tasting menu at benu, san francisco

by foodhoe on April 25, 2011

22 Hawthorne Ln (at Howard St), SF, CA 94105 | reservations | 415.685.4860 | website

Mr. K and I had quite a dinner last Friday where we enjoyed the 15 course tasting menu at Benu Restaurant.  It is located in the magnificently redesigned space that was previously Two and Hawthorne Lane before that.  The Benu bird was the mythological phoenix of Egypt, a symbol of the rising sun and rebirth, which reflects both the transformation of the space and celebrates chef Cory Lee’s first restaurant venture.  We were drawn towards the serene garden where we were ushered into the restaurant by an elegant gentleman in a suit.  He took our coats and seated us in a cozy banquette table with cushy seats and sleek black tabletops.

Chef Lee was chef de cuisine for eight years at the fabled French Laundry, in Yountville where we have yet to dine (we gave up trying to get a reservation years ago and now it is just too expensive).  He earned the James Beard rising chef award in 2006 and is a semi-finalist this year for best new restaurant, go Benu!  For our first visit, we decided to go with the chef’s tasting menu ($160), an extravagant 15 course meal which builds course upon each course to wholly express the cuisine at Benu.  Sometimes it’s just better to place yourselves in the hands of the creator… The attention to detail is extraordinary and with each course we were provided new silverware.  I actually like that there are no tablecloths, it’s green and my dribbles on the sleek black tabletops were easily removed…

Our amusements began with a thousand year old quail egg nestled in ginger emulsion and a thick creamy potage.  The tiny egg looked like a jewel floating amidst the layers of earth tone creamy soup. 

Next were thick slices of poached chicken perfumed with a floral infusion from jasmine tea, translucent curls of green onion, with tiny orbs of sticky sweet dates and sprinkled with flakes of pure 24k gold.

My favorite treat was the lobster chip (just like a shrimp chip) topped with tiny cubes of rich marrow custard, powdered marrow, glistening caviar and intricately sliced chives and chive blossoms.  It was fabulously decadent and addictively crunchy and delicous.

Many of the dishes came covered, this was particularly cute, a diminutive teacup with matching top

Inside was the housemade tofu, a tiny miraculously pleated sphere floating in a deliciously smoky dashi thickened with Xanthum gum.  The tofu dissolved in my mouth and I savored the tender morsels of abalone.

This was beautiful to look at, the oyster looked like it was laminated in a clear sheet that tasted of chili pepper, served over a rich salty cube of pork belly wrapped in cabbage and served over a puddle of spicy chili paste.  The flavors and textures inspired us to try bo ssam with raw oysters soon.

We sighed over the filthy rich xiao long bao dumpling filled with  foie gras and truffle oil.  Good thing these bites were all so diminutive, every thing was so very decadent.

The eel wrapped in feuille de brick pastry resembled a cigarette in an very cool ashtray.  It was comprised of a thin strip of grilled eel wrapped in paper thin pastry dough and fried til crispy, served with a thick creme fraiche dusted with lime zest.  The lime zest infused the deep fried treat with heady fragrance

The torchon of monkfish liver, was infused with a bright marine essence. I found the umeboshi jam to be a bit sweet, but the fresh crisp flavor from the tiny cubes of cucumber was refreshing.  The buttery brioche seemed almost immoral when spread with the rich liver but I ate the whole thing. 

Mr k. thought the seafood sausage was rubbery and reminded him of fishballs, but he really liked the dense crispy bread crust dragged through the spicy xo sauce. 

The “shark’s fine” soup, was dominated visually by the stack of glistening faux fin, which shone like glass and were crunchy like rubberbands, but it was the intoxicating black truffle infused custard at the bottom of the bowl that made this dish for me.  I was completely bewitched by the earthy fragrance and sublime aroma of this dish.

