Benu- San Francisco

The evening began with a walk through an enclosed courtyard centered around young Japanese maple trees, just starting to take on a hint of red at the jagged edges of its pointy leaves.  I sat on the bench for a moment to admire this delicate portrait of early autumn.  Time stood still in the minimalist zen garden, and I held my breath for fear of disrupting the silence.  I was in the entrance of one of the most highly anticipated restaurants to open this year in San Francisco, Benu.

Reservations were already booked months ahead by the time Benu opened in early August, as diners were eager to be the first to see what James Beard Award-winning chef and owner Corey Lee had in store for his first solo venture. Numerous Michelin starred restaurants in England, France and the US stud his impressive résumé of 15 years in the culinary world, but none as impressive as his last stint as the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry.  During his tenure at The French Laundry, the restaurant was named the ‘Best Restaurant in North America’ by Restaurant Magazine and received 3 Michelin stars.  A natural progression for this gifted chef was to part from the nest and fly with his own two wings, much like a benu, a mythical sacred Egyptian phoenix after which the restaurant is named.  With the help of French Laundry colleagues as sous and pastry chefs, and a team of experienced designers, architects and purveyors, Chef Lee finally made his vision a reality.

Positioned opposite the serene garden is a large window into the kitchen where one can see the distinct teachings of Thomas Keller- a clean, well organized, immaculate kitchen in which the polished steel countertops shine with pride and glory.  Once inside, save for the dramatic crossbeams that intersect above the center island, the interior space is bare and simple, creating a neutral gray slate to set the stage for the colorful kitchen creations.  The tables are placed far enough from each other to promote a feeling of privacy and intimacy, and for the first time in what seems like decades, I can enjoy a quiet dinner conversation without raising my voice.

The $160 tasting menu begins with a box of paper thin toasted nori and sesame lavash, and head sommelier Yoon Ha presents our first bottle of wine, a 1998 Les Monts Damnés Sancerre that our dinner host Steve of Opinionated About Dining has graciously provided for our special occasion.  Steve, Chuck from ChuckEats, Lesley and I raise our glasses to this new experience together.

Thousand year old quail egg

A preserved quail egg, a common Chinese delicacy, finds its way onto a spoon as a small bite with microcelery and pickled ginger root.  The bite lasts for a fleeting 3 seconds, but the complexity of flavors linger on the palate, at first sour and ultimately earthy.

Tomato- dashi, summer blossoms

A beautiful study in layering of flavors, textures and colors using tomatoes.  A skinned red cherry tomato slips into a refreshing bath of tomato water augmented by a tinge of dashi, bashfully covering its naked body with an orange nasturtium petal.  The bright yellow tomato spherification is at first solid, then quickly bursts through its delicate membrane to become an herb laced pool of liquid inside my mouth.  Within seconds it all transforms into a faint fruity waft of air that permeates through the back of my palate.

Geoduck Clam- seaweed, raspberry-bonito vinegar

Thinly sliced geoduck clam tossed with white and green seaweed, while good, hardly seems like a congruous piece for a fine dining tasting menu.  The raspberry bonito vinegar foam that softly blankets the tender clam does little to make this dish sexy.

Caramelized Anchovy Gelée- peanuts, lily bulbs, chili, basil

Crispy baby anchovies, or chirimenjako, are tossed with cubes of caramelized anchovy gelée, crunchy peanuts, tender white lily bulbs (yurine), squiggles of red chili and microbasil.  The gentle feminine curves of the lily bulbs stand out against the more distinct dramatic shapes of its cohabitants in this beautiful dish that is more about colors, shapes and textures than the flavors that seem scattered.

Veal Sweetbreads- yuzu, carrots, pickles, mitsuba

Breaded veal sweetbreads are delightful, little brown nuggets of buttery richness that go particularly well with the pickled daikon radish, ramps and carrots.  A dollop of sweet carrot purée, a hint of yuzu aroma, a mitsuba leaf that looks like it floated off of a shedding winter tree- I imagine a backdrop of raked sand for what looks like a zen rock garden.

