October 22, 2021

Benu provides everything you want from a 3-star dinner - the highest quality ingredients, prepped to perfection with flavors that blow you away. The chef spent years as the Chef de Cuisine of The French Laundry, and that level of respectful treatment of each ingredient, precise handling and maximum flavor was found throughout the meal, deftly applied to Japanese cuisine.

I dined with a vegetarian friend which allowed us to see even more of their incredible skill. The vegetarian dishes often eclipsed their meat-friendly counterparts.

The restaurant was strangely unaware that my friend was vegetarian, despite having asked the about their vegetarian options weeks earlier. They had even inquired about my friend's needs in greater detail via our email exchange. I may have missed a final "Yes, he is coming" but this oversight resulted in an awkward start. I can't imagine the curveball thrown an unsuspecting and unprepared kitchen, especially for the last seating of the evening. The staff's fluster and confusion was felt. However, they graciously assured us that it would be accommodated without any trouble but it might take a few minutes before our meal began. Completely understandable.

It was one of the few service missteps of the evening, the most egregious of which was a rushed plate clearing from a busperson that spilled sauce all over the table without concern not apology. He then grabbed at my dish though I was not yet finished. Our waitperson (who was delightful) quickly cleaned the table with her apologies and I noticed we never saw that busperson again. Overall, the service was outstanding - present, friendly and incredibly helpful.

And the food! My word, the food. The meal begins with many smaller bites/plates which were as diverse as they were delicious. The sheer amount of technique and prep that goes into this array of dishes was staggering. Each dish had its own identity and flavor profile, keeping the coursing interesting and raising excitement and anticipation for the next one.

The 3 main courses were selected from 9 total options (3 each). The mackerel seems out of place with the flow of the meal but the rice/truffle dish was stupendous and the BBQ quail is a must-have, living up to all expectations.

A wine pairing is not offered but the sommelier brought some excellent though forgettable wines throughout the meal. I had read some question marks about the desserts but each one was fabulous, flavorful, light and refreshing. And again, the execution on each was jaw-dropping.

Benu is everything you want a 3-star meal to be. As Michelin describes, it is definitely "worth a special journey". I traveled to San Francisco simply because I landed this reservation, and I'm so very glad I did. This meal was completely worth it.  

1000 year old egg, ginger, scallion. One of their signatures.
Marinated mussel (served cold) stuffed with glass noodles and vegetables. Just delicious.
Vegetarian version of the mussel, same stuffing inside Japanese funghi.
Lobster, cured for 3 days with a marinated dressing. Vegetarian option looked identical but made with lobster mushrooms.
Squid, spicy squid ink dressing, Korean jerky. Vegetarian option looked the same but made with mung bean and shiso.
Steamed pine mushroom, marigold. THIS dish is why I eat at restaurants like this. Such intense mushroom flavor. "A big bowl of this on its own would be enough" said my dining partner.
Flowering tofu, cold clam broth, homemade soy, chili oil. Vegetarian option was the same but with vegetable stock. Insane knife work and presentation and tasted as great as it looked.
Based on an oak tree - acorn flour shell stuffed with acorn, truffle and iberico ham. (Vegetarian option used sunchoke in place of the hame.) Truly delicious.
Bread presentation
Sprouted grain bread
Pouring organic honey infused with ginseng over the butter
The result - butter shaped as a honeycomb. Indescribably delicious.
Pioneer chicken (cold), rice wine, chicken broth, ginseng, bellflower root, pine nuts. I called this "milk chicken", which sounds gross but was glorious.
(Vegetarian) Braised artichoke, brocken fern, braised burdock, carrot
Xiao Long Bao (soup dumpling) with shrimp/pork broth. Didn't love the broth, but the dumpling was amazing, strong enough to hold the broth solidly but still butter in your mouth.
(Vegetarian) Spring roll, cordyceps mushrooms, root vegetables, celtuce, ginger, soy. "That wrapper is unlike anything I have had before" gushed my dining partner.
Rice cake, burgundy, truffle, hen jus. Mind-blowing flavor.
(Vegetarian) "Land caviar" with hand-pressed sesame oil
(Vegetarian) Taro root braised in kombu
(Vegetarian) Salsify (root vegetable in the dandelion family) jeotgal with preserved garlic
(Vegetarian) Rice seasoned with spring onion
(Vegetarian) Rock seaweed
Mackerel, minari (water celery), chayote, charred scallion sauce underneath. Nice dish, but did not feel cohesive with the rest of the meal.
(Vegetarian) Lettuce for wraps
(Vegetarian) Soybeans aged 4 years
(Vegetarian) Preserved ramps
(Vegetarian) Kohlrabi kimchi
(Vegetarian) Tomato meju
(Vegetarian) Charcoal-grilled eggplant
They bring the entire quail out before carving it for you, explaining where the quail comes from. The cook is simply perfect.
The resulting dish (BBQ quail) was juicy perfection.
Quail was served with XO sauce and a pickled salsify (vegetable) which was out of this world
(Vegetarian) Roasted lily bulb, celery, truffled jus and cream. This blew my dining partner away.
Steamed black truffle bun. Yum!
Truffle cream, quail jus, served with everything above. Seemed out of place - not sure why this was here.
Pear sorbet in a omija juice made from the magnolia berry, known to have all 5 flavors (salty, sweet, sour, pungent/spicy and bitter) within it. Uniquely yummy and refreshing.
Milk pudding, caramel with seaweed salt and smoked with peat
Malted rice tea (shike) infused with pine needles and pine nuts
This view of the kitchen greets you as you walk in. The kitchen also has large windows on the street.

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