At only 33 years of age chef Corey Lee has had quite an illustrious career, having worked in a total of seven 3 Michelin Star restaurants thus far. While still in his teens Lee moved to London, cutting his teeth at Pied à Terre, Savoy Grill, La Tante Claire and Oak Room before moving on to France cooking for the likes of Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy and Alain Senderens. In 2001 he started at Keller’s The French Laundry, left briefly to help set up Per Se, before returning as head chef and taking the crown of James Beard Rising Star Chef in 2006.
It is no wonder that the opening of Corey’s own restaurant Benu in San Francisco last summer was met with much anticipation, and that in less than a year he received another James Beard nomination, this time for Best New Restaurant (he lost out to ABC Kitchen). Naturally we couldn’t resist checking it out for ourselves.
The food at Benu is probably best described as Modern Asian – fresh interpretations of Far Eastern cuisine with a classical sensitivity. Interestingly, despite Lee’s Korean heritage, the influences are mostly Chinese; take the Thousand-Year-Old Quail Egg Potage, subtly infused with Ginger for example – a clever refined adaptation of a Chinese comfort staple (Century Egg Congee).
“Caviar, Bone Marrow, Lobster” sounded right up my street but was in reality nothing more than a glorified prawn cracker. It certainly looked pretty with the flecks of gold leaf catching the light, but the flavours were muddled and I couldn’t pick up on
the caviar or marrow. The cracker itself was tasty, but greasy, and not much better than your average prawn cracker.
The “Abalone, Tofu, Chrysanthemum, Moss” had the intensity of a double-boiled soup, with a viscosity that made it heavy on the tongue. Although the abalone was lovely and tender, the tofu didn’t seem particularly fresh and the soup was over-salted.
We both really enjoyed the Oyster, Cabbage and Pork Belly, blanketed with a translucent sheet of Fermented Pepper Jelly. The many strong flavours present (reminiscent of a Szechuan pork belly dish) met harmoniously to create a surprisingly delicate mouthful.
Perusing the tasting menu at the start of our meal, I was most excited about the inclusion of a Black Truffle Xiao Long Bao. So I was crestfallen to be presented with two sad shrivelled-up dumplings. The aroma of truffle was detectable but the skins were thick, filling stodgy, broth non-existant and vinegar dipping sauce far too sweet. To say it fell short of expectations would be a gross understatement.
We found the Sake Lees Sorbet with Foie Gras, Mountain Yam and Yuzu Foam a pleasant combination but the sorbet was aggressively cold and needed chipping at with a spoon. I would also have preferred more yam to offset the rich liver cream.
Eel rolled in Feuille de Brick and deep-fried was akin to a skinny spring roll, albeit a very greasy one – the thin pastry absorbed a lot of oil in the cooking and this oiliness completely masked the fish mousse within. A strangely cloying lime and crème fraîche dip didn’t do much to help matters.
In contrast, the Monkfish Liver Torchon with Almond, Fennel and Salted Plum was a showstopper – smooth delicate liver, already special on its own, elevated by a garnish of confit fennel, crunchy almonds and plum gel. The brioche however was one element too many, although airy and buttery, a fattier and less subtle liver (i.e. foie gras) is needed to match it.
A neat slice of White Sausage, rimmed with Black Bread crumbs and laid on a pool of XO sauce followed. It was perfectly timed, as the piquant sauce with its subtle spicing really helped to perk up the palate after a couple of heavier dishes. The sausage (a springy mixture of minced seafood) was tasty and reminded me of the shrimp paste used in various dim sum.
The only dish in the meal with a faint nod to his time in French Laundry was the First of Spring Vegetables with Dashi and Parmesan. The lovely mix of snow pea shoots (dou miao), nameko mushrooms, fava beans, asparagus, baby leeks, baby radish and red chard in a light yuzu-spiked dashi would have been perfect had it not been marred by the odd cheesy note in the broth.
The tangled mess of Fresh Noodles with Shrimp Roe, Tarragon and Chicken Jus, if you can believe it, tasted worse than it looked. The strands were far too hard and there wasn’t enough shrimp roe to make an impact. It just tasted like instant noodles tossed in concentrated chicken stock. In fact, I’d eat a packet of Indomie over this any day.
The “Sharks Fin” Soup with Dungeness Crab, Jinhua Ham and Black Truffle Custard was a brilliantly-conceived dish – the imitation sharks fin fashioned out of agar had the same texture and appearance as the real thing. My only complaint would be the over enthusiastic use of salt in the consommé that overpowered the crab.
The main of Braised Beef was a beautifully succulent cut taken from where the short rib meets shoulder. The fat-laced meat would have been too much eaten alone, but the Nashi Pear, Date, Endive and Watercress really helped cut through it.
Despite having a dedicated pastry chef, the desserts seemed like a bit of an afterthought, with only a palate cleanser of Rhubarb, Cucumber and Sesame, followed by one dessert.
The lone dessert – a plate of Banana Ice Cream, Banana Bread, Burnt Acorn and Ginger Jelly, was actually pretty good. Not too sweet, well-balanced and most importantly (after all that food), not too heavy.
Our meal ended with four chocolates balanced on an elaborate stand that didn’t help sweeten the slightly bitter taste of having just dropped $160 a head on what we thought was a very shaky menu. Many of the riffs on Chinese classics didn’t deliver on their promise and the execution of some were really quite poor – the soupless Shanghainese dumplings and unyielding egg noodles wouldn’t be tolerated in Chinatown, let alone a fine dining establishment. I may be a little harsh here given my Oriental descent – Corey Lee is undoubtedly a very skilled chef but ultimately I question if the largely French-trained chef can pull off the technical aspect of his Asian-inspired dishes. I do hope that with time he’ll be able to smooth out the bumps as there are some standout creations scattered amidst the rubble.
22 Hawthorne Street
t. 415 685 4860