Benu – San Francisco, CA
The Bay Area is special to me––not only is it my birthplace, but it was the site of my first big foray into foodiedom. Back when I was just becoming adventurous with food, a little summer tour around northern California's food and wine universe was what really got me hooked––I made my first trip to wine country, devoured my first birria tacos, learned about Alice Waters' "Delicious Revolution" at Chez Panisse, and dined at my first tasting menu restaurant. Since then, I've eaten better in San Francisco and environs than probably any other region in the world, and the food scene here is good as ever.
Nearly a decade ago, I made it a goal to check off all the restaurants holding three Michelin stars in the Bay Area. At the time, there were eight, but today, due to a handful of demotions (Coi, Saison), closings (Manresa), and Meadowood's loss to the Glass Fire, there are five (SingleThread opened after Saison and Coi's demotions).
Only one was left to visit––Benu––but somehow the stars had never aligned to secure a reservation. Were the list still nine restaurants strong, Benu would only accompany Meadowood as the last of the three-starred spots I hadn't sampled, and it's unclear when, or if, Meadowood will reopen. Fortunately, I live just 45 minutes from San Francisco now, and I took advantage of a last minute cancellation to secure a reservation for one with just 48 hours' notice. Until Meadowood reopens, I can finally check the goal of visiting every three-star spot in the Bay off my bucket list.
Before the meteoric rise of SingleThread, Benu used to be the Bay Area restaurant that appeared on the "big hitter" lists like the "Top 50 in the World" all the time. Corey Lee was Chef de Cuisine under Thomas Keller at French Laundry for nine years before opening his own spot in San Francisco. Taking inspiration from his Korean heritage, Lee interweaves Korean foodways into many layers of his menu, which is a delightful approach––tasting menus at this tier often lean heavily into Japanese ingredients and inspiration, but it's fairly rare to see Korean-inspired cuisine at this echelon in the United States.
Lee's empire has expanded in the eight years since Benu was christened with the highest culinary designation in the world, and denizens of the city by the Bay can sample his fare at places like the more casual San Ho Won, leaning into Korean BBQ to some rather serious acclaim. But to really get a sense of what propelled Lee to the fame he has now, Benu has no substitute.
It's a short 45 minutes from my place in Petaluma to the Financial District in San Francisco; it's still remarkable to me that I live within driving distance of some of the most incredible food in the world––before I moved here, I could never go to a three Michelin–starred restaurant and then go to sleep in my own bed.
Tucked away on a dark street is Benu's little oasis in the heart of FiDi. You'd never guess that one of the world's greatest restaurants was here until you walk past a window looking into the pristine kitchen––a rarity in fine dining! A valet stand and nondescript lettering on a brick wall are the only other indications as you step into the alcove containing the entrance.
In the courtyard are beautiful up-lit trees and countless vessels housing various soy sauces, which are aging. Under the eaves hang packets of fermenting soybeans called meju. For a moment you are transported to a zen garden rather than a bustling city, and it may feel challenging to step into the restaurant amidst the calm of the outer courtyard.
Inside, I was struck by the minimalism––even starkness––of the dining room. The lighting was bright and the bright white walls held exiguous amounts of art, and what décor they did include was neutral in color and proletarian. The uncomplicated modernism was disarming in an industry that can often favor the lavish––I think, for example, of the decadence of Inn at Little Washington, or the garden of small plates decorated with mosses and flowers which welcomes diners at SingleThread. There was nothing warm, or distracting, about the space, and likely by design––each morsel of food was the star, and art in its own right, so extra décor was unnecessary.
The staff darted hither and thither in mostly traditional, even meager, beige attire matching the dining space, with some higher-ups dressed more formally. My menu was brought forth quickly and placed on my stunning gold charger, and I was instructed to select one seafood course and one meat course from the two options in each category. At first I was dismayed to see what looked like a mere five courses on this menu; I'm always sad when a meal like this ends, so five courses seemed woefully short, and when I asked if I could sample both seafood courses and both meat courses, my server politely declined––"Chef has designed these portions very specifically." Understandable, of course, and even made me feel a bit foolish for asking!
One of the beverage team members assured me that "not everything is listed on the menu, obviously" as he poured a glass of champagne in the most beautiful champagne glass I'd ever seen––an alarmingly delicate coupé that made me treat the bubbly very preciously, for it was precious––an extra brut rosé champagne from grand cru sites in Ambonnay from producer Eric Rodez. With favors resembling strawberries and cream and a very lean attack, it was a nice way to start, but wildly overpriced relative to the retail cost of the bottle.
