Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Corey Lee's brilliance came to me with a shatter.
The first of 19 courses at his restaurant, Benu, was designed to settle diners into the meal. A quail egg, moored by a dollop of preserved ginger, had been lightly smoked in tea and brown sugar and set in a moat of smooth cabbage and onion soup scented with bacon. Rousong—pork braised and then dried, also known aptly as "meat floss"—was scattered over the egg to give the dish a bit of chew. Bright, rich, soothing, varied: This warm-up nudged the taste buds to attention.
Then the true kindling of the senses began. An ornate black vessel arrived containing one elaborate bite. It resembled siu mai, the open-faced dim sum dumpling usually filled with pork and shrimp. This version was stuffed with pork belly, diced kimchi, and a tiny oyster on top. The wrapper looked cast in amber—a technique from the modernist playbook in which kimchi broth was set with hydrocolloids to give it body and then dried until pliant. By the time it reached the table it was akin to edible glass. In one bite the wrapper crackled into tingly shards before dissolving, leaving the soft burn of kimchi and the proteins' crisscross of earth-sea flavors. My tablemate and I looked at each other wide-eyed and laughed. What would be next?