So if anyone is still reading this, I apologize for the lengthy delay in posts. It's been months and I am deeply sorry to all my faithful readers out there who hang on my every word.
I figured it is only fitting that I start 2012's posts with one for the ages. Benu. This is Corey Lee's post-Keller baby. Does that sound weird? That is Thomas Keller. Lee was the Chef de Cuisine at the French Laundry and sous chef at Per Se. Decent resume padding I suppose. Anyways I just happened to be in San Francisco and had managed to snag a reservation at Benu. Lucky me. So here, kicking off my new concentrated effort to post with more frequency, is benu's 17 course tasting menu.
Our night opened with seaweed/rye crackers in place of the traditional bread course. They were kind of like a very thin, oceany Finn Crisp. Light and crisp, they were a perfect way to start off the 17 courses.
Thousand year old quail egg, potage, ginger - The first course was quite small. It had to be a when you're dealing with a thousand-year old quail egg. The tiny jellied egg came sitting in a potage with ginger at the bottom. The egg had no real discernible flavor, off-putting or otherwise, it was more of a textural oddity since one doesn't really expect eggs to have the consistency of a firm jello.
Oyster, pork belly, kimchi - Our next course was even smaller. There was an impossibly tiny oyster sitting on a pork belly foam of sorts. The crispy cup holding the whole thing was made of kimchi. I would have liked to have had a bit more of the kimchi flavor come through. The first taste was that of the pork, slightly smokey and rich, while the oyster was briny and clean. A nice balance of flavors.
Potato salad with anchovy - This was one of the least satisfying dishes of the night since it was simply your standard potato salad. The caramelized tiny anchovies were the best part. Sweet, slightly fishy, and crunchy. But then again I'm a sucker for small, crunchy, fishy things. Weird I know.
Monkfish liver, cherry blossom, alliums, green almond, brioche – One of my favorite dishes of the night. The liver was quite mild in flavor, light, but had that richness associated with foie gras. The green almond added a taste of spring as well as a bit of crunch for texture. I called it the faux-gras course, complete with a warm brioche.
Aloe vera, buckwheat, strawberry vinegar, wasabi – To me it was a deconstructed strawberry. The aloe vera acted as the gelatinous texture of the berry itself, while the crunchy buckwheat stood in place of the strawberry seeds. The vinegar was intensely flavored with strawberry. I didn’t taste any wasabi and the bite might have been a nice touch to counteract the fruitiness of the dish.
Eel, feuille de brick, crème fraiche, lime – Delicate and light, this eel was delicious. It was more or less a play on a crispito, the one is served at bad Mexican restaurants. The crème fraiche was a nice counterpoint to the eel, bright and a little bitter with the lime zest.
Hearts of palm, date, chicken-ginseng jelly – This was a very subtle dish that did not rely on big bold flavors. It had the feel of a comforting bowl of Chinese ginseng soup, but it was cold and fresh. The soup part of the dish was a gelatin of chicken and ginseng stock. It was nice and cold, very refreshing and cleansed our palates for the flavors to follow.
Mozzarella, basil, xo sauce – One of the more unusual dishes of the night in that mozzarella tends not to be a staple of Asian cuisine. However, despite feeling out of place, it worked beautifully. The heat of the xo sauce tempered the richness of the mozzarella while the rehydrated shrimp and scallops were a nice salty addition.
Salt and pepper squid – Think of a shrimp chip that comes with your take-out Thai. Now picture one made out of squid ink. A dark black, puffed, squid ink shrimp chip came with pureed and confit squid. The pickled Serrano chilis and micro cilantro added some color and brightness to the "dish" (we'll call it a snack...)
Foie gras xiao long bao – In the running for the best dish of the night, it was everything a soup dumpling should be. With one catch. It was better than that. Foie gras is decadent, rich, and completely over the top so to put foie gras into a soup dumpling is really gilding the xiao long bao. The foie was incorporated into the gelatin in the middle so that it melted and became part of the liquid. The result was a slightly livery, very rich soup that coated your mouth in a delicious foie gras fattiness.
Chicken velvet, abalone, abalone mushroom, chrysanthemum – Another uninteresting course in that there weren't any remarkable flavors in it. The chicken velvet looked and had the texture of a matzoh ball. The play between the abalone and the abalone mushroom was fun, but I wouldn't want to eat this a second time. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't gross or inedible, just uninteresting.
Hokkaido sea cucumber stuffed with shrimp, cucumber, onion, fermented pepper – One of the weaker dishes of the night simply because I am not used to sea cucumber. The texture was gelatinous and the shrimp stuffing did not help that. It was certainly a textural experience. It wasn't bad, I was just a bit turned off by the texture. The dish really needed the cucumber to give it any sort of texture.
Duck, celery, scallion, Shaoxing wine, black truffle bun – The duck was cooked to perfection although I would have loved to have more of the inherent duck flavor come out. Honestly it could have been pork tenderloin. Shoot me for saying that. The black truffle sauce while delicious was a tiny bit overwhelming. The bun was absolutely phenomenal. Waves of deep truffle smell wafted over me and upon biting into the bun I was greeted by duck confit. Truffle para-para-paradise. Yum.
Beef braised in pear, beech mushroom, sunflower seeds and leaves – The rich beef paired well with the lightness of the Asian pear and the sunflower leaves. It was not a dish that would blow you away, but it still somehow managed to completely disappear from my plate.
“Shark’s fin” soup, Dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard – This was my favorite dish of the night due to the incredibly silky smooth black truffle custard. There was no shark’s fin in the soup, tsk tsk, instead the ham was turned into the gelatinous strands similar to shark fin. The crab was great of course, but the real star was the earthy, rich, truffle custard. I would have licked the bowl clean. Really.
Strawberry, white chocolate, yuzu – The first of only two desserts, the yuzu was a bit overpowering considering the delicate flavors of the white chocolate, but the strawberry sorbet really tied it all together. It was a dessert that completely fooled me in its presentation. I figured the white chocolate was what was crumbled, but that was a frozen yuzu meringue. Perhaps the white foam that the sorbet was sitting on could be white chocolate? No, that was an unfrozen yuzu meringue, silly me. The white chocolate was a pudding that was hidden underneath everything. Clever Mr. Lee, very clever.
|Messy? You betcha.|
Caramel, prune, coffee, cashew, thyme – This looked like a mess on the plate, but it was incredibly complex in flavor. The bitterness of the coffee ice cream/powder as well as the herbaciousness (is that a word?) of the thyme guided the dessert in a more savory direction. However the caramel liquid and the cashew powder steered the dish back towards a sweeter presentation. It was fun to figure out different combinations of flavors and textures.
Overall grade: A, a very fun, extravagant meal. Consider that a Thomas Keller extended-tasting at Per Se will set you back at least $500 per person (excluding wine and other libations) and benu is a steal. I was struck by the creativeness of the dishes, updating some classics, while pairing together some unusual ingredients (green almonds and monkfish liver for examples). The wait staff is prompt if not a tad overbearing. I think I stopped counting at 19 different people who graced our table even if it was to simply take silverware away.
|Smack dab in the entrance to the kitchen is a column where all visiting chefs have inscribed. Daniel Humm is the only one I can make out...|