With the first few bites, another member of the beverage team brought out a grüner Veltliner from Tatomer, a winemaker who spent a great deal of time in Austria working with the varietal before bringing it back to his native Santa Barbara County and spurring a renaissance of interest in the grape in the area. Crisp and slightly vegetal, it's an excellent food wine, and would pair brilliantly with the first "small delicacies" that started the menu.
Many of the courses you'll have at Benu are Chef Lee's classics that have been served here for years. The "thousand year-old egg" course is such a dish––a quail egg is aged in the style of a Chinese century egg, where an egg is coated in alkaline clay and salt for weeks or months to cure, during which it turns brownish-green and becomes a jelly. The whole thing sounds (and kinda looks) deeply unappealing, but the flavor is impossibly savory, and pairing the egg with a ginger purée, the kitchen hit the ground running.
Two more bites followed to be paired with the grüner, both shellfish. The first was a mussel stuffed with a spectacular array of "glass noodles" made from various veggies in a rainbow. It looked more stunning than it tasted. But the sea urchin course, served in a thin tart crust with beef tartare, crab, and "crab sauce," nearly made me dance with joy.
Continuing the Austro-German direction for the early pairings, an Alsatian Riesling from a grand cru site struck a wonderful balance between fruit and the complex, almost funky aromatic character the wine can express. The somm described the wine as a "chameleon," which would display different character with each of the next three courses.
Apparently the last anchovy fishery in the United States is right here in San Francisco, and Benu sources local anchovies and tops a fried levain toast with them, adhered with a "core" sauce of tomato ssamjang, made with fermented soybeans, chilis, tomatoes, and all sorts of other delicious goodies. The key to the dish, though, was a refreshing micro cilantro, which provided a fantastic counterpoint to the umami of the ssamjang and anchovy. A master stroke.
Next was probably the most beautiful-looking dish I've seen all year––"flowering" tofu made in house with a chilled chicken and shiitake consommé and drops of chili oil. Give me an IV of this shit. The last featured oak-related ingredients––an acorn flour pancake enclosing acorn-fed Iberico ham and black truffles, which grow on the roots of the oak tree. Each of these bites was superlative, and the Riesling did, indeed, express itself differently with each offering!
The last of the "small delicacies" would be paired with a standalone white Bordeaux from Rieussec, blending about fifty-fifty semillon and sauvignon blanc, resulting in an absurdly expressive, aromatic wine with unfathomable complexity of flowers, grapefruit, grass, and orchard fruit. Raw abalone from Santa Barbara was base of the accompanying dish, served with a granita of "white kimchi," paper-thin beef tallow, and hot mustard seeds. This was the second dish of the night that was so inspired I could hardly stand it––I found myself laughing with joy as I ate it. The surprises and creativity that Benu is offering may be second to none!
The parade of small delicacies had concluded, and I was already aware that the end of the meal was approaching in just five dishes. Fortunately, all five were just as magnificent as what preceded. Xiao long bao, Shanghainese soup dumplings, are some of my favorite things in the world, and Benu stuffs theirs with lobster coral, the polite name for the roe of the female lobster, which turns bright orange-pink when cooked. Alongside was one of the most wonderful vinegars, the traditional dipping condiment for xiao long bao, that they age in-house. Spectacular. And even better, a local sour ale from the The Rare Barrel in the East Bay, made especially for this dish (down to the label reading "xiao long bao" in Mandarin and featuring a stylized illustration of a dumpling), was one of the most excellent pairings I've had in recent memory. An unmitigated success.
I'm always happy to see a bread service, and wrapped in cloth was a spent grain bread with a delightfully crisp exterior served with a helping of Sonoma County butter in the shape of a honeycomb, drizzled with orange blossom honey infused with ginseng. A perfect little palate cleanser between courses.
A member of the beverage staff referred to the next course as "the rice course," presenting, naturally, sake. Though I know precious little about them, I am a huge fan of yamahai sakes, which is a style in which a sake brewer will inoculate the fermenting sake with naturally occurring lactic acod to encourage fermentation, leaving a slightly tangy, almost savory character. I appreciated the balance of this particular yamahai––it maintained a clean texture and avoided becoming too cheesy or funky and hence overwhelming the more delicate, fruity aromatics and flavors.
A tartare of spot prawns with cured pollack roe and sesame leaf accompanied short grain rice dusted with green onion, and alongside tiny salsify pickles provided a palate cleanser, while rock seaweed from South Korea could be used to make your own temaki. This was the only miss of the night––the characteristic sweetness of the spot prawn seemed to be overwhelmed by a mysterious bitterness... perhaps from the pollack roe? The rice was perfectly cooked but not particularly remarkable, but the salsify pickles were obscenely delicious. I could snack on them.
