate it.

Crepinette of sea bass and shrimp, lettuce, fermented pepper: The sea bass and shrimp crepe was light and fluffy, with which we wiped clean the tasty fermented pepper sauce (which reminded us of the Chinese 'Mala' but without the intense spiciness).

Eight treasure duck: The puck of duck and glutinous rice, drizzled with 'eight treasures' sauce (the eight of which included gold leaf, wolfberry, pine nuts etc), had a taste and texture reminiscent of the Chinese rice dumpling (the "Ba Zhang").

Beef braised in pear juice and charcoal-grilled, broccoli, burdock, charred scallion: When we saw this in the menu, we thought that this was going to be a very fatty and expensive piece of seared wagyu of high quality (which is very commonly found in the tasting menus of restaurants of this standing). However, we were pleasantly surprised that this wasn't the case. Instead it was a regular piece of braised beef but grilled with a myriad of flavours, the most familiar of which was that of 'Bak Kua' (the Chinese beef jerky). This was fantastic.

"Shark's fin" soup, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard: This 'shark's fin' soup was made of gelatinous strips to substitute for the usual shark's fin cartilage and flavoured by Jinhua ham. It was a very good re-creation of the traditional shark's fin soup.

Cucumber, sour cherry, black olive: The cucumber granita was very refreshing.

Cheesecake, raw pistachio, umeboshi: The cheesecake ball covered with green pistachio shavings and a drop of Japanese plum was quite brilliant.

Impressions: Our meal at Benu was superb. Chef Corey Lee's Chinese cuisine done in the modern European style was clever and interesting, and was very unique in its execution. Service was slick and friendly and the restaurant dining area was warm and comfortable.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bar Tartine (San Francisco)

January 2013

561 Valencia Street, between 16th & 17th Streets, San Francisco, USA
Tel: +1-415-487-1600

San Francisco has a very casual dining scene and Bar Tartine, a bistro set in the grungy Valencia Street in the Mission District, epitomises it. Currently one of the hottest restaurants in the Bay area, it has no signboard and resembles a old fashioned bar with its rough-cut wood furniture and wall panels. It was a T-shirt-and-jeans joint with very dim lighting (at the tables furthest from the bar which was where we were seating, the tables were practically candle-lit) With only an a la carte menu, the Hungarian-inspired cuisine (Chef Nick Balla spent a few of his school-going years in Hungary) on offer came in quite large portions and was suitable for sharing. We ordered only four dishes (excluding dessert) which as it turned out was more than enough food for the two of us.

Potato flat bread with sour cream and garlic: This tasted so much better than it looked. It was like eating fresh bread with the flavour of fried potatoes (with crispy ends), with the sour cream and garlic 'dip' liberally spread over it. It was great comfort food on a cold night.

Grilled tripe with smoked pork knuckle: Despite the fact that this was tripe, it wasn't cooked in the traditional way but was grilled with a smoked barbeque sauce. Parts of the tripe were grilled to a crisp and accompanied by a very delicious spicy sauce.

Smoked potatoes with ramp mayonnaise: The potatoes were very additive, especially with the excellent ramp (a kind of local leek) dip.

Sausage stuffed chicken: The homely comfort food continued with the great stuffed chicken dish, where the chicken was super tender yet juicy. The onions, trumpet mushrooms and cream were ingredients to the dish but played a big part in bringing out the overall earthiness of the dish.

Rigo Jancsi - chocolate mousse cake with citrus and cocoa nibs: This was a very rich Hungarian chocolate cake with mousse replacing the usual sponge cake. The cocoa nibs and sea salt flakes brought some crunch to a dessert which was very good but which ultimately we did not manage to finish (being very full by that time).

Impressions: Good food and a relaxed vibe makes this a great place to have a casual meal.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Luce (San Francisco)

January 2013

888 Howard Street, at 5th Street (in Hotel Intercontinental), San Francisco, USA
Tel: +1 415 616 6566

It was a Sunday night and we expected to be jetlagged after just arriving in San Francisco the day before from Singapore. From experience, we rarely enjoy our second dinner after a long flight, so we learnt from experience not to make reservations at any of the top restaurants which we look forward to dining at. This is not meant as disrespect to Luce, which is a one Michelin restaurant located in the Hotel Intercontinental off Howard Street, but from our research before we made this trip, it wasn't a much talked-about dining destination. We booked dinner here only because it looked to be the next nearest decent restaurant from our hotel (and we had dined at the nearest, Ame, the previous night).

From its name (Luce, which is in fact taken from the iconic Italian Supertuscan wine), we had assumed that the cuisine on offer was Italian, although it turned out that Chef Daniel Corey specialises in contemporary American cuisine instead. The restaurant, being an extended part of the Hotel Intercontinental lobby with no visible barrier demarcating the spaces, had a very casual ambience and a bit of the lobby lounge cafe vibe (they didn't take our coats when we came in).

We thought that the wine list here had quite a good range, and as tempted as we were to order some big name French wines (some of which we thought was good value), we chose in the end to go local and pick out a Larkmead Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Napa Valley, which was an excellent wine from a very good vintage. It turned out to be the right choice as the Cabernet was delicious and got better throughout our dinner. As the restaurant didn't do any tasting menus on Sunday night, we had to make do with a very short a la carte menu instead. Amuse bouche of root vegetables was served while we were making our food decisions.

Handmade sweetbread ravioli, crispy sweetbread, truffle: This was a dish executed with some finesse. The sweetbreads, especially the crispy ones, were simply divine and the black truffle reduction was rich and luxuriant with flavour.

