What Really Elevated Asian Food Can Taste Like - Benu [Thoughts + Pics]

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Legendary reporting as always! So glad you made it at last, seems to be more difficult getting reservations these days.

Benu is another of one the greats of SF! Their approach is unique, but maybe not for everyone.

If you get to go back next time, splurge on the wine pairing (hopefully there’s at least one or two sake or you can ask to have a little incorporated into the pairing). Master sommelier Yoon Ha’s selections to me are very well thought out and some very out of the box yet genius (e.g. a very light bodied Pinot Noir with the fermented crab sauce sea urchin) and I remember Yoon wanted to use shaoxing (huaodiao liquor) to pair with one of the crab dishes but substituted an aged port in place that worked nicely.

Benu also helped spawn Mosu which is also one of my all time favorite restaurants (Chef Sung Ahn relocated one Michelin Star Mosu to Seoul where they seem to be enjoying success and hopefully a Michelin for them is on the way, hopefully he will return to SF Bay Area sometday…Sung was at Urasawa circa 2008, also Benu and French Laundry). But what Benu has achieved is super respectable and quite technical/cutting edge from fusing Korean cuisine and techniques with contemporary/French, yet retaining a bit of kaiseki like elegance and refinement. It’s not a style everyone appreciates, but for those who are fans, tend to be very loyal and die hard. This is why his Asian American following is super huge as well.

The restaurant also keeps tabs of your dining history so if you decide to become a regular and return a bit more frequently they will try to offer you something different so you do not always get the same menu. Californios is like that as well. Kudos for this additional personal touch.

Their XLB is overrated IMO and does not represent the strength of the restaurant (last time I went it was foie, not lobster coral).

I have dined with Cantonese expats (who are huge fans of Yung Kee in Hong Kong) and they thought Benu’s century egg was a yawner. Primarily I think it is because their approach to the century egg lacks that 63 degree yolk texture in the center, akin to the perfect braised Cantonese abalone, where you get that hanjuku tamago (just a touch more overcooked) velvety creamy texture but not runny. But for those who never had Yung Kee’s century egg (or tried direct from their supplier), might find it very interesting and for a house made century egg, it is nicely done if you don’t try to compare it with anything else.

That rice bowl speaks to the Asians amongst us…sometimes rice is crucial to leave you feeling sufficiently filled and satisfied, and you need that to go with some of the items. To me the rice course was fun (and a necessity).

The BBQ quail texture and profile is similar to some of the very best Cantonese marinated/fried squabs, except more delicate, juicy/tender.

The malted rice tea is probably a similar play to shikye (fermented barley dessert soup) which I’ve had as a closer dessert drink to some of the OC Korean BBQ restaurants (Chungdam in Santa Clara sometimes offers a pumpkin/kabocha shikye which can be pretty damn good). The fungus you are referring to is joking referred to as “snow ears” from direct translation and is basically a dessert soup sweetened with rock sugar. The malted rice tea sounds like a nice touch with its earthiness of the grains.

Places like Benu makes me wonder why I would want to spend money at n/Naka…sorry for those who are huge fans.

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Hi @beefnoguy,

Thank you again for the great recommendation and detailed reply. :slight_smile:

I’ll definitely try and save up for a wine pairing next time, that and we had additional plans after Benu so we held off on the pairing. :wink: But it sounds wonderful.

Malted Rice Tea: Ah, interesting! After Googling that, we’ve had that before as well (shikye), but what we had at Benu tasted nothing like the one we had at the Korean restaurant (i.e., Benu’s dessert was so much better, and really had this beautiful flavor profile). :slight_smile: And thanks for the translation for the Chinese dessert “snow ears”! Yes, I think that’s what our friend mentioned years ago.

Interestingly, we felt Benu tasted / paired homage to more Chinese flavors / dishes than Korean ones, but overall, it was a great dining experience.

$768.18 for two after service charge and tax? Did that include the teas?

Roy Choi’s about mixing and matching LA street food, e.g. bulgogi tacos, kimchi hot dog. Chego’s prime rib rice plate and “$12 salad” are dishes from fancy restaurants turned into fast food, which is roughly the opposite of “elevating.” Orsa & Winston’s a closer LA counterpart of Benu.

WOWZA! God of Reports strikes again.

I don’t think they’re really counterparts. Not only are their respective menus and flavors rather different from each other, but also their ethos and strengths are pretty divergent. Benu also has technique in spades…

Agreed that Roy Choi is doing something very different. Yes, about mixing LA street foods, the kind one might grow up with around Koreatown, and his bulgolgi burrito with kimchee makes a lot of sense to an Angeleno.

O&W offers a 20-course tasting menu of food combining French technique with Asian ingredients and fancy plating for $195(?). The food and service may not be all that similar to Benu, but I think it’s the closest LA counterpart.

Maybe it’s the closest LA has to Benu from that point of view, but it’s not really close at all. That 20-course tasting menu is one of Orsa and Winston’s offerings, but they also do toast, sandos, grain bowl salads, a smoked fish plate, minestrone soup, etc.

Plus if you look at the actual types of courses served at Orsa and Winston vs. Benu in their tasting menus, they’re quite different in style and composition. To me, Orsa and Winston seems pretty “international” - some Italian inspired, some Japanese inspired, some Spanish inspired, etc. E.g. you won’t find testa, guanciale, squid ink spaghettini, mascarpone, burrata at Benu, though you’ll find them in Orsa and Winston’s “super omakase.” Benu seems largely more consistently focused on haute Chinese and Korean dishes.