The last white wine from niche winery Mas de Daumas Gassac, a producer elevating the profile of the oft-maligned Languedoc, combined several interesting varietals––viognier, petit manseng, chardonnay, and chenin blanc were the backbone, while a field blend of over a dozen other white varietals formed a surprising 17 percent of the wine. Fleshy and tropical, with remarkable finesse, it was a perfect wine with the richness of the next course, lending its slight weight but pure, acid-driven finish.
I don't think I've ever had eel on a non-sushi tasting menu before (or, indeed, at any non-sushi restaurant!), but this river eel from Maine was poached and sautéed in butter to highlight its rich flesh and topped with maesil, which are Korean green plums, red onion, and daikon. Below were purées of daikon and sweet and bitter greens, and small dandelion greens provided a vegetal, bitter component to contrast with the buttery eel.
The sole red wine was one I'd sampled at my last three-star meal at SingleThread––a fascinating wine from Ronchi di Cialla made from, depending on who you ask, schioppettino or ribolla nera, a grape brought back from near-extinction by this producer. Herbaceous, racy, and elegant, it paired brilliantly in particular with the kimchi served alongside the beef dish.
Braised beef rib is cooked inside a roll of egg in this style of cooking called jeon, resulting in a magically soft, rich beef with a background essence of yolk. To dip was an an anchovy sauce of remarkable depth, adding heady umami. The winner, though, was the kohlrabi kimchi, done in an unfermented, or fresh, geotjeori style. I couldn't get enough of the kimchi.
Halfway through my jeon, a pearl white, lip-smacking soup of beef tendon and shoulder wrapped up the savory preparations for the evening, in which swam rice cakes to absorb the richness. It was a beautiful course overall, and I nearly asked the table next to me if I could finish theirs when they sent their half-eaten rib back to the kitchen because they were full! Blasphemy!
Both loyal readers of my blog can predict accurately that I was quite bummed the savory courses were over, but the server was right at the beginning––the portioning was perfect, and while I often leave tasting menu joints stuffed to the gills, I felt satiated but in no way bloated, a remarkable achievement for the kitchen team. Palate cleansing yuja, another word for yuzu, sorbet served alongside an absolutely massive shine muscat grape from Korea did just the trick of wiping the slate clean for dessert.
Oliveiras is an iconic producer of madeira, a wine that still has my favorite wine origin story of all time, and Hee-Won, the sommelier, dug back nearly 30 years for a nutty but acid-driven vintage of the heat-aged fortified wine. The final dessert to pair featured cherries and misugaru, a Korean powder of rice and grains often mixed as a drink for digestive health. Inside the sphere were preserved cherries that offered tantalizing sweetness, interacting beautifully with the slight salty quality of the misugaru. A very successful dessert.
A final few snacks cleansed the palate while the check was paid. The first was a chilled pine tea with spruce tips and pine nuts. Scrumptious. An impossibly thin mint cracker was deeply refreshing, while a ginkgo tuile, which looked like the world's most delicious Pringle, was sweet and satisfying, and matched the ginkgo print on my new shirt!
I got the opportunity to chat with Hee-Won for a good while at the end of the meal, during which we nerded out to food and wine and traded gustatory stories, and he gave me recommendations should I ever find myself in his native Seoul. I cannot speak more highly the staff here––efficient, but warm and unstuffy, and always happy to chat when they drop by, making you feel like a long-time friend.
Benu exceeded all my expectations, and while I think the prices are pretty unreasonable, it's is hardly the only restaurant in this echelon to suffer from overpricing. I found myself eager to come back, even at these prices.
Korean foodways have been broadly overshadowed in the fine dining universe by their Japanese counterparts, particularly, surprisingly, on the west coast. While New York has had a robust Korean fine dining scene for some time, with Jungsik and Atomix leading the way in the highest tiers of Korean fare, but also with a deep list of more casual and approachable spots, there's too little in the Bay Area. I am hopeful that Benu's influence will continue to bring more Korean-inspired fine dining to the area.
It's thrilling to see such an inventive, original approach to fine dining, a space that can, if chefs aren't careful, become rather predictable. Lee is still crushing it at Benu, and his kitchen's three Michelin stars, a designation for a restaurant "worthy of a special journey," are very much deserved. The problem for me is that such a special journey is far too easy to undertake now that I live just north of San Francisco!
I've now checked off all the three-star establishments in the Bay Area, until Meadowood reopens, and next week I'm thrilled to be visiting an identically decorated spot in New York City––one of the more controversial in the world. Stay tuned for a look at what I discover!