After much deliberation, Erika and I agree that Benu is probably one of the best restaurants we have been to in the United States in a long time. We just came from Chicago, and we had some great meals there, but the experience we had here was one of the best in recent memory. It took us back to some of our experiences in Japan, not just in flavors, but with excellent service and overall intense level of thought put into meal, etc. Wine pairings here were especially phenomenal.
Small Delicacies portion was like a merry go round of decadence. Caviar and winter melon with chicken broth and gold flakes. We could not recall some of the sake pairings and the bottle had no English writing on it so we will have to plead ignorance on some of the pairings, but they were at least 2-3 times more in volume and variety with pairings vs your average Michelin establishment, we were in heaven.
Next up was the crispy wonton with kimchi and pork belly with oyster on top. This may be a tangential association but this was like the Benu’s version of ‘eggs and caviar’ or ‘egg yolk with uni’. A combo of two flavors with similar textures that compliment each other so well. I never imagined that oyster and pork belly could produce a similar awesome duo like this. On top of this, they added a crispy wonton with kimchi. I was surprised beyond belief when I ate this. It had to be the highlight of the past 6 months of food for me. The umami I got after biting into this led to a gutteral moan and an amazed look towards Erika as looked at her face to see her reaction. This was second best thing I’ve eaten since May when I had the one year old fermented sushi in Kyoto. And what better pairing than Alsace. We had some major Riesling/Alsace/German/Austrian rare wine pairings to come.
Then the sea urchin wrapped with cucumber as a continuation of the small delicacy portion. More like an amuse bouche-like palate cleanser after that umami’ed debaucherous wonton.
Then came two dishes at the same time. The first you see there is the hen egg, which was cooked at 65 degrees, egg yolk exploding in your mouth, always good. Then the second bag of goodness was a steamed thick skinned dumpling with pata negra iberico ham, perigord truffle and acorn. This was not only conceptually a play on the food cycle, but a perfect pairing of flavors. So, pata negra iberico ham comes from the free range black pigs that primarily feed on acorns in a certain region of Spain, and of coarse, being wild boars, probably also dig up and eat your occasional perigord truffle. Now what makes this jamon taste so nutty is the fact that acorns are their primary food source. Not only are you eating actual acorn and truffle in the dumpling, but the jamon itself emanates this flavor which is infused in the fat of the jamon. Talk about infused and embedded. The subtle and the obvious packed into one delivery system. I wonder what that means about me. Maybe cannibals are writing a blog on how I would taste after eating all these meals we’ve documented. Hmmm, too much Hansel and Gretel ruminations, let’s move on to happier thoughts.
Granted, we have not even come to the first course until now. Let’s begin with the Thousand year old quail egg with potage and ginger. Potage is basically a category of thick soups, stews, or porridges, in some of which meat and vegetables are boiled together with water until they form into a thick mush. The eggs are not really a thousand years old, but the process actually takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and involves soaking eggs in a saline solution. Duck quail or chicken eggs can be used. The solution usually consists of clay and salt, but can also include ash, quicklime and rice hulls. It causes the yolk of the eggs to take on a creamy, cheese-like texture, and transforms the whites into a dark-colored jelly. This was paired nicely with 2012 Chateauneuf Du Pape. Could not remember the pairing notes on this, as pictures were out of order, but it was good.
Next up was the celtuce shrimp, omasum tripe and lovage. This is a loaded sentence. You might be thinking what the hell is celtuce? Well, here it is. It’s all the rage now in modern Chinese restaurants using molecular themes, popular for it’s thick stems, it’s basically a Chinese lettuce. Almost looks like wild wasabi from a distance. Here is the image below.
Then omasum tripe, also known as the bible, the fardel, the manyplies and the psalterium, is the third compartment of the stomach in ruminants. The bible is right, take me to church! I want to drape this omasum over my face as I chew on this cartilaginous gift from God. Tripe was big in SF when we went. They had a cold trip dish with lemon, sea salt and olive oil that we were dying over at Delfina pizzeria. Moving on to the lovage, which is like a large herbaceous plant, similar in texture to a daisy leaf, very weed like, not very characteristic on it’s own, rather invisible in the background holding together the right harmony, like a bass guitarist strumming the same note to hold the song together. Bottom line, very nice, paired excellently with a German grape varietal called Scheurebe. Originally assumed to be a crossing of Silvaner and Riesling, DNA profiling in the late 1990s revealed that Scheurebe is probably a crossing of an unknown wild grape and Riesling. Its intense bouquet is reminiscent of black currant, peach or ripe pear.