They’re different restaurants imo, and their food is pretty different. I don’t think each restaurant of this general style really has or necessarily needs a counterpart in another city; they can stand on their own.

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This was the course where we found Yoon Ha’s pairing to be really skillful. He paired this with Moscato d’Asti, not a great wine, but wow the layers of flavors were really impressive, and it was one of those out-of-the-box pairings that shows true mastery.

I wouldh’t have brought up O&W at all except for the way-off-base comparison with Roy Choi.

O&W is closer to Benu when it started out than Benu today. If Corey Lee had tried to do what he’s doing now from day one, they’d likely have closed long since.

Hi @robert,

Thanks. I see what you’re trying to say here, but Orsa & Winston is about Italian-Japanese influenced tasting menus (“Inspired by Italian and Japanese ingredients and cooking”), and the level of execution, technique, service and even types of dishes are so far below Benu it’s not really the same IMHO.

When I brought up Chef Roy Choi, there was definitely a lot of early buzz (at least locally here in LA) when he was first kicking off about how he was a “classically trained chef” / his pedigree and “chef-ifying” / elevating stuff that was normally simple / basic to something greater.

It became more apparent as he went along with his ventures and his newest one in Vegas is about trying to do fine dining now.

Got it.

Indeed. Chef Corey is a master technician. I agree with your overall assessment about Benu and other SF high end, quite a bit. One day you’ll find yourself in St. Helena at Meadowood :grinning:. I’ll report back from Avery in about 2 weeks, too.

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What Choi has said about his Vegas place doesn’t sound like fine dining.

People who (unlike Jonathan Gold) didn’t know anything about the street food Choi was riffing on at Kogi probably spouted a lot of nonsense based on his resume.

Hi @robert,

In that article he mentions wanting to use caviar, A5 Wagyu beef, to “ball out”. It may not be traditional fine dining, but it isn’t going to be cheap dining.

Benu’s pastry is tops. That ginseng honey over orange blossom butter has such an elegant taste, but that Sprouted Bread’s texture is stunning.

Benu’s pastry chef Courtney Schmidig is super talented and her pedigree is pretty damn impressive (Le Meurice, The Fat Duck, etc.). Nearby, Quince also recently got a stellar pastry chef, Yannick Dumonceau from L’Ambroisie (though I had no intent to return to Quince anytime soon for other reasons…I may reconsider). On the East Coast, there’s Jungsik’s Eunji Lee, who’s awesome as well (she worked under Cedric Grolet, and her trompe l’oeil fruit is excellent, unsurprisingly). The style at Atelier Crenn isn’t really my thing, but Juan Contreras is very talented, too. I’m also a fan of Stephanie Prida and her desserts (from Manresa, now at The Pool, NY). I haven’t been to Chicago in some time, and I’m rambling on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the above are on the short list for some of the very top pastry chefs in the country. I like that SF has so much pastry / dessert talent.

Jungsik does a dessert tasting menu, which I will try next month. Atelier Crenn used to have it but I don’t know if they still offer that. It would be awesome if Benu had an option for just dessert tasting, too…with some nice spirits and digestifs. Korean persimmons with Armagnac, chestnut Mont Blanc or yaksik with old Madeira, fraises du bois in syrup with Umeshu, Ichiro’s Malt with…anything?

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The space is 9,000 square feet, so I think by “ball out a little bit” he means he’ll be able to put some expensive items on the menu.

Hi @BradFord,

Thanks for the perspective on all of those pastry chefs. :slight_smile: I wish we were able to try more of Pastry Chef Courtney’s pastry creations then, but that Sprouted Grain Bread alone was worth it! :grin: So good!

I don’t understand the connection between square footage and luxury ingredients. But, it does sound to me like he just wants to diverge a bit from the re-contextualized comfort foods upon which he made his fame.

“I’ve always focused on affordability, but now with this, I’m trying to search for a way where I can actually use caviar,” said Choi.

I agree it doesn’t sound like “fine dining” at all, which is totally ok. Rather, it sounds like he’s wanted to use “balling” ingredients like caviar but didn’t feel that they made sense in the context of his earlier projects (and not just LocoL), particularly in LA when his ethos seemed to be cultural fusion of local communities, and that style of food did not entail a5 steak and caviar. Now that he’s achieved some fame, he probably feels some freedom to let loose a bit and do whatever he wants for his new restaurant, caviar and subwoofers and all; after all, it’s a Vegas hotel restaurant, so some flourishes will be received no problem. DJ’s and caviar bumps alongside good-smelling bbq. With that said, caviar appears on lots of menus now that aren’t fine dining, particularly in SF - on potato chips, on biscuits (after inspiration from Saison, no doubt), add on to various pastas, etc. Caviar is indeed a luxury ingredient, but it also doesn’t have the same stuffy connotation that it did a while back. In Vegas, and SF, it’s not really out of context, but I can see how it would be from a taco truck early on.

Anyway, enough about Choi and Orsa & Winston, et al. and back to Benu…

  1. Benu’s website has a video set to the score of “In the Mood for Love” (a fantastic film), but that song always has me craving Hong Kong soup noodles (preferably on a rainy night), not fine dining!

I’m pretty sure the quail is from Wolfe Ranch. Northern California has some good birds. There’s also Paine Farms for some great squabs.

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Are you high?

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