The Burden of Critique – Benu – San Francisco
A dispiriting requirement for any food critic is the responsibility to write critical notices of restaurants that shoulda, coulda been better. Even with a looming deadline, these are painful to write. For those of us without deadlines perhaps another week might make things easier. Few critics enjoy a sad review. Our task is something other than writerly sadism.
Very few restaurants are actively, in-your-face bad, and we need to treasure those. Often the failure is embodied in a few errors and fewer astonishments. When one writes about a restaurant based on a single evening, there must be much room for excuse.
I pen this in prologue to my dinner at Benu, a restaurant that has received genuine and enthusiastic praise from many in the Bay Area. Chef Corey Lee decamped from The French Laundry, and set up shop in the spritely, developing area South of Market. His goal, it has been claimed, to produce food of Kellerian perfection but with an Asian sensibility. Benu is sometimes called “The Chinese Laundry.”
I give Chef Lee high marks for intention (and for congeniality), but, based on one meal, not fully on execution. Neither the service nor the dishes were marked by perfection. I generally give the service a pass when it is good-natured, but this night there were enough minor errors of service and of molasses timing that made us realize that we were not in Napa. Thanks to my dining companions, the seven hours passed quickly. Many the dishes were thoughtful, but slippages dominate my memory. Chef Lee is a gifted Imperfectionist.
But I begin with one stunningly grand dish from a fifteen-course tasting menu. A dish from the blessed past: a tribute to Chrono-Cuisine. We ordered as a special addition to the tasting menu, Poularde Cuit en Vessie, the classic French preparation of Chicken poached in a Pig’s Bladder. What is not to adore? I found Chef Lee’s Breast, Celery, Black Trumpets, Green Almonds, and Dates to be splendid. While my dining companions found the dish over-celeried, I fully embraced the modesty of the celery, and treasured the celery glaze that covered the chicken. No thin sauces please. What was so special was how simple it seemed, even while being a fully complex dish. The green almonds and dates added their special sour, nutty, sweetness to the plate. It was among the greatest dishes that I have had in 2011, and I only wish that every dish that Chef Lee prepared had this power and vision. But alas.
When one orders Vessie, the bird does double-duty. A second course was poularde leg with peas and spring onion bulb and a shrimp roe sauce. And once again the chicken was as moist and flavorful as heaven, but here the accompaniments were off. The shrimp roe sauce overpowered the bird, even though the English peas and onion were congenial. It was an effectively composed dish, a work of art in a black bowl, but missed greatness. Still, we were all gratified to be able to treasure such a wonderful chick, and through the interactive ability to shuffle my plate, I could minimize the sauce, while voiding the chef’s salty vision.
Our meal opened with Thousand Year Old Quail Egg, Ginger, Potage and a Ginger-Almond Foam. Lee’s dishes often read as braver than they taste. I loved the Ginger-Almond Foam, and the textures were sublime, but the dish lacked the kick than I expected from an egg of such antiquity. It launched the meal, but was not the glorious blowout of Tom Keller’s pearls.
This starter was followed by an amusingly light dish of Caviar and Bone Marrow with a Lobster Crisp. Imagine a lobster pork rind. It was a two-bite wonder. Chips ahoy. We were having fun.
While my companions slurped a stunning homemade tofu, abalone, chrysanthemum soup, I was served sautéed abalone Grenobloise – floured and served with lemon and capers. I suspect that Chef Lee lacked a second stunning abalone dish in his quiver. This was a sturdy, if somewhat unremarkable, presentation. I was less enthused with my plate than my companions were with their bowls.
I soon returned to the main road: oyster, cabbage, pork belly, and fermented Korean pepper (gojuchang) gelee. On this small plate the gelee was the star. But we agreed that the balance was off. Not enough cabbage to contain the pork and oyster: here was Atkins Cuisine. Everything that the gelee touched was rosy, but such a tiny dish seemed heavy.
