Benu Restaurant- Best Restaurants San Francisco
I had heard all the hype about Corey Lee from his days working as Thomas Keller’s right hand man at French Laundry. Call me a food snob but I’m never one to just believe what other critics and self-proclaimed experts say. I arrived at Benu expecting a fine meal but not necessarily an extraordinary one. After all, how many food critics have lauded a chef and restaurant simply because it was the trend to do so?
One aspect of Benu that caught me off guard immediately was the fact that while it’s located in bustling downtown San Francisco, its serene garden entry sashayed me into what felt like a charming, secret enclave. The front doors opened to welcome us while we were walking up the steps, a friendly gentleman ushering us within the silver beige walls of a minimalist dining room. Normally, minimalist may automatically lend an aura of austerity or coldness but Benu, being far from normal, is warmed by matching silver carpeting, plump pillows throughout and a skylight teeming with foliage.
On certain nights, Benu offers both the Chef’s tasting menu and a la carte menu while alternate nights, only the former is available at $180 per person for a decadent 18 course meal. If 18 courses makes you balk, fear not for each course with exception of the two or three more substantial plates are all one bite wonders. A rundown of my favorites… A tiny New Jersey oyster and a pork belly that turned liquid on the tongue came adorably bundled in a kimchi infused delicate basket of miniature proportions. The saltiness of the oyster blends into the sweetness of the pork belly beautifully.
Salt and Pepper Squid conjures images of greasy battered fried calamari at Italian or Chinese joints. Perhaps it’s my penchant for crunchy textures and savory flavors but this dish stood out in my memory days after the first bite, showcasing Chef Corey’s ingenuity and adeptness in executing avant-garde concepts. Black squid ink was the basis of this perfectly crunchy cracker (similar to popular Indonesian shrimp crackers) while barely there pieces of squid confit and pepper slices served to create a delicious explosion of contrasting textures and flavors.
Chicken Velvet with Abalone suggests that in a past life Chef Corey was the chef of royalty in Asia- a smooth, velvety taste of minced chicken and egg whites so restrained amidst the backdrop of an elegant consommé, it felt like Chef was teasing my palate, showing off his ability to do the gentle, the subtle. Its position in the line-up was no accident, preceding the evening’s heavier dishes of flaky Sea Bass with Lobster, Wild Salmon with tart green tomatoes and the full bodied Pork Ribs with Cherries.
When the Strawberry Sorbet with white chocolate and dense Yuzu foam appeared, I lingered on the exquisite dessert, wishing the evening would never end. Chef Corey and his distinguished team have extracted the very best techniques, flavors and presentations from masters such as Ferran Adria (known as the father of molecular gastronomy) and Thomas Keller, injecting their own unique brand of passion, innovation and expertise. Dish after spectacular dish brings a seamless blend of French, Asian and Californian influences, creating what can only be described as Benu cuisine, a category formidable enough to stand on its own.
It had been so long since a chef and his team had the power to awaken such profound emotions in me through the voluptuousness of their food and graciousness of hospitality. The evening was not a mere sophisticated dinner; it was an all too short parade of gastronomical brilliance, a sensual storm of all the senses. Chef Corey Lee deserves every accolade he has garnered, every bit of verbal adulation critics have heaped upon him. Given my lifelong relationship with San Francisco’s finest restaurants, it is no minor accomplishment for Chef Corey to convert me to, dare I say, his number one fan. Benu has now taken an irrevocable place as one of my top two favorite restaurants in San Francisco and one of my top 20 best restaurants around the world.