I've never been to The French Laundry. Ever since my love for food evolved from outings to the Olive Garden to a lovely dinner at Oliveto, it has represented to me the pinnacle of haute cuisine in America. Several years ago, when I happened to be spending the day in Yountville with an ex-boyfriend, I asked him to slowly drive past the restaurant in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the chef (as we weren't able to get a reservation). And lo -- there he was, the celebrated Thomas Keller, standing in the bucolic backyard and chatting with one of his staff. I squealed loudly like a teenage groupie and my ex-boyfriend remarked, "Well, I can't compete with that."
I still haven't been to the restaurant. But after dining tonight at Benu, I almost feel that I have -- through one of its gifted progeny. Keller's former chef de cuisine of 4 1/2 years, Corey Lee, is the creative force behind this remarkable restaurant. He's been receiving loads of press, with renowned New York City chef David Chang recently declaring Benu, "the best restaurant in America." It's been open for a little over a year, and it's still possible to easily get a prime time reservation on a weeknight. (I'm sure that'll change as they were recently awarded with two Michelin stars.) With my friend Scott Spencer of Spencer's Pantry in tow, we headed to Hawthorne Lane in SOMA.
After you pass through the gate that leads to Benu's stone courtyard, you pass by a glass door on the right that offers you a glimpse of the spotless kitchen that emanates the same calm zen quality as the restaurant itself. The staff seems unhurried, working intently on their dishes at their stations.
The first thing I noticed about the spare, modernist interior after we sat down (designed by Richard Bloch) was the muted, gray tonality of the space that was gently illuminated with a neutral, balanced light. It reminded me of walking into an art museum at dusk or that first moment before a play is about to begin, with the house lights gradually dimmed before the performance. There's a cool stillness that evokes more of a contemplative mood -- rather than a romantic one -- in its atmosphere. With higher-end fine dining, I'm accustomed to walking into hushed, dark spaces lit only by candlelight and the other patrons shrouded in darkness.
Scott and I knew beforehand that we were going to order the 19-course tasting menu ($180 / person, which the whole table must order together). Yes, 19 courses -- and spoiler alert: each one was exquisite. I won't go through the entire tasting menu -- which you can see in the slideshow below -- so I'll just review some of the highlights.
The square black wooden tables, sans white tablecloths, offer an appealing backdrop that is both casual in its presentation yet still retains a formal quality. Each dish is served in a beautiful Korean ceramic vessel (made by KwangJuYo, seemingly crafted with each course in mind as they complemented the ingredients perfectly.) And most of the courses were eaten with a small silver spoon that lay on a stone rest. The service was impeccable; each dish was brought out by a rotation of different servers -- a nice touch that added a punctuation of freshness to each course -- who described the ingredients and the best way to indulge in the dish.
A single bite of oyster and pork belly that wonderfully melded together and was encapsulated in a sugar glass-like kimchi-infused wrapper was probably the most delightful thing I've ever eaten in my life. And to think that was only the second course; my mind was already blown by the combination of the crunchy kimchi glass giving way to the luscious oyster and pork belly in one rapturous, melt-in-your-mouth bite. Umami overload.
Do you know those colorful shrimp chips that sometimes accompany dishes at Asian restaurants? Benu reinvented this snack favorite with their "salt-and-pepper squid" dish by creating a large, peppery black chip topped with tender cubes of squid and jalapeno for a bit of a spicy kick.
And there were the soup dumplings. Not just any soup dumplings, but "foie gras xiao long bao." (I'll digress here for a moment and say that dumplings are one of the core elements of my being. I am obsessed with dumplings, to the point where I contemplated starting my own independent dumpling enterprise.) They arrived on an elegant white circular porcelain platter that's a nod to the steamed bamboo baskets commonly seen in Chinese restaurants. After taking a small bite to release the warm foie gras broth into the spoon, I slurped up the rich soup before eating the rest of the tender pork dumpling. I was rather forlorn that there were only two; it was over much too soon. (And I suppose, come next July, this dish will be off the menu.)
The "beef braised in pear, beech mushroom, sunflower seeds and leaves" -- like the kimchi glass earlier in the meal -- drew upon Chef Lee's Korean roots. One secret to creating tender Korean beef barbecue is to add pear to the traditional soy sauce, garlic, onions and scallions marinade to help tenderize the beef. And the succulent (and I'm guessing, sous vide-prepared) beef was heavenly.
The entire tasting menu unfolded like the four seasons, starting off with lighter bites and spring-like tastes, then ending with deeper, richer autumnal flavors towards the end. A gorgeous dessert of "fig, white chocolate, balsamic vinegar, sake lees (the sediment leftover after rice is pressed to make the alcohol)" resembled a delicate snowfall on a winter's day. It was accompanied with "malted rice tea, pine nut, pine needle honey"; you'd drink the sweet tea, then eat a soft custard at the bottom of the glass.
Three hours later, at the end of our feast -- concluded with fine chocolates from Napa-based La Forêt Chocolate & Confections -- Scott and I were in a state of serene bliss. The flawlessly executed dishes -- with several an homage to Asian home-cooking favorites -- inspired lively discussion between us about technique, ingredients, and our love of food. Benu is a temple to fine dining, and I will make another pilgrimage on another special occasion.