benu, San Francisco, CA (May 2012)

“Fruity pebbles,” I thought, as the sensation of strawberry, black sesame, daikon, duck cracklings and sake-steamed foie gras detonated on my palate. It was our last savory course–one of two additions to the 18-course tasting menu–and it also happened to be my favorite. 
But that textural interplay of unearthly satin and paroxysmal crunchiness recrudesced many times over during our three-and-a-half-hour dinner, most memorably with (1) the one-bite, temperature-sensitive kimchi basket brimming with pork belly, kimchi foam and a just warmed through oyster, (2) a globe of potato salad encased in fried anchovies and then (3) the collagen-conceding pear-braised beef with pepitas.
As with any menu of this length, though, not everything proved to be a resounding success. Two dishes in particular, landed slightly off-target: foie gras-filled baos, wherein the astringent black vinegar governed the plate and ruled with an iron fist and a filet of seabass firmer than I would have liked.
Alas, miscommunication had the effect of abbreviating our evening. With the last dessert cleared, I asked Vincent, our captain whom I had known from Fleur de Lys, if it would be possible to (eventually) hail a taxi. I imagine he understood that to mean, call a taxi, so not ten minutes later with most of the mignardises still uneaten and a half-full coffee kettle remaining, a woman of consequence from the hostess stand came to our table and told us that our cab had arrived, and that “they are not known for waiting very long” (i.e. get up and go!), leaving us without the opportunity to thank Vincent for his excellent service. A minor issue to be sure, but making a diner feel hurried when spending $200+ per person on food alone is not the ideal way to end a meal.  
There was an embarras de choix for our final dinner in San Francisco–returning to Coi, Saison, Atelier Crenn and others–but I agenda-set and decided benu would likely be best. Others along our Bay Area jaunt seemed to agree as front-of-house staff at TFL and Michael Mina complimented Chef Lee and the food he was putting out at benu. I’m glad I was able to taste Chef Lee’s creations, but I think benu might have been a victim of what preceded it, two essentially peerless meals at the Bay Area’s three-star Michelin establishments.

Buckwheat lavash with toasted sesame and nori

Thousand-year-old quail egg with ginger soup

Kimchi basket, kimchi foam, pork belly and oyster 

Crispy anchovy encased potato salad

Monkfish liver, brunoised peach and daikon, perilla and a side of brioche (that looks eerily similar to those served with foie courses at TFL and Per Se)

Smoked wild salmon, green tomato, mustard and onion lettuce

Feuille de brick-wrapped eel with crème fraîche and lime zest

 Mozzarella, basil, basil oil, XO sauc

Sesame tofu, dashi and radish

Salt and pepper squid: cracker, pickled serrano, garlic

Foie gras xiao long bao with black vinegar-soy sauce

Omasum tripe and shrimp in a cold ginger broth

 Grilled Sacramento Delta asparagus, shaved marcona almond, subchoke purée and cherry blossom sauce

Chicken velvet [purée of chicken, abalone and egg white], abalone, abalone mushrooms, chrysanthemum and chicken broth

Seabass in lobster stock with lily bulbs

Fried sardine, artichoke, okra, charred green garlic vinaigrette

Rolled duck breast encased in duck skin, celery, scallion, Shaoxing wine and a black truffle bun filled with duck confit

Pear braised beef, pear purée, beech mushrooms and sunflower seeds 

“Shark’s fin” soup, dungeness crab, Jinhau ham broth and black truffle custard

Sake steamed foie mousse, strawberry, daikon, black sesame, cracklings

Dry-aged lamb loin, lamb sausage, sea beans,  abalone mushrooms and lamb-parmesan jus

Plankton chip
Roasted quail, barley, peas, wood ear mushrooms, yellow chive and lemon

Strawberry ice cream, yuzu foam and white chocolate

Spice cake, blueberries, yogurt and oatmeal ice cream

(Dark, milk, white and fleur de sel) chocolates

Pate de fui
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