Monday, January 2, 2012

Benu - Review

Benu - Dude Grade: A+
22 Hawthorne St
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: (415) 685-4860

I've had a lot of fun on this blog documenting 261 dining experiences across the globe. But, this meal at Benu may have been the best dining experience I've ever had. The guys at Benu, led by the former executive chef of the French Laundry, are doing some ridiculous things here. First the plates are extraordinarily beautiful - so much work and detail for each dish. Then, the technique - everything is perfectly balanced and seasoned. Also, I hate molecular nonsense...unless, the food is delicious and this my friends is incredibly delicious (WD-50 take note). The final thing for me is it's so damn fun to eat here as it evokes so many memories from so many Asian meals as a child or as an adult, like Anton Ego from Ratatouille. I can't recommend this place enough - big time wtf restaurant.

Our Menu
buckwheat and toasted nori wafers **
A delicious bread alternative that sets you in the mindset of what is about to come. The buckwheat flavor definitely comes out and the nori adds that savory pop.

thousand year-old quail egg, potage, ginger ***
First dish and it was a doozy. I usually lean towards the big bold flavors, but this was a wtf for perfect balance that was subtly flavored. The quail egg was so delicious and creamy and the potage was a delicious light creamy foam that had that background hint of ginger. My wife's favorite of the night.

oyster, pork belly, kimchi ***
Next dish and this was a close your eyes type of bite - a big wtf wmd. Kimchi stock was gelatinized and formed the skin which was filled with super porky pork belly and a perfectly briny/creamy oyster. The best kimche chigae flavor in one awesome bite. Lights out and probably the best thing I've eaten all year.

monkfish liver, caviar, pistachio, cauliflower, lemon jelly, brioche **
Love this dish - taking the "foie gras of the sea" and treating it like real foie gras with the accompanying ingredients. The pistachio cream was so awesome with the monkfish liver and slightly reminded me of le cirque, but done even more elegantly. Great combination of textures (cauliflower) and flavor (salty pop from caviar and brightness from the jelly). Also, such a beautiful plate - the pictures don't do it justice.

jasmine chicken with dates *
A really fragrant and beautiful dish which they encourage you to smell first - beautiful floral jasmine notes. The chicken had this really smooth/solid texture, no meat fibers here - me thinks some chemicals were involved. Fun dish that was pretty tasty with the dates and jasmine water.

eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime **
Another dish that I love. This was one of the many plates that seemed made just for this place - the eel cigar sits perfectly in this groove on the plate. They even think of wrapping it in paper so you don't burn your hands and get it greasy. This crispy fried cigar with delicious eel inside was crazy addicting with the bright limed-up creme fraiche.

chilled homemade tofu, pumpkin juice, black truffle ***
This dish made absolutely no sense to me, but it was so damn delicious which made for a wtf moment. The tofu was beautifully made and had this great texture and the pumpkin juice was slightly sweet/sour perfumed by the truffles. Again, not in my normal flavor profile, but it worked out so well. Big time wtf.

salt and pepper squid **
This dish made me smile as it brought back so many childhood memories. Salt and pepper squid is their take on the chinese classic. But like most of his dishes the simple description does not fully explain what is going on here - kinda like saying Leo DiCaprio occasionally dates. He uses a shrimp chip for the serving vessel which adds flavoring and crunchiness. Then he studs squid, crunchy bits, and jalapeno which completes the whole experience. If you get everything in one bite, it really does mimic an awesome salt and pepper squid with more flavor and texture. So awesome and fun to eat.

chicken velvet, abalone, matustake mushroom, chrysanthemum **
This dish reminded me of a chinese fish ball soup - except in chicken form. The texture of the chicken dumpling was so light and airy. What gave this real delicious oomph was the amazing broth with the abalone and shaved matustake mushrooms. Incredibly delicious.

caramelized anchovy, lily bulb, peanut, pickles **
Another dish - another memory. This dish reminded me of the korean banchan - the small dishes served before a korean meal. There was this anchovy gelatin that was in the middle that was extremely delicious (a little sweet / a little meaty) with little crispy anchovies all over the place. Sprinkle in some pickled cucumbers and daikon and you had an awesome flavor bomb.

foie gras xiao long bao *
This was the dish I looked forward to the most as I've read so many internet reviews raving about this dish. Although it was a tasty dish, I was expecting an all foie gras explosion - a bit misleading. This was still real fun to eat, but the filling seemed like 80 or 90% pork studded with foie gras. Skins were very thin with no chance of breaking and the broth was solid. Kinda felt like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - I was expecting one thing and got something else.

fresh noodles, shrimp roe, tarragon, veal jus **
Noodles and sauce had amazing texture - so addicting and even an Italian would be extremely happy eating this. The sauce flavor was out of control also with the veal and shrimp.

duck, celery, chestnut, persimmon, shaoxing wine **
The duck cookery reminded me of french laundry - so perfect with the texture being out of sight. The shaoxing sauce was perfect for the duck (stuffed with a foie gras mousse?) as was the side accompaniments of root veg, chestnuts, and creme fraiche? Great flavors. Funny thing is I noticed the 5 tonged fork - no idea if this was ordered special for benu, but I've never seen one before. Kinda like the 3 eyed fish from the simpsons...

beef braised in pear, beech mushroom, sunflower seeds and leaves ***
Short ribs that was sous vide'd down in pear juice till ultra tender. Texture did remind of uber tender brisket which puts me in my happy place. The slight sweetness of the pear, richness of the beef, and the nuttiness of the sunflower seeds and mache leaves were pretty out of control wtf.