Herb roasted lamb loin, crispy belly, scarlet turnips and baby artichokes, fresh coriander, toasted green wheat: The lamb was cooked with precise doneness and without any of the usual strong flavours brought about by lamb fat, and the sauce was done in the classical style. This was very good.

Breast of guinea hen, roasted in salted butter, leg confit, smoked date puree, new potato and onion: We thought that this dish defined this restaurant. It highlighted the freshness of local produce and the mastery of cooking technique coupled with the appropriate use of sauces. The trio of guinea breast, thigh and sausage was flawlessly balanced with the greens (the leeks in particular) and the smoked date puree. This was Californian cuisine at its finest.

Mascarpone cheese cake, green apple: This looked better in the menu than it turned out. It was reasonably good, but relative to the rest of the meal, rather disappointing. We thought that the green apple was too tart and overpowered the rest of the dessert somewhat.

Rosemary infused pavlova, lemon mousse, pine nut ice cream, huckleberries: We loved this dessert. The meringue was amazing and the pine nut ice cream, delightful.

We ended our dinner with a couple of quite decent macaroons.

Impressions: We did not expect to have such a good meal here. It was a Sunday evening and we wanted to go somewhere near to our hotel for a relatively simple meal. Luce was indeed quite a simple restaurant (the unremarkable decor, the ambience of a hotel lobby cafe and the short and unfancy menu) but the execution of the food here was very impressive. The servers all had an almost unnaturally high level of enthusiasm which made dining here fun and casual, and for a 'simple' restaurant, it had a pretty impressive wine list.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ame (San Francisco)

January 2013

689 Mission Street, at 3rd Street (in St Regis Hotel), San Francisco, USA
Tel: +1 415 284 4040

Update: We visited Ame again for dinner a week later. The post below has been updated to reflect dishes from both meals.

Ame is the collaboration of renowned Chefs Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone of Terra fame (a restaurant in Napa Valley) in the luxurious St Regis Hotel in San Francisco. Holding one Michelin star and helmed by Chef Randy Lutz, it features a Japanese-American cuisine with a very deliberate use of raw fish in the style of sushi and sashimi. In fact, there is even sushi counter seating at the front of the restaurant where diners can look into the refrigerated glass cabinets where the raw fish is stored and watch the chefs prepare the food. The formal dining room, where we were seated, was very dimly lit to give an air of discreet sophistication (which unfortunately made no-flash photography extremely challenging - we had to push the limits of the ISO settings on our camera).

The restaurant had a tasting menu and an a la carte menu (from which we each picked out two appetisers, a main course and a dessert). From a relatively limited wine list, we selected a delicious bottle of Californian Chardonnay from Mount Eden Vineyards which was very buttery in nose and flavour (matching well with our dishes throughout the dinner).

Cerviche of amberjack with avocado, ruby grapefruit, charred fresno chili and lime salt:  These were sashimi-sized chunks of raw amberjack with an amazing mix of ingredients which were perfectly complementary.

Tempure "poke" with Ogo seaweed, Hawaiian sea salt and green onions: The lightly deep-fried seaweed rolls were slightly disappointing as they were a bit soggy, but were rescued by the addictive mayonnaise.

Today's crudo (red snapper and mackerel) simply prepared with extra virgin olive oil, lemon and sea salt: The raw fish was very fresh and the use of crackers with the sashimi was brilliant.

Raviolo of pheasant with forest mushrooms, caramelised cipollini, roasted game juice and winter black truffles: This large singular raviolo was delicious, and the black truffles and game juice sauce was the star of the dish.

Panko crusted Miyagi oysters on slow-braised pork belly in black vinegar sauce with horse radish cream: An interesting dish of breaded oysters on a bed of pork belly which was elevated to the next level by its sauces.

Butter poached Maine lobster and Hokkaido scallops, roasted cauliflower, pickled sultana grapes and curry brown butter sauce: This was a mouthful of buttery goodness and was an excellent main course.

Broiled sake marinated Alaskan black cod and shrimp dumplings in Shiso broth: This was the signature dish of this restaurant and was as good as it was advertised to be. Initially we were concerned that it would taste like miso cod which was so last decade, but surprisingly the marinate and broth had plenty of umami flavours without being too overpowering. We thought this was so good that we ordered it again the second time we ate here.

Grilled Berkshire pork chop, shimeji mushrooms, cipollini, kuti squash and winter black truffle sauce: The sauce which accompanied the pork chop was excellent and the sauteed mushrooms and vegetables brought flavour to the dish.

Beer donuts with chocolate stout ice cream and chocolate fudge sauce: Donuts with chocolate fudge? This was a no-brainer. It was superb, though it was a massive dessert to be eaten by one person (which we successfully did anyway). The bitterness of the beer and stout flavours were subtle and served to balance out the otherwise very sweet donuts and chocolate. This was another dish we repeated the second time we were here.

Apple and quince tart with hazelnut ice cream and Fior di Latte ice cream: This wasn't as impressive as the donuts and the apple tart itself was not special but the use of hazelnuts in this dessert made it quite good.

Impressions: Ame pulled off the Japanese-American fusion cuisine quite impressively. Despite being jetlagged and having a reduced appetite as a result, we still finished our food easily. We liked in particular the unique flavours from the use of Asian ingredients cooked in the Western style (especially with the use of the sauces) and presented in a way which was clean and light on the palate. Service was warm, friendly and knowledgeable and we enjoyed a relaxed meal in a comfortable setting.