Eel- feuille de brick, avocado, crème fraîche

Moist eel with avocado purée rolled in a delicate thin sheet of feuille de brick pastry is sultry and sexy, the logo-stamped sheet wrapped around the base making it look like a cigarette resting on the side of an ashtray.  The eel roll is deep fried to a thin crisp, crackling under my bite ever so slightly.  The avocado crème fraîche topped with lime zest tempers the oiliness perfectly, and I fully enjoy this eel bliss.

Risotto- sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle

My favorite course of the evening is a perfectly executed black truffle risotto, studded with kernels of sweet corn and sprinklings of green lovage.  Small specks of black truffle release a powerful and intoxicating earthy aroma that titillates my sense of smell and stimulates my appetite.  Little slick orange tongues that are sea urchin melt effortlessly in my mouth, leaving a sweet creamy savor with a hint of saltiness on my palate that sends an instant pleasure signal up to my brain.

Monkfish liver torchon- turnip, onion, mustard seed relish, cherry brioche

A translucent endive hugging the circumference of a silky cylinder of monkfish liver, a blot of bright red cherry sauce against a muted palette, a shiny brown nut seemingly placed at random, a quartered turnip laying on its side, dark green herb spears at skewed angles facing due east and south- by this point of the meal I begin to understand Chef Lee’s artistic style, one that evokes effortlessless and randomness, but only through precision and calculation.  The flavors on the other hand, don’t quite reach this level, and I find the liver torchon, especially with the buttery brioche, too heavy, rich and even a tad musty.

 

‘Shark’s Fin Soup’-Dungeness crab, cabbage, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard

Thin shavings of carrots and faux shark’s fin made with a special gel are strewn over a plump segment of Dungeness crab meat embedded in a base of black truffle custard.  An intense meaty consommé made from Jinhua ham jus is poured at the table, intermingling with sprinkled bits of dried Jinhua ham to create a powerful deep salty flavor that goes well with the earthiness of the truffle custard.  Multiple layers of umami leave a long finish on my palate.

Sommelier Yoon Ha pours a decanted bottle of 1996 Emmanuel Rouget ‘Les Beaumonts’ Vosne Romanée 1er cru for the table as he compliments Steve on this choice of red.

Abalone vol au vent- spinach, artichoke, garlic, lemon, roasted chicken jus

Abalone on a bed of creamed spinach encased in a flaky puff pastry comes with a garden of beautifully prepared artichoke hearts, sweet pearl onions and earthy chanterelles. Candied lemon peels and parsley impart a light freshness to this otherwise robust dish.  The abalone is firm and difficult to cut, and not prepared as the tender buttery mollusk that I anticipate it to be.

Pork belly- fermented pepper, cucumber, perilla

Luscious pork belly is augmented by contrasting textures of crunchy cucumber balls and tender gelatinous sea cucumber.  Hints of fermented pepper and bitter perilla come through the sweet sauce that coats the meat.  The dish is good, but less appreciated by our full bellies and near-satiated appetites.

Eight Treasures Duck

Duck meat is tightly and neatly wrapped around a potpourri of seven treasures of gingko nuts, pine nuts, foie gras, black truffle, duck confit, breast meat and gizzards.  The eighth treasure lies in the sprinkled gold leaves that shimmer against the black slate.  While the concept of this course is fascinating, the orange flavors in the sauce are overpowering and the table cannot move past the first bite.

Sweet Rice Sorbet- pine nut purée, pine needle-infused honey

Multiple shades of white, each with their own distinct flavor and texture, present as the first dessert course.  A leaning sugar disc mounted on malted sweet rice sorbet, melting into a cloud of pine nut purée with a dollop of pine needle-infused honey on the side, work well as a refreshing palate cleanser.

Huckleberry sorbet- yogurt, lemon curd, vanilla sponge

The beautiful crimson huckleberry sorbet pops against the white yogurt foam, canary yellow lemon curd and vanilla sponge cake.  Fresh huckleberries and huckleberry sauce add more tartness to the sensational dessert while cookie crumbles give a crunchy texture.

Chocolates

Chocolates served on a custom designed multi-tiered platform come from La Forêt Chocolate in Napa Valley, created by former Pastry Chef de Partie and principal chocolatier of The French Laundry Wendy Sherwood.  Dark chocolate truffle, walnut, crème brûlée and toasted sesame are all spectacular.

