Lee’s Laundry: At his beautiful new Benu, Thomas Keller protégé Corey Lee hasn’t quite lost the starch.

Benu: 22 Hawthorne St. (Between Howard and Folsom Sts.), S.F., 415-685-4860. Dinner only, reservations recommeded, valet parking. $$$$ three-and-a-half stars

Princely pedigrees inspire the highest expectations. But no one has to tell that to Corey Lee. After nine years under the tutelage of Thomas Keller, at Per Se in Manhattan and, more recently, as chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, Lee has stepped into the spotlight in San Francisco to helm his first solo project: Benu, a restaurant that has garnered no more notice than a striptease by Brad Pitt at a bachelorette soiree.

The restaurant takes its name from the Egyptian word for phoenix, and it rises from the ashes of what used to be Two and before that Hawthorne Lane. During the run-up to its launch, faced with an avalanche of media attention, Lee took pains to point out that Benu wasn’t meant to be a rebirth of the Laundry. It was fine dining, yes, but in a more relaxed, urban context. Lee wanted to treat diners to impeccable technique without the rigid rituals, at an unbuttoned restaurant where, as he said, “people might just drop by on a Tuesday night.” In the most important respect, Benu lives up to that advance billing. The food is flawless. Yet little about the restaurant feels particularly laid-back. For all Lee’s best intentions, Benu is buttoned up.

The first thing you see there is the kitchen, through broad street-front windows. It’s a striking sight, as clean and orderly as an operating room. You enter through a serene courtyard, which gives way to a sunken dining room. This space, too, is tranquil, and, aside from a small skylight, windowless. The entire room, right down to the tabletops (they’re black, uncovered, true blank slates), seems geared not to distract. Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated, and direct your attention to what’s on your plate.

There are two menu options, à la carte and a $160 prix fixe, with some overlap between the two. Recently, a palate brightener called a lonsdale—a gel-like pouch filled with green-apple juice and set in a bath of apple, gin, lemon, and basil—was served to à la carte diners as an amuse bouche, only to reappear on the prix fixe menu, accompanied by a preserved quail egg nested on a spoonful of ginger cream, with strands of scallion sprouting from it like head feathers. You started with the egg, silken-centered, ginger-spiked, then let the lonsdale chase it, as refreshing as spring rain.

In the kitchen, Lee is a polyglot, Asian accents inflecting a French vernacular. A torchon of monkfish liver provides a stage for a tiny dice of persimmon. It’s ringed by baby turnips, dabs of mustard, and buttery brioche. Spanish mackerel is stripped of its skin, then supplied a new one of pain de mie and sautéed. The crisp breadcrumb exterior presents a Gallic front. But the pickled ramps the fish is paired with are a nod to Lee’s Korean heritage. Mackerel and vinegary vegetables were the flavors of his youth.

A table at Benu is the kind you book with forethought, and the cooking is the kind that drives food bloggers into hyperprose. Not that you hear much gushing in the dining room. Benu is a hushed place, cloaked in seriousness that the chef tries to dispel by piping in rock and roll, albeit at apologetic Muzak decibels. Lee wants you to unwind, but it doesn’t quite work. There’s no escaping the weighty sense of purpose. The mood is as carefree as Meg Whitman at a pot club.

The real fun at Benu lies with the food, and there the pleasures abound, especially in the prix fixe dinner, which provides a fuller sense of Lee’s skill as well as his sense of whimsy. Sea urchin sits on a soft shell of almond tofu, crowned by caviar, enrobed in a kyoho-grape foam. A “cigar” of eel, wrapped in brik (think phyllo with an even more fragile disposition) and then encased in paper, rests in a shallow dish, mimicking a fine stogie on an ashtray. You tap it out, as it were, in a dollop of lime salt–seasoned crème fraîche.

“shark’s fin” soup, dungeness crab, cabbage, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard

The mock ashtray was custom-made, as was all the china, including the terrine for the stellar “shark fin” soup. The large bowl is lined with black-truffle custard, ornamented with crab meat, cabbage, and faux shark fin, a molecular concoction of hydrocolloids that replicates the fin’s coveted texture. A server floods the bowl with a broth made from Jinhua ham and dried shellfish. The custard breaks, then rises, like silt from a seafloor. The brilliant flavors mingle.

Lastly, chocolates are presented for the table. (above) lemon creme brulee, toasted sesame chocolate, walnut chocolate, and simple chocolate truffle

A dozen courses come and go, the pacing brisk, the service sharp and ninja-stealthy. The advance-order poularde? It’s split into two courses, a butter-textured breast with an artichoke glaze, then a leg with pork belly, wood-ear mushrooms, and fermented pepper sauce. Dessert brings chestnut custard with plump cranberries, mace ice cream, and a sugared puff pastry known as arlette, an interplay of tartness and just-so sweetness arranged in dots and discs and swirls, an edible Miró. The prix fixe dinner concludes with a tour of the kitchen. It’s brightly lit, hushed, systematized. Cooking so precise never arises from disorder. Lee greets you, smiling, as chilled out as a beach bum in a surf shop. Leaving through the dining room, you pass a serious crowd. Bankers spending post-TARP profits. Couples freighted with the weight of a special occasion. You think of the chef. No one in his restaurant looks nearly as relaxed.

Benu: 22 Hawthorne St. (Between Howard and Folsom Sts.), S.F., 415-685-4860. Dinner only, reservations recommeded, valet parking. $$$$ three-and-a-half stars

{Read Full Article: San Francisco Magazine}

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2 Responses to Lee’s Laundry: At his beautiful new Benu, Thomas Keller protégé Corey Lee hasn’t quite lost the starch.

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  2. Fizer says:

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