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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Le Crocodile- Vancouver, BC Canada

Young competitive chefs are making headline news in the culinary world these days by reinventing modern cuisine with new techniques, but as a diner, there is something very reassuring and special about dining at a traditional restaurant with an established chef and seasoned staff.  It’s important to have an open mind in trying new restaurants and novel food concepts, but there is a comfort in being able to let go of all of that for a meal that is guaranteed to be good and sophisticated service that is sure to please.  On a recent trip to Vancouver, we chose to have our first dinner at Le Crocodile, a traditional French restaurant that came highly recommended to us by a local.  Chef Michel Jacob has been heading Le Crocodile for 25 years, maintaining a high standard of cuisine and an excellent reputation that has remained unchanged.  I wanted to have a quiet and relaxing dinner where I could sit back and put my full trust in the chef and my servers, and Le Crocodile seemed like the perfect choice.

Le Crocodile is named after Au Crocodile, a famous restaurant in Strasbourg which received 3 Michelin stars under Chef Emile Jung where Chef Michel had a life changing inspirational experience.  When Chef Michel was apprenticing under Chef Johnny Letzer in Strasbourg, he and his other colleagues were taken to Au Crocodile for a first hand dining experience where he was introduced to a new culinary style and philosophy that would eventually motivate him to follow the same path.  After numerous other stints working in restaurants in France, Switzerland and Belgium, Chef Michel eventually moved to Vancouver to open Le Crocodile, a fine dining French restaurant.   After 25 years, Le Crocodile still remains strong as one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants under his leadership and with the help of original staff who have remained loyal from the very beginning.

The restaurant is just off of Burrard street, one of the main strips that runs through the city center.  Crisp white linen tablecloths, red leather banquettes, classical music and hanging oil paintings set the stage for elegant candlelight dining.  French servers sporting crocodile tie pins welcome you with a genuine smile and a joke or two.  Here you will receive old school hospitality and superb service in a beautiful dining room, but somehow it doesn’t feel stuffy or formal at all.   It’s an unpretentious and relaxed atmosphere created by the generous staff, making for a pleasant experience for business dinners, romantic anniversaries and even family gatherings with children.  The menu is classical French cuisine incorporating fresh local ingredients.  Steak tartare, duck liver terrine, escargots, Alsatian onion tart and duck confit stand out as French classics, but Le Crocodile also offers many bounties of the local seas with entrées like oven roasted loup de mer, broiled sea bream, lobster tempura, grilled tiger prawns and lobster bisque.  We started with a complimentary appetizer of smoked pork belly, foie gras and fresh herbs tartlette, a luscious and creamy tartlette that was served piping hot right out of the oven.

Trio de Saumon: tartare, fumé et ‘Style côte-ouest’

You can’t leave Canada without eating Canadian salmon.  We ordered an appetizer of BC salmon prepared three-ways: candied salmon with tartar sauce, salmon tartare with cucumber, capers, tobiko and quail egg on a bed of sliced cucumbers, and smoked salmon with crème fraîche, capers and chopped onions on blinis.  Candied salmon, made by curing salmon in honey and spices before smoking, is a popular way to enjoy salmon in Canada.

Confit de canard sauce au cidre

The duck confit, served with apple cider jus, was incredibly juicy and meaty, cooked to perfection with crisp and flavorful skin.

‘You cannot have a meal without our pomme frites!’, our server said with a wink, and brought over a plate of complimentary crispy shoestring fries.

Ris de veau aux cèpes; réduction aux agrumes, purée de navet

Luscious veal sweetbreads with meaty chunks of whole cepe mushrooms were served with silky spoonfuls of turnip purée in a citrus reduction sauce.  The sweetbreads were prepared extremely well, with just a touch of wholesome gameyness that was complemented by the crisp frisée and the acidity of the sauce.