Impeccable and attentive service in a serene dining space so peaceful that you feel like you’re in your own private bubble makes for an exclusive experience at Benu.  One can see careful thought and intention in every aspect of the restaurant, from the zen garden to the minimalist interior, the beautiful lacquer box that holds the lavash and the custom made plates that frame the edible art.  Chef Corey Lee’s sense of aesthetics are appreciated in every calculated millidrop and millifleck that subtly yet purposely decorates a dish.  His attention to detail and meticulous execution is respectable, and through each successive dish one can begin to understand the gifted artist in him.

Overall the tasting menu was good, with some individual dishes standing out as spectacular, yet somehow as a whole I find myself struggling to praise it as an amazing and memorable meal.  All of the elements are in proper order at this blissful zen institution, but I fail to attain culinary nirvana.  What is lacking is passion, fire and personality, elements which are understandably difficult to fully express in the first 3 months of an opening.  With time, I trust that Chef Lee will find his element and blossom into the powerful and awe-inspiring phoenix that his restaurant is named for.

Benu

22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 685-4860

Random trivia:   Did you know that Jinhua ham, produced in the Zhejiang province of eastern China, is one of the most famed dry-cured hams in the world alongside Spanish jamón ibérico and Italian prosciutto?  Its history dates back over 1,100 years, and it is highly regarded for imparting umami to soup stocks.

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Bistro LQ

IMG_1030 When I first looked at Bistro LQ’s menu online, I got excited.  Really really excited.  A French restaurant in Los Angeles serving frog legs, foie gras, sweetbreads, head cheese, bone marrow, baby eel, duck gizzards, goat tripe and lamb tongue was a dream come true.  I almost cried tears of joy as I double and triple checked the website to make sure these weren’t typos.  Once inside the restaurant, decorated with floating glass globes that illuminated the tall ceilings, the menu read beautifully with a diversity of proteins and creative preparations that I had never seen before.

There was a lot oIMG_0946f thought and creativity infused into the description of each dish, and Chef Quenioux is not afraid to experiment with bold concepts and expensive delicacies.  It was difficult not to order everything on the menu.

The complimentary amuse bouche was a mussel over polenta with veal jus and lemongrass.  The polenta had a wonderful consistency, but the mussel had a slightly musty flavor.

IMG_0952 We started off with the foie gras 3 ways.  The first was a sautéed foie gras on top of roasted unagi with smoked green apple infusion sauce.  The dish looked mouthwateringly delicious, but the foie gras was unfortunately quite firm in consistency and overcooked.  The combination of foie gras with eel and apple sauce was a complex one that I was not able to appreciate in that one dish.

The other 2 preparations of foie gras came on a long rectangular glass plate.  The torchon style foie with violet scented bitter chocolate was divine.  The incredibly flavorful and tender foie paired beautifully with the bitterness of the thin dark chocolate squares, making for one of my favorite bites of the evening.  The Earl Grey tea roll, however, was hard and dry, reminding me of those stale airplane rolls that come in plastic bags on economy class food trays.

IMG_0955The foie gras sandwiched between quince marshmallows was a delight.  The marshmallows had an almost erotic supple pillowy consistency to them, and the foie was just as soft and delicate.  Except for the clear quince gelée, which was overwhelmingly sweet, this was a fairly good dish.

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The head cheese filo with watercress bouquet and anchovy emulsion was my other favorite dish of the evening.  As I cut through the middle of the filo packet effortlessly with my fork, the thousands of flaky layers of filo gave way to an incredibly rich and flavorful stew of warm head cheese.  The large chunks of tender head meat and collagenous marvels were well balanced with the tartness of the watercress and the salty anchovy emulsion.  This anchovy sauce, a concentrated version of the best bagna cauda you can ever have, was outstanding.

IMG_0963The frog legs were not so exciting.  The barbecue sauce was like American bbq sauce, and the spicy violet and begonia chutney an overly sweet version of Indian mango chutney.  Given Quenioux’s training in French cuisine, I hoped that he would serve frog legs the classic way- pan fried with garlic, butter and parsley.