For me, the rest of the meal (the larger protein dishes) didn’t capture my attention as much as the first courses and the ensuing desserts.  The fresh noodles had an exquisite springy texture and were infused with a spicy espalette pepper, shrimp roe, tarragon and my tongue felt coated with the thick rich chicken jus.  Our server was concerned that I left most of it untouched, but by this point I knew these noodles would continue to expand in my belly.

Housemade lamb sausage with fennel and pear, tender lamb stuffed with lamb mousse, flavored with pear, roasted garlic, lemin zest, thyme, and rosemary.  We thought the flavor and consistency of the mousse reminded us of baloney… an odd dish this was.  The most memorable bite was the single white bud which perked up my fatigued tastbuds with bright oniony flavor.

Tender fatty beef braised in pear, served with a puree of lily bulb, celery, topped with translucent curls of celery, petals of the lily bulb and thick slices of shiitake mushroom.  The slow cooked meat was luscious and we enjoyed the many layers of textures on the plate.

Ahhh, at last we came to the desserts.  The first was served in a chubby round glass cup containing a scoop of fennel sorbet, that filled my mouth with cool anise flavor served over tangy gooey white sesame meringue, tart rhubarb and covered with nutty black sesame.  Our tastebuds were bathed in a myriad of sensations, a lovely surprise that cleansed the palate.

The Banana dish was a composition of banana and burnt acorn tempered with warming ginger.  There was a scoop of ice cream, a slice of banana bread that was sticky like pudding, a creamy burnt acorn roll, fiery ginger foam, a jiggly acorn gelee and a crunchy praline that crumbled apart with tiny crystals of candied ginger.  We closed the meal by meticulously cleaning our plates.

The elegant gentleman in the suit graciously brought us our coats and bag, we marveled once more at the attention to detail. We enjoyed being led through the tasting menu, savoring each bite with all of our senses.  The food was refined and precisely executed with marvelous style and restrained aesthetics.  I only wish that once you have experienced the full menu, you can progress to another level where you can enjoy a less rigorous version… 15 courses was so very epic.

Benu on Urbanspoon

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa April 25, 2011 at 10:38 am

What beautiful food! Eating there is a real experience…

Cheers,

Rosa

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Cookie April 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm

WOW, 15 courses? Everything looks so delicate and delicious! I especially love the xiao long bao and I bet it’s just so rich with the foie gras and truffle filling!

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Single Guy Ben April 25, 2011 at 7:27 pm

So excited that you finally got to check it out! Your version of the thousand-year-old quail egg looked more interesting in the potage than when I went and just got it served in a spoon. And the truffle base in the faux shark’s fin soup was my favorite part too. I totally would have finished that whole bowl of noodles! Did you get the chocolates at the end? What did you think?

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Livin Local April 25, 2011 at 8:21 pm

What an amazing experience! Clearly much more than just a regular meal out with your husband.

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Michelle April 26, 2011 at 10:17 am

Wow. This meal looked amazing! I’m putting the truffle xiao long bao on my must try list!

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foodhoe April 26, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Rosa, yes it was
Cookie, I thought that dumpling has ruined me for life!
Ben, yeah it was an unexpected surprise, there goes the refund… I think I prefer to eat the thousand year old egg with something, not plain so I feel lucky it was served with both sauce and soup. We did get the chocolates at the end, they bagged them up for me, we were sugared out. I loved it, wish we could afford to dine there again!
Ll, yes it was a very lovely time.
Michelle, you will love it, and let’s hope more places follow!

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Gastronomer April 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm

This meal looked so very fabulous! I don’t think I’ve ever seen Asian food served in a traditional tasting menu fashion.

I always lose steam during a tasting menu when the meats arrive! I perk up nicely once the sweets roll around though 😉

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Bonnibella April 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Definitely sounds and looks epic. I like how the newer restaurants don’t use linen cloths. You are good at pacing yourself, I would have eaten all the noodles! I like the tasting menu format but I like how Benu let’s one order a la carte so I get to create my own.

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