Then the most amazing steamed bao we’ve ever had. This tops the black truffle pork bao at Din Tai Fung. Lobster coral xiao bao. Apparently the chef was inspired by Din Tai Fung, actually, and sought to make his own version of their soup dumpling specialty. The visuals as well as the taste and texture profile were spot on, he killed it from every direction with this. By the way, the red Belgian ale paired with this was the most clever we have ever tasted. If you’ve had Red Belgian ale you will notice the resemblance to an aged vinegar, the tart, sour flavor is on it’s own excellent, but with the bao, OMFG! Typically, these dumplings are served with a vinegar and soy sauce, so to pair this with the Belgian ale, which is obviously not traditional, but a match made in heaven, was a Herculean effort by the som. I have never seen a som bring out the amazingness of the food in quite such a way at they did at Benu. The Belgian ale was 2012 Rodenbach aged in Oak Barrels.
This was followed by some pine mushroom, eggplant, ginko nut and chrysanthemum. This was just like a dish you would find at a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto in the fall, very classically done. The simple preparation of the ginko nut just left a strong singular flavor note that resonated in your mouth. The other elements perfectly contrasted the sweet nuttiness of the ginko nut. The sweet eggplant in the miso paste was just what you expect from a Japanese eggplant dish. The pine mushroom was prepared tempura style, which is why it looks like a rice puff. The rice actually had the chrysanthemum flower infused in it. Again, the wine pairing was excellent in it’s minerality, and took a more neutral and saline stance to complete the missing flavor profile in the food. I actually researched tasting notes on this wine after the fact and the profile of lemon and seawater where mentioned a lot, which totally meshed with my experience. I guess Sonoma Coast wines have a specific terroir, and the taste of the bay area fog and sea come through. Hard to find such unique wines at other places, one of the perks of being in SF. Killer intermezzo for more to come. This wine was served with the next two dishes.
Since the savory dishes have started, the home made bread was introduced. The honey was orange blossom infused with ginseng. OMFG, so aromatic and sticky over the honeycomb shaped butter, with the nutty and whole grained bread. I know it looks simple, but the pictures did not do the flavor justice.
Then came the yam, chestnut black truffle bun. Back to Din Tai Fung again, or Momofuku Ssam bar, the elevation of the humble Chinese bun to make it a vessel for black truffle with the super condensed chestnut flavored mouse, complemented by a plate of slimy yam dish. Wow, rocked my mouth in various ways. I love the texture of yam, almost like grits mixed with the sliminess of okra, truly an acquired taste. The texture helped in the delivery in that it coated every corner of your mouth and the taste just lingered on your taste buds. The hen jus that the yam sat in was like the oxtail gravy effect with our favorite dish at Animal in LA.
Then abalone, again, took us back to Japan. Whole braised abalone, potato, charred lettuce and mustard. This was served with the Sonoma coast wine again. The savoriness of the abalone was cut by the salinity and acid of the wine, and the mustard added to that zing, while soft texture of the potato contrasted with the crunchy charred lettuce.
Then came the beef rib with wild mountain vegetables and fermented pepper. This was perfectly paired with the ’06 Syrah. The spice punch with the wine and fermented pepper just went so well together. We are seriously going to always consider Syrah with ribs in the future, we never realized how good this melds together, another home run by the Som. Such a savory and earthy wine that compliments the fatty and smokey flavors of the rib. Best pairing of the night.
Then the dungeness crab and ‘shark fin’ with Jinhua ham and egg white to thicken the sauce. How much more Chinese can you get? We were impressed at the level of Chinese and Japanese fusion thus far. We felt that this was not done in a cheap pan-Asian way, but rather it took distinctive and unique dishes from each culture and showcased them and melding them in respectful ways that showed each in a new light. Look at that light green bowl, such attention to detail and color contrast with the food. What a texture to have the shredded shark fin atop the crab, with Jinhua ham and egg white. When I researched this I was shocked to find a Jamon Serrano style ham that is actually from China. Very impressive. Given this information, what better wine to pair this with than a Rioja.
Finally comes the succession of desserts. Look at how pretty this is. First one was titled Shinko Pear. I was afraid to eat it because I didn’t want to mess it up. It was paired with an almost ‘cola-like’ fermented tea of Forbidden rice kombucha, with beautiful rose shaped asian pear sorbet. Wow, the fermented smokiness with the refreshing crispness of the pear sorbet was spectacular.
Then came the dried apricot osmanthus almond. This looks more like a lime meringue, which it also tasted like, we can’t remember for the life of us if the custard was made from osmanthus tea or if the meringue was infused with apricot. But look at the piping on this. It was paired with an amazing apricot flavored Riesling that we neglected to take a photo of because we were so wrapped up in our sugar high. The aromatics of the osmanthus tea and the almond were sublime.
Finally some spicy chocolate to end the night, shaped like a Frank Gehry sculpture. It was a dark chocolate with Chia, some hot chili seed and sesame.
Finally, here is the team plotting against the next group of unsuspecting diners on how they are literally gonna blow your mind and ruin you forever with expectations of what fine Asian cuisine can be. Bravo assholes!