benu is the long awaited new restaurant in SF from French Laundry Alum and James Beard Award-winning chef Corey Lee. His old boss Thomas Keller is a partner in this new venture and has a wine locker by the front door. benu is housed where Hawthorne Lane used to be. We dined early on, during their 3rd week of operation. benu is a small product driven restaurant focused on contemporary American cuisine. benu is an Egyptian word and that stands for the phoenix, a symbol of something constantly renewing. benu received Two Michelin stars for 2012. The 17 course fixed price menu now costs $180. A la carte is offered Tuesday through Thursday.
Benu takes reservations 60 days out and were fully booked the last we checked, indicating that interest here is high, even in the midst of the economic downturn. You need to call right when they open for reservations each morning, to lock one up. Also note that the a la carte Poularde cut en vessie served in 2 courses requires 3 days advanced notice.
Decor, Vibe – benu restaurant has low key minimalist decor with lots of beige and cream hues. Dimly lit, airy skylight, Banquette seating, low back leather chairs, and beautiful spotless lab like kitchen. There is even a chef’s table in the kitchen. The Gallery dining room is hidden from the main dining area. The place was full of older foodies primarily in their 40’s to 50’s.
benu’s Menu has an everchanging 10-14 course tasting menu for the entire table as well as a la carte options. Lots of Asian influences can be seen in various dishes. Not a lot of vegetarian options. We opted to go for the a la carte menu. The server recommended we order three or four courses per person.
Signature Dishes – Too new to specify.
Ever changing Website benu Menu
Bread alternative – Toasted Nori Lavash, thin, chewy, and crispy buckwheat wafers with sesame served in a custom box.
Canapé of dashi broth, seaweed, cucumber blossoms, cherry tomato, with a molecular tomato water sphere gel blob (sodium and calcium reaction) that exploded with flavor when slurped up in a mouthful. This brought back memories of Fat Duck.
eggplant soup, semi-baked tomato, parmesan, basil ($12) began our benu culinary travel. This was an interestingly rich soup possessing both sweet and creamy flavors, nice tomatoey garnish. The various flavors ramped up to a crescendo during each spoonful.
lobster bouillon, béarnaise custard, English peas, carrots, tarragon ($14) was a beautiful dish that highlighted an East meets West fusion. Light broth, fresh but a tick overcooked lobster, and a hidden vat of slightly over steamed custard in bottom of the bowl. We felt the two major elements didn’t integrate well.
veal sweetbread grenobloise, cauliflower, parsley, lemon, caper ($14) had three high-quality chewy chunks of veal innards with a lemon caper essence. Very good execution but not top notch. So good we forgot to take a picture!
carnaroli risotto, sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle ($22) was the first reference quality dish. The creamy risotto was very well done, and filled with bits of corn. Lots of well-prepared fresh sea urchin lined the surface. We had a lot of sea urchin recently at nearby Ame that just paled when compared to this. This good-sized dish anchored our pasta course.
St. Peter’s Fish (John Dory) a la francaise, shrimp mouse, onions, bacon, black truffle ($28) came in the shape of the sushi like roll. The shaped white fish was situated above the shrimp mousse, forming a unique cylindrical shape. This combination was not creamy, had a soft texture, and well melded flavors. Tender chunks of bacon were on the side to give it some zing.
sablefish gratin, cabbage, rice, beech mushrooms, spicy pepper, Asian pear ($26) was the superior fish of the evening with tender, creamy textures, logical combinations, and a well portioned size. Beautiful, yet tiny beech mushrooms.
sea scallops Emmanuelle, endive, grapes, verjus, almonds, brown butter ($24) were excellent. Both sauteed scallops were cooked perfectly and included caramelized crusty tops. One scallop was chopped in two, while the other scallop was encrusted with almonds. The crunchiness of the nuts along with the scallop’s texture made for very memorable bites. The 2 sauces were nice but unnecessary to enjoy the freshness of the scallops.
Beautiful Palate cleanser of a green grape gelee cube with crispy almond
dry-aged “pré salé” lamb rack, garlic sausage, potato confit, chanterelles, lemon peel, coastal succulents ($30) was an excellent dish with a perfect level of saltiness. High-quality lamb possessed no gaminess and came in two good-sized pieces. It had been marinated for a day in a citrus, apple solution. The ‘sausage’ was more of a high-quality deli thin cold cut of lamb.
beef rib cap (tender cap of the ribeye), bluefoot mushrooms, mizuna, pine needle honey ($32) was one of the better dishes at the evening. Very tender beef cooked to a nice juicy medium rare and accented nicely with the exotic mushrooms. The Japanese Mustard gave this dish its Asian flair.
Cheese dessert course – specially made and selected by Andante Dairy, Petaluma ($16) was excellent, featuring top caliber cheese. French Laundry uses Andante’s butter. We choose samples of all five, which seemed to show a slant toward softer cheeses. Two goats milk cheeses (one with rosemary, the other with thyme), two cows milk cheeses (entralto, Montgomery’s Cheddar), and one combination (cadence). Our favorites were the goat cheese selections. The Monterey Jack was superb, something that is rare in this category. The warm gluten-free mini baguette was superb.
financier cake, almond milk, raspberry gelée, peach sorbet, shiso ($12) was a refreshing dessert with an interesting almond milk roll that had a agar like stiffness to it. The buttery financer cake were tiny cubes of pound-cake, again highlighting the delicateness of the dessert. The peach sorbet had a very strong fruit flavor.
soft chocolate ganache, feuille de brick, banana ice cream, Bourbon caramel, ginger jam and gelee ($14) was excellent with three very chocolaty bars toned down with low key banana ice cream. A technical dessert but still accessible by all.
Petit Fours – Chocolates: Creme catalan with white chocolate, milk chocolate walnut, tanori chocolate with caramel creme, and a sesame nougatine. All delicious and very rich.
potato confit, young Mimolette, warm artichoke puree, black truffle sprinkles, chervil ($12) seems like a forced vegetarian oriented dish. Pretty simple flavors, thin slices of potato, and lackluster flavor added up to basic dish. Could have used more truffle flavor. The potato should have been more well done.
semolina rigatoni, sea cucumber, oxtail, wood ear mushrooms,star anise, red wine, butter ($18) was a hearty al dente pasta with tender chunks of oxtail straddling chew sea cucumber. The mushroom sauce added some very strong flavor and the wood ear made for interesting texture.
spaghettini, karasumi, tomato, garlic, chili, Parmigiano Reggiano ($16) had a bitter aftertaste that mystified us. Even our waiter couldn’t really pin down the culprit. Pasta doesn’t seem like a strong suit. Why not add a Asian noodle dish?
duck breast, gizzards, carrot, leek, mustard, pumpernickel ($28) had one fairly rare chunk chewy of duck covered with a strong sauce. The included mustard didn’t really add to the dish either.
Service – Benu had top notch service, with a high server to table ratio. No worries about waiter knowledge, refills, napkin folding, or the like. Pacing was on the slow side with our dinner taking over three hours.
Value – Prices are unsurprisingly high at Benu. Four courses and dessert easily pass $100 without alcohol. This level of restaurant is clearly at the top of the food pyramid in San Francisco.
Verdict – benu is a stylish new restaurant serving well-prepared cutting-edge food that will help redefine high-end cuisine. These technical and artsy preparations are not for everyone. We can already hear some Yelper criticizing the quantity and weirdness of food served. Gary Danko and French Laundry are more mainstream for the masses. Some of the combinations need refinement, so give them six months to reach their full potential, hence the name benu.
12 page extensive and expensive wine selection, glasses from $8, bottles from $42. $110 wine pairing option.