Benu Review

Following the fantastic meal at Californios the prior night, I had high expectations for the 3 macarons Benu especially given the esoteric-ish pricing of $295/Person pre-tax and tip.

Let’s see what it’s about:

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3 macarons

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Sneak peak of the beautiful kitchen from the street. The guy with his back facing the window is EC Corey Lee who was the former CDC at TFL

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Courtyard where they ferment some of their ingredients

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Table setting. These metal chopsticks weigh a ton and I had trouble using them because of my improper techniques. :joy:

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Complimentary bamboo leaf tea…light, earthy and grassy in a pleasant way!

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Small delicacy #1: home made thousand-year-old quail egg, bacon cabbage potage, cabbage juice, ginger sour cream, pickled ginger

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Small delicacy #2: beausoleil oyster, pork belly, kimchi foam, kimchi “glass”

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Small delicacy #3: marinated mussel stuffed with assorted “glass noodle” vegetable

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Small delicacy #4: dried jelly fish wrapped shrimp, seaweed

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Small delicacy #5: pork and sweet rice blood sausage, squid, pickled radishes, sesame leaf, fermented pepper sauce

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Small delicacy #6: glazed chicken wing stuffed with abalone and abalone liver mousse

The glaze overpowered the abalone and abalone liver mousse but delicious nonetheless. This was the ONLY minor misstep of the night.

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Small delicacy #7: “shark fin” soup, dungeness crab, jinhua ham, egg white custard, black truffle

Hydrocolloids are used in a broth so fine brown strands of “shark fin” can be pressed out and they’re then cut at a bias to mimic the shape and elastic snap of real shark fin. It took Corey Lee a year and a half to get his “shark fin” to the “right” texture.

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Ginseng infused orange blossom honey is drizzled on the honey comb shaped butter

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Sprouted grain bread

It was impossibly crunchy on the outside without hurting your gums while it’s super soft on the inside. The ginseng honey butter paired perfectly with the slightly sour tasting bread.

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lobster coral xiao long bao, homeade soy sauce and vinegar

It’s got an incredible amount of lobster consomme inside those thin, elastic, and slightly chewy skin. No XLB ever came close to this.

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Benu’s take on banchan

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seasonal fish roe with hand-pressed sesame oil, sesame leaf, daikon

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sea urchin marinated in fermented crab sauce, thinly sliced kohlrabi

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lightly-cured horse mackerel, fresh ginger, sake lees pickles

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Koshihikari rice with green onion dust

This was so best rice I’ve ever had outside of rice at Mori. Superb texture.

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At this point, we’re presented with this Wolf Ranch quail which will then be carved up for our next course.

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barbecued quail

By far the best cooked quail I’ve ever had. Crispy skin was crisped up by pouring hot oil over them. Incredibly juicy and meaty flesh.

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This black truffle sauce with caramelized bamboo shoot and lovage puree is paired with the barbecued quail.

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black truffle mantou

Impossibly soft and moist with a hint of black truffle flavor. No mantou I had ever came close to this. Does it get any better than that?

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The black truffle mantou is paired with chives and black truffle cream to bolster the black truffle flavor!

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Moving on to soup!

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double bouillon of quail with mountain yam

I can drink this all day. It was well balanced, savory, and complex. It also had a lot more finesse compared to the double smoked chicken broth I had the night before so my palate wasn’t tired out after a few sips.

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On to our final savory course!

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scallion and perilla salad

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pear kimchi

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duo of braised riblet and charcoal-grilled beef rib steak

Perfectly cooked. I wouldn’t have mind if this was A5 Wagyu instead, but I guess you can’t have it all.

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omija sorbet, malt rice water, olive oil

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winter melon, chrysanthemum flowers and leaves, lightly frozen meringue whipped with cream

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In place of the usual petit fours…

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fermented sweet rice tea with pinenuts

Super refreshing, light, and delicious

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rice ball, glazed walnut, dried persimmon

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mint flavored meringue ribbon

This meal was tour de force and possibly the most perfect meal I’ve ever had. In a way, Corey Lee is doing a French interpretation of Chinese/Cantonese and Korean cuisine which is similar to what Thomas Keller did with American food. The texture, mouth feel, balance, and complexity of each bite were superb.

On the other hand, I can easily see how some would be disappointed by Benu’s food. The meal lacked traditional luxury ingredients, with the exception of black truffle, that many high end restaurants use like Osetra caviar, foie gras, and A5 Wagyu. I can also imagine that Benu’s probably quite polarizing for many since a lot of courses are a play on familiar flavors which can be a double edged sword. However, I think everyone should be able to appreciate the sheer amount of techniques in the meal and how incredibly difficult it is to execute it with perfection.

