Benu, San Francisco

by Stevie on October 23, 2012

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I wanted so desperately to adore Benu! This place is über-chic right now. Supposedly when it was reviewed by some really fancy and prestigious paper in New York a while back, the writer said it was worth hopping on a plane for the six hour flight just to dine here. That’s a spectacular idea, isn’t it?

here I am getting my eye-phone ready for a gorgeous meal at Benu.  Can you see the picture on the wall behind me  I love it!

here I am getting my eye-phone ready for a gorgeous meal at Benu. Can you see the picture on the wall behind me I love it!

Well, my friend, S has been talking about venturing here for the seventeen course tasting menu for what seems like forever. At least since around the time we scheduled Coi.

welcome to Benu

welcome to Benu

We’ve been putting it off terribly, mainly because this place is expensive. The tasting for one person is $180, excluding wine, tip, tax, etc. A visit here isn’t an everyday event for most. Certainly we’re in the 99% and this was a real splurge.

They’re located in the South of Market neighborhood near Union Square in the space that formerly housed Hawthorne Lane restaurant. (It’s funny. I’ve lived in San Francisco long enough now that I occasionally know what was there before…)

the Benu kitchen overlooks the calming courtyard in front of the quiet restaurant

the Benu kitchen overlooks the calming courtyard in front of the quiet restaurant

The décor is darker than in the last incarnation of the place, though quite elegant. Unlike some other very fancy dining establishments that I’ve had the good fortune of trying, Benu wasn’t stuffy (the staff, though impeccably dressed which sometimes seems forbidding, were quite approachable and even friendly) and the dining room actually had some things hanging on the walls (a decorating tip for you, Coi and Redd.)

We had a group of six and all arrived around the same time for a 6PM reservation on a Saturday. I ordered a 2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape for John, Hegui and I to start. Two of the others had the wine pairing and the sixth, lovely Carey M, abstained. The wine was perfect and though it didn’t traditionally match the complex, frequently Asian-inspired menu, we enjoyed it well enough. Plus the sommelier said that it was the last bottle of this particular one they had, which made it seem that much more special.

thousand year-old quail egg, potage, ginger

thousand year-old quail egg, potage, ginger

oyster with kimchi

oyster with kimchi

We brought home the menu. We three had the pescatarian one; the others, the “regular.” I’ll list everything here for you to get the idea:

thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
oyster with kimchi
potato salad with anchovy
sea urchin tofu with wild salmon roe
chilled porridge, abalone, matsutake mushroom, pine nut
monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche
celery, chestnut, green apple, yuzu
eel, feuille de brick, crème fraîche, lime
hearts of palm, date, ginseng
salt and pepper squid
lobster in two courses
xiao long bao
fresh noodles with fine herbes
salsify cassoulet with onion-black truffle bun
sea bas, cauliflower, sauerbrussels, pear
“shark”fin soup, Dungeness crab, black truffle custard
shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate
spice cake, huckleberry, yogurt, oatmeal ice cream
chocolates

So there it is. Sounds mouthwatering, right?

potato salad with anchovy

potato salad with anchovy

sea urchin tofu with wild salmon roe

sea urchin tofu with wild salmon roe

chilled porridge, abalone, matsutake mushroom, pine nut

chilled porridge, abalone, matsutake mushroom, pine nut

The flavors were as diverse as they were exciting. Hegui and I skipped lunch as we knew that we’d be dining here. Turns out, that might have been a wee mistake. The portions are really small: a bite or maybe two for most. We’re used to eating a bit more heartily at home. And we eat starch at every meal. There really wasn’t too much of that to be had on this menu.

Other places have come up with elegant solutions to this problem. For example, our fave, the soon-to-be-closed-forever Cyrus, address the varying starch requirements of their patrons by offering incredible tiny rolls and breads, fresh from the oven, which they bring tableside throughout the meal. If you’re feeling it then by all means. Unfortunately there wasn’t something analogous here.

a random shot of my napkin which played such an important role later in the evening

a random shot of my napkin which played such an important role later in the evening

Too bad for me. We’d been dining away for about four hours by the time the fourteenth or fifteenth course, my nemesis, the “shark” fin soup arrived. I was positively ravenous by then, and though I’d been cheerily snacking along with the rest of the crowd on these micro-portions of over-the-top masterful presentations of food, I felt as if I hadn’t had a thing to eat the whole time.

monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche

monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche

hearts of palm, date, ginseng

hearts of palm, date, ginseng

John looking chic

John looking chic

xiao long bao

xiao long bao

salsify cassoulet with onion-black truffle bun

salsify cassoulet with onion-black truffle bun

And then the soup…

shark's fin soup, dungeness crab, black truffle custard

shark’s fin soup, dungeness crab, black truffle custard

My first thought was that it didn’t seem salty enough for my taste. And I don’t particularly care for truffle, so I wasn’t that excited. Though still very hungry, I slurped it down as best I could. Sadly my stomach had other ideas. I started to feel funny in a not very good kind of way. And I started to perspire… a lot.

Next came the shiso, white chocolate dessert. This had to have been frozen in liquid nitrogen and shattered. It was icy cold in the tiny glass cup. I don’t know about you, but I think shiso is a decidedly acquired taste. Usually I have it as a somewhat unwelcome ingredient in the occasional sushi roll. I’d never have thought of putting it in ice cream or white chocolate or whatever that horrid thing was.

shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate

shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate

Suddenly my stomach clamped down hard. That’s bad. I had to leave the restaurant, immediately. That was especially awkward since there were still two more courses, wine left in the bottle, we had yet to negotiate the bill and our friends were all there chatting away amiably, hopefully still oblivious to my abject misery.

I whisked myself out the door into the night. It was total hell. I’ll spare you the details of the next twenty minutes, but let’s just say, nature took its vile course. Hegui and Carey came to my rescue with fresh napkins (gorgeous heavy white cloth numbers). I painfully returned to table for the presentation of the stunning chocolate course but by then had lost all will to live. Hegui took me home and I went to bed immediately.

Despite the drama, I don’t regret going here (my credit card bill hasn’t yet arrived, so perhaps I’ll be singing a different tune later.) Dining at Benu was certainly a memorable experience. I think it is unlikely in the extreme that I shall ever return, but how knows? Stranger things have happened.

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