Benu is one of the most exciting restaurants to open in San Francisco recently. The chef and owner, Corey Lee, was previously the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, regarded by many as the best restaurant in the country, and has worked at six other 3-star Michelin restaurants on three continents. This impressive training has given him the confidence for experimentation. At Benu he harnesses his classical French technique in the service of innovative, Asian-inspired dishes.
Lee places a great deal of emphasis on Benu's tasting menu (and in fact there is no alternative on weekends), and we highly recommend it. In a sixteen-course menu, it is inevitable that some courses will be disappointing relative to others, victims of the success of the best courses. Some of the dishes, including a thousand-year-old quail egg served with potage, seem to have been chosen more because of the "wow" factor of their ingredients than because they are satisfying to the palate. Lee does a commendable job with a mock "shark fin" soup, and this is probably the closest you can lawfully get to the original in California given the recent ban on selling shark fins. But it was his more homely dishes that impressed us the most. The xiao long bao, or Chinese soup dumpling, is filled with lobster eggs and is the best we have ever tasted. In addition to contemporary spins on traditional Chinese dishes, Lee also serves dishes inspired by the cuisines of Korea (oyster and pork belly with kimchi dish) and Japan (matsutake mushroom porridge; Hokkaido sea cucumbers; sake lees), with nods to Italy, Spain and France as well. For dessert, we were served a dish modestly described as "spiced pumpkin, cider sorbet, fruits and nuts", that was simply transcendental. The sorbet united the diverse flavors of the miscellany of ingredients, making the dish a triumph. Allow Yoon Ha, one of less than 200 professionals worldwide to have earned the title of Master Sommelier, to pair wines with your courses.
The service at Benu is excellent and we were made to feel very welcome. This is especially impressive because the decor, unfortunately, is unwelcoming; too stark, too bland – a failure in minimalism. This is regrettable given that Benu had at its service Richard Bloch of the esteemed architectural and interior design firm RBA, which created what is in our view one of the most successful restaurant designs of all time with Masa. However, the serene outdoor courtyard is to be commended for its elegant restraint.
Benu is already one of San Francisco's finest restaurants. We have confidence that in time, particularly as some of its weaker dishes are weeded out, Benu will become one of the finest restaurants in the country.
22 Hawthorne St.
(415) 685-4860 Tue-Thu, 5:30pm-9:30pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30pm-10pm
- San Francisco
- American (Nouveau)
- Best Service
- Best Wine Lists
- BYOB Corkage: $40; limited to 2 bottles
- Private Dining Room
- Tasting Menu 16 Course Tasting Menu: $180