The next dish altered my perceptions. We were served a pair of lovely-looking Xiao long bao (Chinese dumplings): one filled with foie gras, the second with shrimp and black truffle: A-list ingredients. But how could dumplings go so wrong. Gummy and starchy and not entirely cooked: if this is an indication, Benu needs a Chinese grandma at the stove. Perhaps this Saturday was the opening night for a newbie stage, but these lumps didn’t come close. With a perfect dinner, one error reminds us how perfect the dinner is, but that wasn’t the case at Benu. The inners were silky smooth, but Silk and Gum lacks the cachet of Oysters and Pearls. Fortunately no other dish was so down-and-dirty.
There followed a small plate of unagi (freshwater eel), crème fraiche, lime and a small stick of feuille de brick (phyllo). For a small serving it was a pleasant interlude, but the lime and unagi could have been more pronounced.
Lucky seven. Our seventh dish was a star turn, a subtle and savory classic: monkfish liver torchon, turnip, cucumber, salted plum, and a small slice of toasted brioche. Here was a dish worthy of calling Benu “The Asian Tiffany.” In its simple complexity, its confident play of flavors, and its willingness to combine musky liver, picked turnip, salty plum in an elegant presentation it revealed Chef Lee’s genius. I would love a reprise.
White sausage, black bread, and XO sauce seems so modest, and in some way the presentation was. The fish sausage was rather spongy, lacking subtle notes, and, as my dining companion pointed out, the house-made XO sauce lacked the textural complexity of the store-bought version: only in America. I objected to the velvet sheen of the sauce less than an expert XO taster, but aside from the impressive crispy squid ink wafer, I found the dish rather pedestrian in composition and flavor.
Finally Shark Fin Soup, or perhaps more prudently “Shark Fin” Soup. Fee Fie Faux Fumble. The soup was subtle, filled with delicious crab and rich truffle, which surely would have been sufficient without a Mad Man’s claim of shark’s fin. Perhaps the chewy consistency recapitulated shark fin, but why make the claim if you cannot carry it through.
After two courses of Poularde Cuit en Vessie, we were solidly landed on land protein. We were served a loin of lamb stuffed with lamb mousse and fennel-scented lamb sausage. While the asparagus was as fresh as spring, the remainder of the dish, properly cooked in a bountiful broth, was somewhat old. The protein never sang. It was technically satisfying, but not a dish of any particular achievement.
I am a sucker for lily bulbs, and so sprinkling lily buds on ketchup or Twinkies satisfies me. This beef braised in pear, lily bulb, celery, and shiitake was a far superior dish to the previous lamb. The celery proved a nice reprise of the Poularde breast. Here was a cut of cow that sparkled, and was one of the strongest creations of the evening. Pear and celery might seem in conflict, but the fruity, herbal mixture was a pleasure.
Then followed two desserts. Neither was really remarkable. Fennel sorbet with rhubarb, sesame, and meringue was saved from catastrophe by the wondrous fennel sorbet, an ice of genius, but the other contributions were textually challenged. Too gooey for an adult palate.
Banana ice cream, burnt acorn (custard, praline, and bread pudding), ginger gelee and foam was a typical modernist dessert: a bit of this, a bit of that, lacking a center: the kitchen sink approach. It was not a failure, but nothing really sang, and I learned that burnt acorn will not make my Baskin-Robbins list of 31. It was a brave effort, but an effort nonetheless.
And so the meal ended. The greatest problem with Benu is its buzz. Corey Lee does show moments of genius and of gastronomic power, but his menu has not fully developed and his cooking is not always assured. To compare this meal, filled with deadends and with inspiration to the French Laundry is to do this young chef a disservice. The poularde was memorable – and Chef Lee is to be commended for his attempt to retrieve and reconstruct the greatest culinary triumphs of the past. The monkfish torchon was astonishing, and the beef and lily bulbs inspiring. But these were matched my dishes that were bland, doughy, or gooey. Critics often end their remarks suggesting that they will or will not return. In my case, let time be my judge. Benu may become the Chinese Laundry, but tonight it was just too close to dry cleaning.
22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco CA 94105
4 weeks ago