If there is one thing I stand for, it is curves. I love them on my body, on my plate, and in my words. I am currently enrolled in an Art of Languaging writing class where we try and look at words in different ways, whether it be the sounds or lines. Looking at the word Benu to me is the epitome of curvaceous. The b and e are a bubbly opening and then you have the up and down, yin and yang, open wave form of n and u. I am not a design person, so excuse me for explaining this clumsily, but as I walked down the steps from the host to the carpeted dining room and I looked up, I somehow saw the word “benu” in the design. The ceiling had the “nu” hilly form. It is a rare thing when the aesethic style perfectly matches the name and idea of the establishment. White, minimal, clean, and bosomy.
The design of this place was rather overwhelming. I kept trying to remember the last time I saw plush carpet in a restaurant and how nice and luxurious it was. Only one painting adorned the wall in the dining room and it was far away from me. I was convinced that I had the best seat in the place. The silverware design with the fork with five tines and knife on a handcrafted smooth wood rest was as elegant as can be. My favorite musician, Regina Spektor, was playing throughout the restaurant and the mood was set. My eyes and my my ears were stimulated and I was waiting for my mouth to get in on the action.
When the hard deciscion of the day is whether to get the tasting or a la carte menu, you have what I like to call Princess Problems…life ain’t bad. My dining partner already had the tasting menu and it was the description of the duck entree that swayed me to the a al carte side. Have no fear, we still each ordered a dish from each menu section. The first thing to come to the table is the Buckwheat Lavash, seasonsed with nori and seasame, which are stood upright in a slotted box, similar to that of Dexter’s blood files. Next, is the amuse bouche, pictured above, it is a dashi broth with a tomato water sphere and summer blossoms. It was a lovely pop to the proverbial cherry (tomato) of the meal.
Under the small appetizer section I chose the apple, bacon, celery branch, walnut, mimolette, mustard, beer. Once again, the hilly form was showcased and I was really excited by the textures and tastes. The apple was peeled and perfectly sweet, the bacon was thin and crispy as can be, and the beer was a foam. This was a playground for the palate and I was going from the cheese swing to a dip in the mustard pool. Everything in this dish was fun and whimsical. My dining partner ordered a much more grown-up appetizer, the monkfish liver torchon, almond, endive, cherry. It was creamy, decadent and silky. The pairing, with the cherry and bread on the side, showed me that this is the foie gras of the sea.
The following menu section was pasta, and I chose wisely with the risotto, sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle. The dish came lid on and as soon as the server removed it the aroma of truffle filled the air. Uni is one of those foods that literally changed my life. I own the domain Looney Uni dot com and everything about it is the sexiest food ever. It reminds me of a tongue that just perfectly melts itself in your mouth. It is like velvet. I have heard it described in much more sexual terms but this is the ingredient that does it for me. This combination of the creamy risotto, sweet corn, fragrant black truffle, and fresh uni worked beautifully. This is quite possibly the most perfect dish I have ever had. My dining partner had this dish on his first visit and although he said he wants three of these dishes he ordered the rigatoni, sea cucumber, oxtail, wood ear mushrooms, star anise, red wine, butter in effort to try something new. It was rich and earthy but it couldn’t hold a candle to the risotto.
On to the fish and shellfish portion, I ordered the big fin squid, pork belly, turnip, cucumber, mizuna, preserved plum. The squid was thick, but not rubbery, and it worked well with the plum sauce. The pork belly was fatty and crispy, as it should be. My companion had the more interesting dish, the shrimp boudin, snapping turtle, vegetable matignon, burnett. The boudin had plump chunks of shrimp and the snapping turtle in the broth was rich and flavorful.
As I mentioned, it was the description of the duck that brought me over to to the a la carte side. Duck, artichokes, chanterelles, coriander, lemon, olive oil are all of my favorite ingredients, so clearly this was my dish. This dish did not disappoint in any way. It was a beautiful duck breast and then duck mousse under the crispy skin. The artichoke puree and the hearts themselves added this creaminess to the plate that complemented the duck very nicely. Part of the reason I love artichokes so much is because of the aftertaste, that herbal aftertaste that reminds me so much of green tea. This crisp flavor along with the lemon and coriander left the most delightful taste in my mouth and mind. My dining partner, thankfully, preferred his own dish more, which was dry-aged, “pré salé” lamb rack, garlic sausage, cauliflower, date, pine nuts, ginger. I liked this dish a lot, especially with the lamb dipped in the cauliflower puree but I preferred my tailor made dish. It is always nice when the orderer prefers their own dish.
When it came to dessert we ordered the soft chocolate ganache, feuille de brick, banana ice cream, Bourbon caramel, ginger and the blackberries, douglas fir meringue, candy cap sablé, natural cream. Both desserts were interesting, but that candied ginger several different ways and the banana ice cream were the stars of the dessert show.
At the end of the meal, you receive a lovely treat along with your bill and seasonal magnet, you get a box of chocolate. Forrest Gump is correct, life is like a box of chocolates and at Benu you can be assured that life is pretty damn good and delicious. There was not a bad dish in the meal and everything was meticulously made, presented, and served. Clearly Chef Corey Lee’s time at French Laundry was well-served, as nothing about Benu seems like it comes from a restaurant that is only six weeks old. This is a well-designed and executed restaurant and if there were any kinks that still need to be work out I, as a diner, did not see them. Sommelier Yoon Ha was on point with every single wine he paired for us, and a meal here without consulting with this guy is just plain silly. My favorite pairing of the night was the late harvest riesling for the monkfish and uni risotto from C.H. Berres.
This entire meal was a Mission Fruition accomplished. I left the restaurant, full, satisfied, and with all of my senses on overload. When you walk back on to the street from the serene courtyard you can spot a window into the kitchen. It didn’t occur to me until now, but there are no windows in the dining room. You are completely removed and truly get to embark on a culinary journey. It was until I downloaded the picture did I spot the Chef, Corey Lee, in my kitchen picture. Holla! This guy and his masterpiece of a restaurant are well on their way to earn Michelin Stars all their own. Bravo Benu!
22 Hawthorne Ln
(at Howard St)
San Francisco, CA 94105