Poularde cuite en vessie at benu - San Francisco, CA

Dinner - Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Hi, this is Corey Lee, chef at benu," said the youthful voice on the other end of the phone. It was noon on the day of our scheduled meal, and he was calling to hash out the details of our dinner - a tasting menu incorporating the poularde cuite en vessie, which must be ordered at least two days in advance.

I had been impressed by Corey Lee's food during his time as chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, so when benu opened its doors, I knew that we had to visit. At his former position, he faithfully and purposefully executed Thomas Keller's vision - here, it would be solely his. I was curious to know how he would incorporate his Korean heritage into this new restaurant. In particular, would there be meaning to the liberal use of Asian ingredients?

I left the details of the menu to the chef, giving him free reign. Fast-forward 7 hours, and we were standing outside the restaurant, admiring benu's kitchen before dinner. Walking into the reception area, we noticed our dinner companion (the erudite Gary Fine of Veal Cheeks) already seated, and we promptly joined him. Gary is as engaging and convivial a dining partner as one could ever hope for, and four hours flew by like the blink of an eye.

Thousand-year-old quail egg, ginger, potage
A traditional flavour combination, reworked with a European twist - this dish would prove to be the first of many that reflected Corey Lee's background at The French Laundry. The almond potage had a nice, silky mouthfeel and the ginger meringue was pleasantly spicy with the cured egg. A good, if rather safe, start.

Caviar, bone marrow, lobster
Homemade tofu
Abalone, chrysanthemum, moss
Fantastic - one of the best dishes of the evening. The silken tofu was absolutely outstanding, and the chrysanthemum broth was light-bodied but assertive in flavour. I enjoyed the texture of the abalone slices, which were very nicely cooked.

Oyster, cabbage, pork belly, fermented pepper
The braised pork belly was wrapped in cabbage, and a single oyster was mounted atop it. This was then topped with a veil of gojuchang gelée. Here again, a reinterpretation of familiar flavour combinations. I loved the taste and texture of the gojuchang veil, but thought that there was too much protein (delicious as it was) for the poor little cabbage leaf.

Xiao long bao - (1) foie gras, (2) shrimp & black truffle
Sadly, quite a disappointment. The fillings were fine - in fact, I likened the shrimp & black truffle to an Asian version of Trio/Alinea's "Black Truffle Explosion". However, none of us could get over the texture of the dumpling skins - they were very thick and gummy, overshadowing the insides.

Unagi, feuille de brick, crème fraîche, lime
Monkfish liver torchon
Turnip, cucumber, salted plum, brioche
One of the smoothest and most delicious torchons I've ever tasted - this was the second high point of the meal. It was served with a beautiful mini-slice of warm, toasted brioche (not pictured). I absolutely loved how the various accoutrements played with the creamy, musky monkfish liver. In particular, the bitter notes from the radish and the bright cucumber were excellent foils for the unctuous torchon. To me, a dish that demonstrated the kitchen's potential when everything clicks.

Wild sturgeon, black trumpets, cauliflower, ginger
White sausage, black bread, XO sauce
You don't miss something until it's gone - that about sums up how I felt about the XO sauce. While benu's house-made sauce tasted great, I just felt like something was lacking because it was strained to a perfectly smooth consistency. I wanted bits in my sauce! That aside, the broccoli florets were a very nice touch, bringing in some vegetal notes that paired well with the savory components. The crispy squid ink wafer was also a welcome contrast to the spongy sausage.

"Shark's fin soup"
Dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard
Everyone at the table agreed that this dish was a bit of a misnomer - the soup itself was terrific, it just wasn't anything close to shark's fin soup. Calling it such was a disservice not only to the original, but to the bowl in front of us. Rather, this was a splendid black truffle soup - the consomme was rich and fulfilling, and the custard brought out the umami flavours. The crab was meaty and perfectly cooked, but I struggled with the overly chewy texture of the faux shark's fin.

Poularde cuite en vessie
Celery, black trumpets, green almonds, date
As the post title would suggest, this was the highlight of the meal - one of, if not the best piece of breast meat I've ever eaten. It was covered with a celery glaze and served with various celery preparations on the side. I applaud the kitchen's bravery in putting out such an unabashedly celery-flavoured dish, but I felt there was just a bit too much of it for me. The chicken jus was beautifully savory, an elevated Thanksgiving gravy. We were also lucky to catch green almonds in season, and their subtle tang and fleshiness were nice accompaniments.

Shrimp roe, English peas, spring onion
Another beautifully cooked piece of the poularde. The peas and spring onion bulb were also perfectly prepared. However, the shrimp roe sauce was overly salty, diminishing my enthusiasm for the dish. Visually, I enjoyed the cues from the dichotomous plating of the food - whereas the breast was served on a completely white canvas, the dark meat was presented on a deep black background.

Milk-fed baby lamb
Spring vegetables, parmesan bouillon
For some reason, the thing that strikes me most as I recall this dish is how beautiful the asparagus was - it was painfully delicious, and I could've eaten a basket of them in the intensely savory broth. The lamb itself was faultless, served as a loin stuffed with lamb mousse, and some house-made lamb fennel sausage as garnish. A single borage flower added a nice colour element, and it's fresh taste served as a micro-palate cleanser.

Pear-braised beef
Lily bulb, celery, shiitakes
Fennel sorbet, rhubarb, sesame
The strongly-flavoured sorbet was amazing, together with the fluffy white sesame meringue and crunchy black sesame crystals. I thought the rhubarb paste was overly saccharine and gooey in consistency.

Banana, burnt acorn, ginger
Three ingredients prepared in multiple ways. The banana ice cream was fantastic - this kitchen apparently knows its way around frozen products. Ginger was present in the form of two delicious foam dots and a rather unappetizing gelée (left foreground). The burnt acorn took form as a praline (left background), a custard (cylinder on right), and a bread pudding with the banana (under the ice cream). A wonderful dessert with obviously successful combinations, but somewhat incongruous with the season - who thinks of burnt acorn in the Spring?

White chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate
Mignardises - La Forêt chocolates
After dinner, we toured the kitchen as they were breaking down for the evening and chatted with Corey. I asked him why he decided to offer the poularde, a classic Fernand Point creation, at benu. To paraphrase, his response was that he felt like chefs feel so much pressure to innovate, they rarely get the breathing room to look backwards in time. Thus, the poularde was his way of honouring the old techniques, and sharing this wonder with modern diners.

I enjoyed my meal. The kitchen is struggling a bit with textures and consistency of execution, but I expect these to be fixed in time. The front-of-house staff were very friendly, but not functioning at a top-tier level yet - again, these can be addressed with sufficient training. What concerns me more is the feeling that Corey Lee is still striving to find a clear vision for his cuisine. I didn't get a good sense of how he wants to really distinguish his application of Asian ingredients - the shadow of The French Laundry still looms large. If the chef can forge his own path (and it is quite possible that all he needs is more time to develop this), perhaps benu will be duly recognized as a true beacon of American gastronomy.

22 Hawthorne St.
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: (415) 685-4860