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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

BENU: A Monumental Dining Experience

My evening at Benu was one of those lifetime experiences that one long remembers.  I had a great lunch in Seoul, and had a chance to chat with Chef Jun-Sik Yim, who delayed his trip to New York (to open a restaurant in Manhattan) to cook for us.  He could well be the next Corey Lee (left, also from Seoul--see details from this blog yesterday), who opened Benu last year, which, according to The Wine Spectator, "is the best entirely new restaurant in several years."  Reviews have mostly been sheer raves.  Some call it The Chinese Laundry for an asiatic fusion with The French Laundry,  Lee being Jesus to Thomas Keller as God.
I walked into Benu at 1745.  White walls with black decor and staff attire.  Sarah, my interface, was very perceptive and was the perfect hostess.

Let me say at the outset that this was a $300 dinner.  I had their tasting menu, with 18 courses and three initial wines:

Alta Maria Chardonnay, 14.6%
Chateau de Chantegrive Bordeaux 13.5%
Demon Slayer Junmai Daijingo Wakatake Sake. 17%
The first course was a 1000 year old quail egg with ginger and nasturium. I found this item bland with a rubbery, almost foul tasting egg.
#2 featured a concoction of oyster, pork belly and essence of kimchee. One bite and there is that unfortunate odor of kim chee.
#3 was a plate of wild salmon, maple sake cured with onion ash.  This was very bland with fishy overtones.  
#4 was unagi, feuille de brick, creme fraiche with lime. Nice and crispy. Good...about time...but I forgot to take a photo.
#5  Was a plate of cherry blossom yogurt with cucumber, pistachio, sort of likea sherbert.  Okay.
#6 was a cup of homemade corn tofu and ice plant in bleached tomato juice. It looked like a dessert, but was not, and I particularly enjoyed the corn tofu.
#7 was a toast of horseradish on trout roe and chives, where the trout egg 
looked exactly like a salmon egg to me.
#8 was a bowl of jasmine chicken with dates, a cold chicken soup with a funny taste.

#9 starred two foie gras xiao long baos, evoking memories of shanghai dumplings, but better, because this one had goose liver.  The best dish so far. I'm half way there.
#10 was their signature monkfish liver torchon (a way of pouching foie gras) with sunchoke, green tomato, mustard and a large brioche. I can't imagine I would ever delight in any fish liver, but it was fine, maybe even good.

#11 was a plate of abalone mushroom over a fried abalone with pickled ramp and cilantro. One of the better dishes, but missing that abalone taste. I would recommend using half dried abalone.  Not sure what the foam did, but other courses also had it, ala El Bulli.
It was now 1920, about an hour and a half into the meal.  #12 was a terrific rissoto with black truffles. This could well have been the best of 
the evening, with an exquisite taste and the distinctive bouqet of truffles.  I would rate this up there with the white truffles rissoto I had in Rome.
#13 was a bowl of shark's fin soup with jimhua ham over a black truffle custard. Certainly in the top three, a delicate, yet uniquely special soup.  I suspect this was not from a shark, but that's better.
#14 was filet of duck breast with raw Chinese yam, straw mushrooms and peas in a yuzu (citrus) sauce. Excellent.
#15 was the finale of beef, lily bulb and celery in a cherry espagnole sauce. I was a bit disappointed.  For the price of the meal, wagyu over short ribs would 
have been a grand conclusion.

If I had stopped here at 2010, I would have been happier, but the following conclusion was okay, with a glass of Cockburn Port, an expresso and three desserts: 
  Olive oil sorbet with strawberry and sesame 
  Peach with matcha and elderflower
San Francisco has definitely gone informal. In a sportcoat and turtleneck, I was about the best dressed customer in the place.
Three hours later I walked out to a surprisingly still lit sky.  Fifteen minutes of brisk (San Francisco really is too cold) walking took me back to the Nikko. 
 If I were chef Lee, I would replace at least half the courses with peaks of memorable flavors to make the experience more experienceful. The first two courses, for example, evoked foul senses. Begin with excellence. Plus, with the money he must be raking in, hire a few more primary servers. While the shared partnership works, the leading interfaces seemed mildly stressed. This should be a relaxing, yet extraordinary fantasy.  
As it is, this could well have been one of the five best meals I've had in my life.  I would expect Chef Corey Lee to continue to grow and become one of the very best.  
I was invited to visit the kitchen and met with Chef Lee.  The last time I did this was a little more than a year ago with Chef Rene at Noma in Copenhagen.  A few months later he was named the best chef in the world.


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