In the modern English speaking metropolises, about 80% of the population would know how to hold a chopstick, every other baby born is of mixed heritage (usually involving an Asian wife and Caucasian husband, but there are other mixes too), and one in every five person speaks a language that involves the words “qi”, “zen”, “kimchi” and “green tea”. More and more people encounter difficulty explaining where they come from and often end up with a longwinded answer that spans several different continents. The world as we know it is getting smaller.
The interesting thing is, while Eurasian babies might be seen as “exotic” in the past, they are now being treated as just any other ordinary person around us. Chinese food is no longer relegated to the culinary realm of cheap takeouts, but something that can be an integral part of people’s lives.
There is no better place to experience this phenomenon than at Benu. Ex-chef de cuisine at French Laundry and James Beard Award winner Corey Lee opened Benu last year in SOMA San Francisco as a place to showcase “what he likes to cook”. Corey prefers not to label it any specific kind of cuisine. There are no boundaries, and hence imagination runs wild. He named it “Benu” after the Egyptian mythical bird that is the correspondence to the phoenix, a bird born out of fire, as a symbol of rebirth for his team into a new and unchartered territory. The name also bears little reference for most to any specific culture, which is what Corey is trying to achieve here – a cuisine that bears no reference to any - a oneness that is at once all encompassing yet dependant on none.
The food we had here at Benu showcased exactly that. Abalone and sea cucumber appear alongside foie gras steamed in sake, while wood ear mushrooms and black beans add an edge to your usual pork ribs and duck confit. There's even oysters wrapped in a kimchi infused jelly skin that reminded me very much of a grown up version of Fruit Rollups.
At a mere 28, Corey Lee is damn impressive.
If food were all that mattered, this would have been my favourite restaurant in the world. Unfortunately I’m also the person whose taste buds are closely associated with other forms of sensory receptors, so mood, temperature, visual and audio accompaniments all add on to or subtract from my experience. Benu misses that perfect ranking due to the stiffness of its setting, adopted through what was perhaps a failed attempt at a minimalist design. Hits from the 70s blasting through the speaker heralded an effort to liven things up, yet only called attention to the otherwise hushed, worshipful air of the place. However, to be honest, this only caused my heart to dip a little when I first stepped in. Impeccable service coupled with my first two amuse bouches and I was already walking on clouds.
So, please ignore what I just said. Benu is worth shutting those alternative receptors off, if just for one day.
BENU is at 22 Hawthorne Street San Francisco CA 94105. For reservations call +1 415. 685-4860