The eel roll with fresh herbs was not only overcooked and dry, but also served with a plum sauce that was too sweet.  It was accompanied with chanterelle mushroom and grits, which was actually quite flavorful with a nice texture.  There was a small cIMG_0969rock pot of baby eels grilled with piment d’Espellete.  I was really looking forward to this dish, hoping for a true Basque rendition, but the eels were extremely soggy.  In fact, the oily eels easily broke apart, as if it had been marinating for months.  I was hoping for at least a little bit of texture.

 


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I was really interested in trying the monkfish cheeks.  I’ve had beef, veal and pork cheeks before, all of which have been flavorful and tender.  Why not monkfish cheeks?  After the foie, it’s probably the second most flavorful part of the fish.  I’m surprised other restaurants don’t serve it, considering how cheap the overhead is.  Well, this dish at Bistro LQ was a let down.  The cheek meat was overcooked, tough, dry and stringy.  However, the cipollini onions had a wonderful sweetness which paired well with the pomegranate molasses.  The molasses sauce was perfectly tart and sour, and it would go well on risotto among other things.

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The menu item I was most excited about was the lamb composition with medium rare roasted lamb chop, sautéed kidney, sautéed sweetbreads, poached tongue and shoulder confit with swiss chard gratin and jus roti with lemon and star anise.  Lamb is my favorite meat, and I love organs more than meats.  This dish for me was the ultimate extravaganza and dream come true.

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The lamb chop was well done, the sweetbreads were overcooked, the tongue was dry and tough, and the kidneys were stale.  I was so disappointed, I felt like crying. The swiss chard gratin didn’t provide any consolation either.  A delicious glass of Joseph Swan ‘Cuvée des Trois’ Pinot Noir from Sonoma saved my sour mood.

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The baby goat braised with Guajillo peppers and oregano scented tripes was also a disappointment.  The dry stringy goat meat, made into something that looked and tasted like a deep fried egg roll, was mediocre street food.  The tripe was too gamey and left a bad aftertaste.  I’m not sure if enough proper care went into its preparation.

The first dessert we had was the coconut dacquoise, Italian merinques with Mexican green onions, cilantro, fresh coconut and tartar of fresh mangoes with mastic powder.  It was an interesting dessert- I’ve never seen green onions and cilantro in a dessert dish.  I wasn’t too keen on the combination of flavors.

IMG_1019The composition around dark chocolate was much better.  The mole chocolate mousse with hints of complex Mexican spices was deep and tantalizing, and pouring warm dark chocolate sauce on it made it even more decadent.  The chocolate pancake with mascarpone cheese and chocolate oil was light and soft, and the soufflé style chocolate with szechuan peppercorn was wonderful.

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The most exciting part of the evening was the cheese cart.  They pulled out a spectacular rolling wooden cheese cart to the table side that was filled with classic and rare French cheeses.  Our French server was extremely knowledgeable about each cheese, where it came from and what it tasted like. It was so difficult to decide which ones to try, as in a perfect world one should be able to try all of them.

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We received 8 small mason jars containing different cheese condiments.  From what I could taste, they included: roasted cumin seeds, blueberry gelée, sweet onion jam, bell pepper mustard, cranberry chutney, green tomato compote and green tomatillo ketchup.  It was really fun to experiment with different taste combinations of cheeses and condiments, though ideally it would have been nice to receive guidance from the restaurant.

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IMG_1021As I savored the lemon and raspberry macaroons and wonderful marshmallow that came as our petit fours, I reflected on the Bistro LQ experience.  I wanted to call this my new favorite restaurant.  I envisioned myself going here every other week, feeling torn between the venison tartar and slow cooked scottish hare, or shall it be wild boar shank versus pigeon with gizzards and heart?  But alas, the menu and the vision was too ambitious, and the execution just could not keep up.  However, I support Quenioux’s vision and his willingness to serve bold dishes rich in game and organ meats, so I look forward to revisiting Bistro LQ again.

Bistro LQ

Random trivia:  Did you know that when piment d’Espelette (Espelette pepper) was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century, it was considered a cheap and reasonable substitute for black pepper, which was extremely expensive at that time?  Now the roles have reversed.  Piment d’Espelette retails at about $20 per 40 gram jar.