Poêlée de cuisses de grenouilles à l’ail, beurre ciboulette

I was excited for my plate of frog legs, as it’s not something that I can find easily in Los Angeles.  I love the light flavor and the easy texture of frog meat, and Le Crocodile pan fried theirs with garlic and butter and dressed them with a chive butter sauce with lots of fresh parsley.  The tomato concassé elevated the flavors of the dish with its acidity and refreshing flavors.

Soufflé au Grand Marnier

After a palate cleanser of complimentary pear sorbet and raspberry mille-feuille, we perused the dessert menu to see how we could complete our fantastic meal.  A cheese plate?  Alsatian apple tart with vanilla ice cream, made-to-order pear tart, chocolate crepes or crème brûlée?  We went for the special of the day, the most sensational Grand Marnier soufflé, a warm, airy and light pillow of delight that melted into heavenly bliss with the warm vanilla sauce.

Chocolates crocodiles

Every meal at Le Crocodile is finished with a complimentary plate of darling little dark and milk chocolate crocodiles which our jaws clamped down on and consumed without hesitation.

Le Crocodile is an upscale French bistro without outrageous prices, attitude or pretentiousness.  It was a joy to have an elegant and relaxing meal that was superbly orchestrated by our lovely French staff who treated us with great respect and care.  It’s hard to find such good hospitality without paying a hefty price, and for that Le Crocodile is a true gem.  It’s no wonder they’ve been standing strong for 25 years and why they are adored by Vancouverites.  Le Crocodile has all of the makings of a top class restaurant- history, reputation, class, authenticity, service, quality and most importantly, consistency.

Le Crocodile

100-909 Burrard Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 2N2, Canada
(604) 669-4298

Random trivia:  Did you know that crocodiles sweat through their mouth?  That’s why crocodiles are often seen on river banks with their jaws wide open- it’s their way of cooling off.

Bistro Paul Bert- Paris

Bistro Paul Bert

Bistro Paul Bert

For the ultimate Parisian bistro experience with classic French cooking, Le Bistro Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement, not far from Bastille, is the perfect location.  Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, this bistro is small, quaint and unpretentious.  Bustling with locals and a few scant tourists (that’s us!), I could tell that this was a place of warmth and comfort from the soft yellow glow of lights and the sounds of laughter and clinking wine glasses emanating from the small storefront as I approached it on the dark street.

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Chalkboard menu

The menu is written on a medium-sized chalkboard that is passed around from table to table.  The formule menu for 34 Euros includes an appetizer, entrée and dessert.  Even though it was still only 8:30pm on a Wednesday night, the place was packed and they had already run out of many entrées.  My poor friends were crushed when our waitress initially told them that she would save the last langoustine plate for them, only to return a few minutes later crossing her arms in a big X with the dreaded “c’est fini!”

IMG_5482Asperges blanches au parmesan de vache rouge: White asparagus with parmesan cheese.  A very simple dish of steamed white asparagus with salt, pepper, olive oil and shaved parmesan cheese.  Mild and delicate in taste, the white asparagus was meaty and thick.  Since it was the tail end of asparagus season, I could sense a hint of bitter finish in the vegetable, in contrast to the succulent sweetness of those I had during the peak season.  Still, I was happy to be able to enjoy a plateful of these giant stalks- it’s hard to find them in the US.

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Assiette de jambon blanc iberico et sa salade: as simple as you can get.  Slices of delicious Iberico ham with a simple baby greens viniagrette salad.  At this bistro, it’s all about simplicity and good quality.

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Petit anchois frais en tempura: deep fried tempura-style anchovies.  That’s all there is to it, just plain simple battered and fried anchovies with lemon, but oh it was incredibly good.  The fish were so fresh, it made me wonder if they were still alive when they were dropped into the pot of bubbling oil.  Crisp and light, yet moist, tender and succulent on the inside, this was my favorite appetizer of the evening.

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They gave us these purée maison mashed potatoes to accompany our entrées, and I couldn’t get over how adorable the small cast iron pot was. Very functional too, as it kept the potatoes warm throughout our meal.

