Saturday, February 18, 2012

Benu: A Meal to Remember

My husband and I recently had a meal to remember at Benu in San Francisco. Voted by OpenTable customers Best Overall Restaurant, Best Food and Best Service in San Francisco, Benu's also earned two Michelin stars and has been called the best restaurant in America by Chef David Chang.

It's tempting to call Benu the Asian French Laundry since head chef Corey Lee was born in Korea, moved to the U.S., and worked for nine years at The French Laundry. The food marries traditional Asian ingredients with French preparation and modernist innovation. Chef Lee has likened himself to a craftsman, although many would say he's more like an artist. For each dish he starts by creating a flavor profile, then determines cooking technique, and finally presentation.

Whatever you call it, the food's remarkable. The tasting menu included seventeen courses in addition to buckwheat seaweed crackers to start. Each dish was a new adventure: the flavors, textures, artistry, and temperatures all combined wonderfully, seemingly melting in my mouth. Nothing came out as I expected when reading the descriptions, ingredients and flavors upended and transformed, curiously new and different.

I appreciated the way the food married traditional, even ancient, Asian ingredients with Western techniques and original forms. The minimalist style gave an elegant, refined tone to the experience, one that highlighted the food and the revelations each bite brought. It's difficult to describe the dishes because each one offered something new and unexpected, more subtle and nuanced than usual, reinvented and perfected, firing neurons and awakening taste buds that had been dormant.

Benu isn't for everyone, but if you're looking for a completely original, singular modern Asian European meal, try it. You won't soon forget it.

Tasting Menu:

thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger: precious, quivering egg in warm vichyssoise with a ginger kick

oyster, pork belly, kimchi: our server announced this morsel wrapped in thin pastry was time-sensitive and to be eaten in one bite; melted in my mouth, and was gone too soon

monkfish liver, caviar, pistachio, cauliflower, lemon jelly, brioche: a fantastic, complex combination of ingredients spread on buttered, warm brioche; no essence of my grandma Neiman's chopped liver to be found

eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime: like a thin eel taquito dipped in creme fraiche with lime

caramelized anchovy, lily bulb, peanut, pickles: unexpectedly spicy and crunchy, no flavor of pungent anchovies here

salt and pepper squid: little morsels served on black shrimp cracker with cilantro, crunchy and spicy

foie gras xia long bao: like a French sui mai dumpling, this was one of Brad's favorites

homemade glutinous rice cakes with pine nut, pumpkin, black truffle: chewy cylindrical bites of rice with fragrant truffle and other ingredients, this one stood out for me

Hokkaido sea cucumber stuffed with shrimp, cucumber, onion, fermented pepper: nice combination of cucumbers from sea and land, briny and savory

chicken with black moss, mountain yam, celery: I think preparation was sous-vide, with white yam and delicate tendrils of moss

chicken velvet with abalone, abalone mushroom, chrysanthemum: I loved it, and the abalone brought me back to memories of big Chinese banquets when I was growing up

Japanese deer tartare, artichoke mayonnaise, walnut bread: I was most nervous about this; more subtle and delicate than I expected with Parmesan and meat raised in Texas

beef braised in pear, beech mushroom, sunflower seeds and leaves: tender, delectable umami combination of ingredients

"shark's fin" soup, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard: another standout, better than real shark's fin soup, with the black truffle custard treasure at the bottom of the dish

grapefruit, espelette, white chocolate: an outstanding sorbet with flavors of bitter, sweet, and spicy combined; I wanted to lick every last drop

acorn-cranberry custard with banana ice cream: another home run, the custard in a surprising noodle form with small and super flavorful bites of regular and freeze dried banana ice cream and small, bright, red tart cranberries; I've never had so much flavor packed in just a few bites

chocolates: sesame orange, yam marshmallow, walnut, and almond coconut, a perfectly sweet ending

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