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.

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