SF: Ordering the Entire Menu at Benu
One of the best meals I’ve had in San Francisco was at Benu. Headed up by Chef Corey Lee formerly of French Laundry, I had been anticipating this meal for months. We decided not to do the 18-course tasting menu but instead ordered the entire menu (minus the cheese plate and the poularde which required an advanced order). How many dishes would that be then? Eighteen. Oh.
In lieu of bread, we had nori lavash.
I thought it was tremendous service we got a round of sparkling wine before we even got water for the table. The amuse bouche of green apple and celery granita with pistachio was a nice light bite.
Since there were three of us, it seemed natural to order everything on the menu because there were three items listed under the five sections of the Benu menu (with the exception of the cheese plate and the special 2-course poularde). Under small appetizers, we got the summer squash, abalone grenobloise and foie gras. I loved the summer squash. The pine nut tofu was my favorite. I enjoyed the foie gras as well but really, it’s hard to mess that up. Still, it was a cool preparation being steamed in sake. Everything was so beautifully plated.
At this point the kitchen sent out the squid on squid ink cracker for us. I enjoyed this quite a bit, with the contrasting chewy and crisp textures. It’s like using the best shrimp chips (but with squid) and topping it with squid. Squid nachos? In any case, very fun.
Of the fish and shellfish, I was all about the whole Japanese sea cucumber. Considering how much I love the sausage stuffed squid from Lukshon in LA, it seems I’ve found yet another sea creature that makes a fine impromptu sausage casing.
I also really liked the salmon. The flavors of tomato, green orange, fennel, black sesame seemed familiar and exotic all at the same time.
The lobster reminded me of a Chinese shrimp dish. The lobster still had a buoyancy to its texture that I found very appealing.
Benu sent out the sea urchin (uni) pasta for us to try along with our pasta courses. Some days I like uni, some days I don’t. The days I love uni, I really like it. One of the best uni pastas I ever had was at Providence in LA. I was excited to try both Benu’s pasta and risotto.
Of the pasta dishes, my favorite was the acorn strozzapreti. This was surprising to me. I had expected to love the sea snails but I found this dish with the caramelized clam sauce too sweet. I suddenly longed for the giant sea snails I had from Hop Woo in LA. I did really enjoy the risotto but I think my recent uni pasta from Ray’s and Stark Bar in LA slightly more enjoyable with a tomato-based sauce. I tend to not really care for cream/ cheese based sauces. It’s my inner health nut fighting with my naturally robust foodie self.
I keep surprisingly myself which were my favorites so far. I had expected to love the abalone under small appetizers and ended up loving the summer squash hot pot with the pine nut tofu best. Under fish/ shellfish, I expected to love the lobster best but preferred the sea cucumber. Then under pasta, I thought it’d be the sea snails and it was actually the acorn strozzapreti. So for the meat and poultry, would I deem the duck my fave? Nope, I second-guessed myself the entire meal.
My favorite turned out to be the beef that had been braised in pear. Generally I prefer pork and the pork rib was absolutely fantastic but the adventurer in me that seeks out something new found it in the flavors of the beer. The pork rib was very familiar to me though I never expected the sunchoke, cherry and pine nut to evoke the slightest hint of “sweet and sour.” It must have been the cherry.
What I really liked about my meal from Benu is recognizing things I’ve experienced in the past from a disparate number of places. When the palate cleanser showed up, I immediately knew where I had something similar- Korean BBQ. Sure, this was a very upscale version with a bit of panna cotta at the bottom but isn’t that what this meal was? I had the fanciest squid chips, the fanciest lobster and now this palate cleanser. I was in love. This was the very thing I was seeking- evolved fine dining with an Asian slant.
Hey! Don’t fall asleep! We still have dessert to talk about. As mentioned, we skipped the cheese plate and opted for the three desserts. Unlike the other courses, I didn’t pick out a dessert I thought would be my favorite. But if I had and knowing myself, I figured I’d like the chocolate the best. And you know what? It was one of my favorites. Carina loved the matcha with peach and elderflower best which I knew because she is a tea fiend. I found the almond brioche rather fun to eat with the squishy buttercream buttons and apricot.
The couple next to us were offered the chocolates and the husband immediately ate the one the wife had been eyeing. She emphatically stated that would be grounds for divorce. I don’t know what she was talking about. All of the chocolates were great.
See, chocolate really is the best.
Benu, did I leave my heart in San Francisco? Of course I had to wax poetic about this meal– it was one of the best.
Thanks to my friends Carina and the Dapper Diner for the fine company and Benu for the excellent meal. Next time we’ll do the tasting menu but would that be anti-climatic when you’ve ordered the entire menu?