After slaving away in the internationally acclaimed French Laundry kitchen with one Thomas Keller for years, Corey Lee is on his own now at Benu. If you've never heard of it before, let's just say the industry know-it-alls and extreme foodies were freaking out about this spot for months before it opened in August. And the freaking out continues. With all the pomp of the Commis' and Gary Dankos of the world, Lee's reinvention of David Gringrass' Hawthorne Lane/Two restaurant has all sorts of things that make the foodnoscenti crazy. See the poularde cut en vessie one must order three days in advance, reservations that require acrobatic phone skills and the 16-course technical tasting menu for examples. As can be expected with such a feat, reviews span rhapsodic to resentful. Read about it below and please do add your feedback to the comments pot or here.
The Good News: Things start out strong for Virginia Miller of The Perfect Spot: "first courses stole the show. Paired with the sweet dill and mustard notes of a 1996 C.H. Berres Spatlese Riesling from Mosel ($11 a glass), I was immediately wowed by Snapping Turtle Veloute ($16), a lush broth with bits of turtle meat poured over Langoustine (small lobster) and vegetable matignon. This dish was the young, vibrant girl of the menu: intelligent and full of promise, playful and enticing." Add in some nice thoughts from Chowhound's KmanLove: "Our expectations were exceeded and we had a fabulous meal. Overall, we were pretty blown away. The flavors were interesting, varied, and crisp." [Perfect Spot, Chowhound]
The Poularde En Vessie News: Thomas Nash of Chowhound goes for it with the three day pre-order: "At the presentation, your French great-grandmother would recognize Corey Lee's version. But after that ? the influences from a Korean great-grandmother and Japanese kaiseki chefs and modern sous-vide cooking were apparent. This is quite an extravagant triumph. Definitely worth a journey and ordering in advance."
The Compared-To-Gary Danko News: FoodNut offers this comprehensive summary: "benu is a stylish new restaurant serving well-prepared cutting-edge food that will help redefine high-end cuisine. These technical and artsy preparations are not for everyone. We can already hear some Yelper criticizing the quantity and weirdness of food served. Gary Danko and French Laundry are more mainstream for the masses. Some of the combinations need refinement, so give them six months to reach their full potential." [FoodNut]
The Service News: FoodNut comments thusly: Benu had top notch service, with a high server to table ratio. No worries about waiter knowledge, refills, napkin folding, or the like. Pacing was on the slow side with our dinner taking over three hours." Yelper Henry F. gushes: "Service was impeccable. I especially appreciated the server's impromptu discourse on how to make peanut butter pancakes with bacon grease. 'They come out hard, like bacon-y pancake cookies,' he said. Like I said: Awesome." [FoodNut, Yelp]
The Sea Urchin News: According to FoodNut: "carnaroli risotto, sea urchin, corn, lovage, black truffle ($22) was the first reference quality dish. The creamy risotto was very well done, and filled with bits of corn. Lots of well-prepared fresh sea urchin lined the surface. We had a lot of sea urchin recently at nearby Ame that just paled when compared to this." But CarrieWas218 of Chowhound has a totally different take: "Sea urchin, potato purée, corn, celery...I was frankly shocked at the mediocrity of the sea urchin...we were thrown back into muted flavors but worse than that, textures that were all too similar to define exactly what we were consuming. My dining companion, in taking a large taste, immediately asked, “Where is the sea urchin?”...Neither of us finished it and we both left almost half in the dish." [FoodNut, Chowhound]
The Bill News: Virginia Miller of The Perfect Spot sounds taken aback: "The bill still came to $300 for two with four courses and two glasses of wine each, and though Benu is ‘the whole package’, I couldn’t help but recall recent visits to Commonwealth and Sons & Daughters, assuredly less refined experiences in terms of atmosphere and service, but when it comes to food, have a similar ethos, abandon and presentation? for less than half the price. I’m just saying." But Andy K. of Yelp says: "Perhaps we had a few quibbles here and there, but no dish disappointed and we felt the quality/value ratio was quite high (we did a la carte--3 dishes each plus a shared dessert). We would definitely go back (though perhaps next time for a special occasion and not just on a whim)." [Perfect Spot, Yelp]
The Interior News: BunRab files its usual photo recap of dishes and has this to say about the accoutrement inside: All of the custom created dinnerware had a tactile temptation. The African blackwood utensil rests had the feel of silk while the weave of the napkins had a grip. There was great care taken to create a minimalist surrounding to spotlight this fantastic and fun dining experience. Virginia Miller adds, "the space feels museum-like and sterile if it weren’t for truly gracious service. I went merely one week into opening and they already had service down like a well-orchestrated concert." On the other end of the spectrum, noBS: "Was the 'inspiration' here art gallery or unfurnished apartment?" [BunRab, Perfect Spot]
The "I'm Jaded" News: Chowhounder CarrieWas213 walked away with this: "Not transcendent, too technical, and ultimately no soul....The meal was memorable for its execution and precision. I can understand and appreciate the development of Asian flavors which were being offered, however I feel there was such a preponderance of style over substance to have become a distraction. I wanted an epiphany and that “religious experience” which I have occasionally come to hope for, is far too rare and makes me come to believe that I am truly jaded when it comes to haute cuisine." [Chowhound]
Now wager a thought or two, won't you?
· All Previous Benu Coverage [~ ESF ~]
Corey Lee at Benu. [Photo: Eater SF Flickr Pool/Darin Dines]