Benu
22 Hawthorne St
San Francisco, CA 94105

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That’s pretty funny, and I feel for you because I also have my own improper technique. :wink:

Great report and great photos! The food looks amazing.

I’m known for resisting paying ‘that’ kind of money. But this review and fabulous photos are definitely arm-twisting. Thanks for sharing.

I think this is a positive trend and hopefully adopted by more restaurants. I refer to caviar, foie gras, wagyu, uni and truffles as the “lazy five”; predictable to check the box of token luxe ingredients.

Nice pix btw.

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True, and I know exactly what you meant, but they also can be used alongside other ingredients that add up to more than the sum of their parts. When that happens, it always an eye opening experience.

In my gut, I think I felt what you said so well. Thanks.

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You got good pictures! I struggle with the lighting there.

Not necessarily a reason to be disappointed! Those luxury ingredients can be great when used properly, but they can also sometimes be a crutch - more importantly, it’s about execution and presenting the best of a product. E.g. Saison’s “radish and butter” is a damn good dish even though it’s “just radish and butter” with no real flourishes (those aren’t the only ingredients, but you get the point). I’d rather have a well-executed celeriac or brassicas than mediocre wagyu. So many people botch A5 wagyu or the use of caviar, it’s a shame.

Benu is an exceedingly technical restaurant. I wouldn’t use the word “clinical,” because that can have a negative connotation in the context of this kind of food, but Benu’s cooking technique is extremely refined. That is why it’s so regarded among chefs worldwide. Chefs’ desire for more strong technical cooking is probably also fueled by a reaction to the past 5-10 years’ proliferation of Michelin-chasing ingredient fetishizers who are great at making menus sound good, but whose cooking isn’t up to par with the prestige ingredients they use.

In my opinion, Benu’s cooking is at a clearly higher level than what I’ve had at The French Laundry and Per Se recently. Both in terms of execution and flavor. The French Laundry and Per Se have great service, wine, and “Oysters and Pearls” is deservedly an iconic dish, but we were mystified how on the basis of food they could be 3*, and even 2* would be generous. But then again, Michelin went on a spree in the past few years and it’s also quite inconsistent.

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They can be fantastic when used correctly - e.g. at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. They spoil you with luxury ingredients but the cooking is damn good and very nuanced. Great cooking + great ingredients (luxury or not, but you can understand why some ingredients carry a premium other than for being rare) is a great meal.

But to your point, they often can be a crutch and more often then not, are used incorrectly and more for the name or idea of making a menu “high end.”

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I agree on Benu’s technical brilliance. I haven’t been to Per Se, but I think two stars or less for TFL is quite harsh based on my lone experience there even though they’re not doing any ground breaking stuff. My only qualm at TFL was the over the top richness in many of their courses.

I guess I am pretty harsh :rofl: I maintain that Manresa, after several visits even after obtaining 3*, has always been comfortably a 2*. Also, lots of the California 1* are very questionable. But then again, I’m not Michelin!

Thanks for the report and great pictures. They’ve come a long way since my last visit, I’ll need to get back there soon.

FWIW - I didn’t care all that much for my first visit to Benu, circa 2013. I thought it was good but I also felt pretty slothful after, and my palate was noticeably fatigued.

My subsequent visits were just better on the whole. In my opinion, they’re firing on all cylinders now though their food is still quite subtle. Not every ingredient pairing is a knockout, but the cuisson is always pretty damn perfect, and textures are on point. Their pastry has always been undeniably great, however.

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This is off-topic and perhaps not something you want to discuss…but I’m curious what your professional background is. You’re an excellent writer as well as “eater.” Feel free to not reply.

Catholiver, you’re asking BradFord right?

Yes. Sorry. I thought I was replying to him/her. Thanks.

We shall see in a couple of weeks :grin:

I think my gripe is also due to the frequent use of shitty quality “lazy fives”. Worst culprits are uni, wagyu and truffles.

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Nice report @moonboy403. :slight_smile: Looks like you were served ~80% of the same dishes we got earlier this year, which is still fine considering how great they were. :wink:

I wonder how often Benu changes out its menu? For Saison or Californios they seemed to have a much higher turnover (trying out new dishes).

@Chowseeker1999. Actually, this was from my March trip so we were there around the same time! I’m looking to go back to SF next year to try Saison, Meadowood, and possibly Coi too. I’m also interested in going back to Quince where I had a really great meal last year.

I think I just need to start selling my organs to make more $$$$. :sweat_smile:

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I hope you were able to fit in la ciccia on your visit.

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