Benu, San Francisco
Californian foodies must know that restaurants in CA, no matter fancy ones or BC or lower, a lot of them serve food with an Asia twist. The most Asian one during this trip is Benu, which raised from two stars to three stars in Michelin Guide SF 2015. The Korean-born Chef Corey Lee combines his hometown flavors and contemporarty American into his unique creations. I have heard a lot of good things happened there thus i booked Benu without a second thought. Benu locates in downtown SF, only two blocks off the most busiest Market Street and 3rd Street. There's a nice courtyard outside the restaurant and you can see the kitchen outside from the window. There's no sign at the entrance and nor anyone welcomed us when we stepped in at our reservation time 6pm. For the next 10+min we felt a bit concise of the service here becuase we were asked to wait although it has passed our reservation time, and there were no other guests yet. Similar to their service, the enterior of the restaurant was too concise, very simplified Korean style, earthy but a bit cold.
Visited: Late. Feb.2016 (Dinner)
Address:22 Hawthorne St., San Francisco 94105
Hours: Tue-Sat 6-9pm
Cost: Currently $248 per person with an additional 20% charge, Wine pairing $198.
The restaurant is much bigger than i thought. There are basically two areas, the upstairs have around 6 tables for 2 and a large table of 6 seats. Downstairs (pic 1) have even more tables. By the window there are some jars of homemade pickcles preserved in the traditonal way. There are also some sun-dried persimmon hanging above those jars. The tableware are also traditonal Korean style.
We stared with 9 small delicacies. The first one and also the most impressive on is the Sturgeon caviar, which was served on a bed of chicken cream and winter melon. Chicken cream essenced all the umami flavor from the chicken broth which brought up the flavors of winter melon, smooth and delicious. Caviar brought a nice oceanic taste with extra textures.
The rest 8 delicacies were also well-done. I also had my first tune bone marrow experience here, it taste like jelly and pretty good with the sauces. The third one was made of a cooked baby taro and coated with black truffle, loved the smooth and naturally sweet taro with incredibly aromatic black truffle outside. My favorite one here was black abalone, it was wonderfully cooked, so tender and umami.
Monkfish liver was too lovely (probably because i like the ingredient itself), but nothing to shout out about as well as the white fungus and kimchi glass, both my partner and i felt the conceptions were interesting though. I loved the unagi (sea eel) taco which has a crispy taco skin and creamy unagi inside, a great combination of Mexican and Japanese food.
The first course of the meal was a bowl of warm and hearty potage infused with a mild ginger taste, every bite was so spoonful and the century egg works so well with the potage. Century egg is a kind of perserved egg from China which called 'Pi dan' in Chinese. Normally it is made of regular eggs and this was actually my first time have century quail egg, its deep flavor with a perfect running yolk was so indulgence, left a unforgettable aftertaste.
The bread part also impressed me a lot, especially the butter part. Firstly a glass of honey infused by Korean ginseng came to our table and i totally don't know what they are going to with it. Next comes bread side with butter in a honey comb shape which indicates something would happen - top with a drizzle of ginseng-honey! I have only had (salted) butter when i fine dine and i must say this sweet butter is very interesting and indeed delicious with breads, some how a same concpet as the Singaporean Kaya toast.
Next dish was a bamboo shoot salad side with a wild bamboo fungi (竹笙) soup. The soup was a Cantonese style, simple and clean.
The dish i came for is the signature lobster coral xiao long bao (小笼包 soup dumpling), served with aged brown vinegar. . It was indeed amazing and worth a visit.The XLB itself has a thin skin and once you pick it up with chopstickes, you will feel how juicy it is. The lobster filling was very tender and full of umami flavors. Don't forget to enjoy an explosion of rich, steaming, hot juice oozes into your mouth first!
The sablefish dish didn't suprsied us that much that i almost forgot what i ate (actually it has been two months already). Followed by a dish of soybean which tastes like those baked beans in my brunch plate. However, the paired black truffle bun (Chinese 'Man Tou') was seriously, out of the world. It was warm and pillow-soft, with a mild truffle scent. When i had the first bite i am pretty sure this is the best bun in my life, it has a lovely milk flavor but doesn't cover the black truffle flavor, it seems pretty airy but once you chew it, you will find it a bit firm - the perfect texture of buns.
The main course was honey-glazed quail, served with steamed glutinous rice with fungus. As part of dietary requirement of no red meat (beef, lamb, pork, venison ,etc) , the chef changed my quail (bird) , which is something i actually eat, to sea bass. I was drooling at my partner's quail when it came to the table, but i have to face this flesh :( Hopefully, my sea bass was wonderfully poached, the texture was a bit rare but perfect for my liking. While the flavor was too soft. I took a bite of my partner's quail (normally i don't do this but it looks & smells so good), i liked it much more than my sea bass. The quail was succulent and very flavorful, the pairing rice was chewy and delciious, i can have two bowls of rice with the quail sauce.
Before moving on to the dessert, we had our last dish which has a strong infusion of Cantonese cooking - egg white chawanmushi with crab and (fake) 'shark fin' on top. According to California law, real shark fin is prohibited, so faux shark fin is used here. The egg white custurd was smooth and tastes very good with the chicken broth sauce on the top, the crab meat inside was juicy and the shark fin brings a crunchy texture to the dish.
We were served a small cup of Kombucha made of fermented rice to clean our palates. Next comes our pre-dessert, a greeny bowl of sesame leaf ice cream. It has a very unique mild grassy taste but we enjoyed it very much.
The main dessert is a classcial one, a lovely almond cake with tiny peaks of meringue on the outside, inside is dried apricot (as those hanging above the jars), ice cream and a sponge cake base. I was surpringly Asian-sweets level, i mean, not that sweet as American sweet. The almond meringue is more like whipped cream which was pretty light and delicious.
Finished with fresh persimmon and Korean pear, side with whipped chocolate.
There were definitely several highlights of the meal that really surprised me: Xiao long bao and black truffle bun ; second comes abalone, honeyed butter, century quail eggs and the almond meringue cake. However Benu somehow didn't leave me a three-star impression, possibly due to the inconsistency of the dishes or partly because ofthe concise services. But still worth a visit.