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The Road to the 38: Benu in San Francisco

Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.


Corey Lee's brilliance came to me with a shatter.

The first of 19 courses at his restaurant, Benu, was designed to settle diners into the meal. A quail egg, moored by a dollop of preserved ginger, had been lightly smoked in tea and brown sugar and set in a moat of smooth cabbage and onion soup scented with bacon. Rousong—pork braised and then dried, also known aptly as "meat floss"—was scattered over the egg to give the dish a bit of chew. Bright, rich, soothing, varied: This warm-up nudged the taste buds to attention.

Then the true kindling of the senses began. An ornate black vessel arrived containing one elaborate bite. It resembled siu mai, the open-faced dim sum dumpling usually filled with pork and shrimp. This version was stuffed with pork belly, diced kimchi, and a tiny oyster on top. The wrapper looked cast in amber—a technique from the modernist playbook in which kimchi broth was set with hydrocolloids to give it body and then dried until pliant. By the time it reached the table it was akin to edible glass. In one bite the wrapper crackled into tingly shards before dissolving, leaving the soft burn of kimchi and the proteins' crisscross of earth-sea flavors. My tablemate and I looked at each other wide-eyed and laughed. What would be next?

Many, many pleasures, from a mind that stands alone among the country's vanguard of fine dining. Lee—36 years-old, born in Korea, raised in New Jersey—felt the call of refined cooking early. He worked in Pied à Terre and La Tante Claire in London before he was 21, moved to New York for stints in the kitchens of Daniel and Lespinasse, and then spent nine years with Thomas Keller. He was the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry before he opened Benu. What Lee gleaned from Keller was a confidence in his upbringing as a culinary bedrock. Keller famously took Americanisms like mac and cheese or peas and carrots and reconstructed them using Escoffier's techniques and California's bounty. Lee has fashioned a coexistence cuisine that honors both his Asian and American selves. It takes mettle. Upscale renderings of sea cucumber and salt-and-pepper squid don't pack the reservation books quite like pasta snowed under with shaved truffles does.

Not that Benu is empty. A mix of casually dressed tech types and suited Asian businesspeople kept the restaurant humming and the people-watching prime on the night I dined there. But it is easier to snag a table here than, say, Saison, or certainly The French Laundry.

Beggar's purse; Oyster, pork, and kimchi dumpling

And yet, for seasoned diners, I'd currently recommend Benu for a splurge over all the other blowout restaurants in the Bay Area. The cost is on par, perhaps slightly more reasonable by comparison, with other high-rollers: Tasting menus, the only option, are $195 per person. (The French Laundry starts at $295, though that price includes service.) More importantly, the food at Benu bridges East and West like nothing I've ever tried before. Unlike his peers, who often look first to Japan among the Asian nations for inspiration, Lee looks primarily to his native Korea and to China. His rigorous, brainy cooking has become more grounded in those countries since Benu opened in 2010. Then, he may have slipped sweetbreads or risotto into the sequence. Those types of dishes are less frequent now, which makes meals even more of a mind-opening delight.

Much of what sets the restaurant apart is the Asian emphasis on texture. Of course all chefs think about textural contrast—the handful of breadcrumbs over spaghetti, a sprinkling of candied walnuts in the salad. But in Lee's kitchen the tactile sensation moves to the forefront. Take a chicken-based soup that appeared halfway through the meal. The star ingredient was wild bamboo fungus, which in its natural state resembles white asparagus stalks and has a consistency that brings to mind tripe and honeycomb. It hit the palate slippery but then snapped between the teeth. The effect fascinated and its umami earthiness gratified.

Ditto Lee's take on shark's fin soup. The prized part of the swimmer was always more about its feathery elasticity than its flavor. Mindful of the way shark species are endangered by brutal fishing practices, Lee employs more modernist lab work to approximate the fin, which he serves in a bowl with Dungeness crab, custard infused with Chinese ham, and a broth perfumed with truffles and ginger.

XO Sausage with basil curd; Salt-and-pepper-squid

I loved the studied way our meal unfolded. The soup and the engineered dumpling introduced us to Lee's mindset, and then a progression of finger foods followed: Eel in crisp feuille de brick pastry, a riff on spring rolls, with a blob of crème fraiche for swiping. An angular sliver of celery capped with caramelized anchovy and peanut. A spoonful of silky tofu made with sunflower miso. A metal skewer impaled with sausage made from pork and dried scallops and shrimp, with a square of basil-infused bean curd. A luxe beggar's purse of "treasures from the oak," marrying acorn flour (a prominent ingredient in Korean cooking) and a filling of Iberico ham from pigs that were fed acorns and truffles that grow under oak trees. Genius! Then a play on salt-and-pepper squid—a crackery squid ink rice ship dotted with a gentle confit of squid, garlic puree, pickled chiles, and cilantro shoots. The progression was startling and fun—and with minimal exchanges of silverware, it made for a gracious balance between service interaction and our own engaged conversation.

Sea bream with aged tangerine peel

The thrilling juxtapositions never let up. Soup dumplings awash in lobster coral were also laced with clarified butter, evoking the American penchant for lobster with drawn butter. Aged tangerine peel brought a citrus intensity to a tiny sea bream that enhanced without overwhelming. An optional sea cucumber course for a $25 surcharge brought texture to spare, stuffed with a shrimp mousse that emphasized the creature's spongy texture rather than masking it. Ballsy, and also rewarding. Hot mustard and fermented Chinese black olives gave roasted quail, the most Western-looking of the dishes, a distinct Asian pungency. Lee has access to sake lees (the byproduct of making the beverage) due to connections with sake producers in Sacramento, and he paired the fruity, cheese-like ingredient winningly with strawberry sorbet. The finale brought a pale orb of fresh and dried tofu skin—imagine the al dente bite of a fruit rollup but milkier—filled with almond and white chocolate. Glorious textures right to the sweet conclusion.

Four years into Benu, Lee is now tackling other projects. In the next month he'll open Monsieur Benjamin, a return to Lee's roots with casual French cooking. And though he doesn't yet have a location, Lee plans to next launch a Korean barbecue restaurant. Jason Berthold, who has cooked at The French Laundry and Per Se among others, will be chef de cuisine at Monsieur Benjamin, and Brandon Rodgers, also a Laundry alum, watches over Benu's stoves as chef de cuisine. They help free up Lee to work on his new ventures, but I hope he doesn't stray far. The energy he puts into his flagship now makes Benu one of the country's most extraordinary—and enlightening—dining destinations.

Email Bill at bill@eater.com and follow him at @BillAddison.

Benu

22 Hawthorne Street, , CA 94105 (415) 685-4860 Visit Website

Benu

22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94105
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