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Ris de veau, poêlée de rattes et carottes du jardin: Pan fried veal sweetbreads with garden fresh ratte potatoes and carrots.  These sweetbreads were large, moist, rich and luscious.  I’m used to having sweetbread dishes where there are several small segmented pieces of sweetbread that break apart easily, but this dish presented 1 large grand piece of succulent heaven that stood up to the earthy intensity of the morel mushrooms.

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Dos de cabillaud rôti à la crème de morilles: roasted cod loin fillet with morel mushroom cream sauce.  The cod was incredibly moist and flavorful, bold enough to complement the beautiful morel mushroom sauce.  Morels were in high season at this time, and it was such a joy to see it incorporated in so many dishes.  I love the intense woodsy aroma and soft juicy consistency of fresh morels; it’s nothing like the dried counterparts.  A wonderful pairing with the bottle of B. Couralt “Les Tabeneaux” red wine that we ordered.

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Tête de veau, sauce gribiche et sa cervelle: calf’s head with its brains, served with gribiche sauce which is a mayonnaise based sauce with hard boiled eggs, capers, cornichons, Dijon mustard, parsley and chives.  This is hearty classic French bistro cooking at its absolute best.  It’s the meat and skin around a calf’s head, carefully taken off the skull, wrapped around the tongue and prepared in a bouillon for hours until the gelatinous skin starts to melt and soften.  In the photo you can see the thick slice of tongue in the foreground, and sautéed brains to the right.  Every bite of which ever meat I ate, simply melted in my mouth.  The thick outer layer of the face meat was collagenous heaven that dissolved effortlessly on my tongue into a warm enveloping sensation of full-bodied finesse.  The tart and acidic gribiche sauce was the perfect complement to such an intensely robust and nourishing meal.  Because of the sauce, I was able to finish the plate- otherwise, it may have been too heavy even for an organ meat lover like myself.  This was one of my favorite dishes on this Europe trip.

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Ile flottante aux pralines roses: Floating island dessert with pink pralines.  Ile flottante is a light meringue on top of a crème anglaise custard sauce.  I wasn’t too crazy about this dessert, but then again I am not the fairest judge of this dish, as I don’t like nuts, meringue or pralines.  Also, I was still ‘floating’ in tête de veau heaven.  But I do remember the crème anglaise being quite flavorful.

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Soufflé au chocolat et au basilic: Chocolate and basil soufflé.  I enjoyed this dish, but my friends reported that the basil kick was a bit too much for them.  The consistency of the soufflé was perfect- warm, fresh out of the oven, airy and light.

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Baba au rhum façon savarin: Rum cake made in a Savarin mold.  The Savarin yeast cake is made in a ring mold with a rounded contour, making it look like a large donut.  It’s named after Brillat-Savarin, a famous 18th century gastronome and epicure. Since the dessert came with a bottle of white rum, it made us think that the cake had hardly any rum in it.  We were all expecting a nice moist cake with a hint of rum finish, and dove in with our large spoons.  Within seconds we were coughing, hacking and hyperventilating from the harsh alcohol.  This was not a cake with a hint of rum.  This was a plate of rum with a hint of cake.  Blech.  We watched in awe as a gentleman in his late 60’s sitting at the table next to us generously poured several ounces of extra rum from the bottle onto his baba, and finished the whole plate with not so much as an expression on his face.

Although the desserts flopped, everything else satisfied all of my senses.  If you have a bigger party or a bigger appetite, try the côte de boeuf for two (it looked like it was for four), a huge seared steak with frites which is their specialty.  I had a wonderful and happy experience at this neighborhood bistro, where the atmosphere, people and food were all loving and heartfelt.  I remember looking around and seeing everybody laughing and smiling, enjoying life and living in the moment.  This was classic, hearty bistro cooking done right with the best ingredients to nourish the stomach and soul.

Le Bistro Paul Bert-  18, rue Paul Bert, Paris  France

331-4372-2401

Random trivia: White asparagus is made by ‘etiolation’, which is the deprivation of light.  The stalks are kept away from the light by being buried in soil, so that chlorophyll (which gives the green pigment) cannot be produced.