Restaurant review: Benu by Chef Corey Lee in San Francisco, USA (3 Michelin stars)
Three hours of magical eating
During this last trip to the States, I was lucky in that I didn’t have to plan a single meal. Not that I mind trip research; actually, I very much enjoy putting together itineraries. But it’s lovely to have the details taken care of too and one of the I-wasn’t-expecting-it-but-omg meals was for a friend’s birthday dinner at chef Corey Lee’s Benu.
Located in the SoMa District of San Francisco, right around the corner from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Benu is itself a bit of a work of art. It’s housed in a historic building that has been transformed into a sleek temple of zen… for guests, at least. The main dining room is tastefully decorated, with lots of light to medium-toned neutrals and warm wood accents. When you walk into the courtyard, before entering the front doors, you’ll walk past the kitchen and while it’s obviously not as zen as the dining room, it certainly is one of the sleekest kitchens I’ve ever seen.
Given it was someone else’s birthday dinner, I didn’t want to be obnoxious and take a million photos but I couldn’t help but sneak in a few. Especially after the first bite and getting the sense that each dish might very well be a precious little jewel and a once-in-a-lifetime experience (Benu is offers tasting menus only, at US$310 per person). Here are a few looks at what we enjoyed that night.
Thousand-year-old egg with cabbage and pickled ginger*
Uni and beef tartare tart
Delicate, fresh yet warming noodles
Dried fish rice with spicy caviar (and chrysanthemum tofu, not pictured)
Duck galbi, wrapped in duck skin
Pork belly with asparagus
Black truffle mantou with black truffle cream
Gingko nut chips
What I really liked about Benu was how exact everything was. Each dish was uniquely special in its own way, and portioned so we could thoroughly enjoy each one without either wanting more or becoming too full. I also didn’t think the food was at all pretentious. Sure, some premium ingredients were used, but the food was impressive because of the unique combinations of tastes, textures, and temperatures during eating and in the lingering moments after. My favourite bites were probably the thousand-year-old egg, the warming noodles, and the dried fish rice with spicy caviar (the latter having an almost offensively strong smell when it arrived hah but quickly won us over) for being comforting yet so technically exact in composition.
In writing this blog, I did a bit of research to understand more of the history behind my meal. Lee trained for nearly ten years at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Per Se before starting his own restaurant. Now, while there are clear Asian influences in his food, he has said he prefers to think of the food as “American,” which to him means the “interplay and combination of different cultures.” A great perspective to have, I think. And in the decade-ish since he opened Benu, he and his team have won most of the top awards in the industry including Michelin stars (debuting with 2 in 2012 and holding 3 since 2014), the Best Chef award from the James Beard Foundation in 2017, and Outstanding Wine Program by the James Beard Foundation in 2019. He’s also been acknowledged from the World’s 50 Best. Well-deserved. If I had one complaint about the experience, it would be that the atmosphere is a bit too sleek and zen (cold, business-y) for me personally. I imagine these things weren’t included on purpose but I think neutral-coloured flowers, candles, or more curved lines in the decor would be nice…!
If you’re planning a trip, note that Benu encourages guests to set aside three hours for dinner. Given that, I’m not sure I’d recommend it for a business dinner though the atmosphere and service could definitely make it an appropriate choice. I think it’s better to enjoy the meal with a person or people who make you feel relaxed, where you can enjoy the full magic of each bite.
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94105, USA, +1 415-685-4860
*The thousand-year-old egg is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes though the exact flavours are changed up from time to time (and note chef’s dog is carved into the top of the container!).