"shark's fin" soup, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard ***
The last savory course and we went out with a bang. The shark's fin were made by gelatinizing the Jinhua ham stock and then cutting them into thin shreds. The broth was insanely good - like cut off a pinkie good. Add the ridiculously delicious black truffle custard and you have another flavor wmd. Big time wtf dish

grapefruit, espellete, white chocolate **
Another dish that shouldn't taste good, but it is soooo damn tasty. The grapefruit sorbet was pure grapefruit - citrusy and sour with almost no sweetness to it. But the white chocolate shavings and cream made everything balance out. Add the background heat of the espellete powder and you have a wide range of flavor profiles being attacked - in a good way.

acorn-cranberry custard with banana ice cream **
This was friggin stupid good. Banana ice cream and custard was an amazing combo of texture and flavors. There was this crunchy thing that yielded into soft milkiness that bursted of banana flavor. Would have been a wtf dish for me, but there were cranberries on the plate that were grossly sour on its own. Eaten together with everything else and it made sense.

chocolates **
Delicious petit four with even the white chocolate, which I'm not a fan of, tasting amazing. Served in another beautiful custom made box for benu.

Rating System
--- What the F - in a bad way | (no stars - poor to average) | * Good | ** Great | *** What the F – in a good way

Overall Restaurant Experience
  • Food (A+) – I haven't had a meal like this in a long time. Beautiful plates that taste so delicious and so many wtf moments. Even the dishes that weren't wtf's generally made me smile a lot.
  • Service (A+) – Haven't had any better than this - they really thought of everything. The server was awesome - anytime I wanted a drink he was there before I had to call him. Even his knowledge of the dishes was ridiculous - he mentioned feel free to ask him about any dish and when we did he knew the exact techinque - (e.g. when agar agar was used and why). Plus, he was casual with us towards the end since we were talking and laughing with him - always a fun thing. The food also comes out a perfect pace - about 5-10 minutes after each dish. Even an extended pause right in the middle (10-15 mins) as I was thinking I needed a break.
  • Atmosphere (B+) – Kinda weird as you walk into what looks like a neighborhood parking lot. After you walk past this parking lot area, there's this serene outdoor seating area (ala French Laundry). When you walk inside, it looks like this large warehouse with everything gray with very tall ceilings. The thing I wasn't expecting was having carpet, but it was a nice comfy touch. The decor is not really notable but it works perfect as it allows you to focus on the food. The music was at a perfect level and sets a total serene mood (unlike the dudes at momofuku which like blasting their music) - more ambiance here which again is perfect. It's not spa music, but things from the 70's, 80's, and 90's. Again, not distracting in any way, but whenever I did stop and focus on the music it put a smile on my face. We got there at 5:45p on a Friday and finished around 8. The place was fully packed by the time we left. Consisting of lots of couples in their 30s or early 40s with some large groups sprinkled around.
  • Price (A) – $185 for everything which was 100% worth it based on what you get. Phenomenal food and service that is unparalleled. Cheaper than many of the fine dining joints in NYC although I think this is at the upper range in the SF dining scene.
Closing Comments
French Laundry, considered at one time the best restaurant in the country, was my benchmark for food and service but I'd have to say this was definitely more impactful in every way. The food just made me smile so many times. The menu looked like Momofuku when I first saw it online - awesome technique using some Asian ingredients that taste delicious. Although I love all the Momofuku's, none of them can even come close to this place. The technique, plating, and just overall happiness is off the charts for me. Again, ignore the internet haters and trust me on this...100% highly recommended.


Unknown said...
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Cynthia Y. said...

I think I was at Benu the same night. We were the party of 8 in the middle. Glad you enjoyed your meal!

Aramis said...

Small world :) The tasting menu was incredible - hope you enjoyed your meal as well!

enkrateias said...
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Cynthia Y. said...

This was my seventh visit there. I'm a huge fan.

Aramis said...

Jealous - our NYC equivalent would be Momofuku Ko, but what they do is like the rolling stones (in your face and aggressive) while Benu was like the Beatles (harmonic and very polished) :)

Anonymous said...

Curious, does the $185 include gratuity as well?

Aramis said...

Apologies - $180 for the tasting menu only (all 17 dishes). Pricey, but for a once in a while splurge totally worth it for the great service and exceptional food.