As with early-20th-century Nobel Literature laureates, the distribution of three-Michelin-star restaurants reflects a certain bias, although it’s not as Gallo-centric as one might think. There are 26 each in France and Japan, but only one in mainland China. Of the 14 in the United States, two are in Chicago, six are in New York, and six are in the Bay Area, with three being in S.F. proper: Quince, Saison, and Corey Lee’s Benu.
Benu received its third star in 2015, and last summer, Lee unveiled In Situ, a dazzling concept restaurant on the ground floor of SFMOMA that culls recipes from dozens of A-list chefs worldwide. Some of them specify everything down to the serving utensils, while others gave only their blessing and an ingredient list, but the logistics of such an endeavor boggle the mind. Time will tell whether Michelin’s gastronauts will look kindly on something so unorthodox and which doesn’t reflect the tastes and training of a single chef, but In Situ has garnered a boatload of praise.
Meanwhile, Benu continues on, although the price of the tasting menu has risen considerably. (It went from $195 per person to $228 in early 2015, but it’s now $285 — sans beverage pairing and before the 20-percent service add-on. Oh, and that beverage pairing alone is $185.) That’s a steep barrier for people whose financial information wasn’t revealed in the Panama Papers, no doubt.
But it’s hard to argue that you don’t get what you pay for, especially when the first “course” — labeled, in one of the bigger understatements of all time, as “small delicacies” — is more like a parade of bounty, paired with a Domaine Ostertag Heisenberg Riesling from Alsace. There’s a savory custard that’s like a four-layer dip of endless refinement, and gooey-citrusy tuna marrow, presented like an alien ovum, and monkfish liver with salmon roe and crispy bits of corn for an accent. Pork belly with kimchi, meant to be eaten with the fingers in one bite, melts at a glacial pace in the mouth. Squid with Korean blood sausage, hot in both senses, looks vaguely larval, but it’s a maximally dense nugget of earthiness (and the Riesling held its ground).
A piece of soybean curd with lobster was veggie-heavy and disappointingly mild, but the thick abalone with abalone-liver toast — paired with a 1973 Blandy’s Madeira — felt like Lee cracking his knuckles in an are-we-ready-to-get-down-to-business sort of way. You’d better be, because the faux shark-fin soup (served in a vessel with a dorsal fin) that follows comes right up to the line of schmaltziness, then pulls back, eradicating all sweetness in the Madeira and referencing the custard that started everything off. By the time the bread and orange blossom honey arrives, 50 minutes have already gone by, and it’s time for the “second” course.
A 2015 Rudi Pichler Grüner Veltliner with an insanely peppery nose arrives, accompanied by a thousand-year egg that’s softer yet more defined than any jidori egg in spite of being older than Yoda and Ruth Bader Ginsburg combined. After that, there’s a Rodenbach Red Belgian Sour, produced in a single batch each year, to hold hands with foie gras xiaolongbao. As someone with a long history of scalding the roof of my mouth on Shanghai dumplings, I’m proud to say I let out just the right amount of steam for once, but the perforated plate the XLB came on probably deserves most of the credit. The Rodenbach is about as assertive as beer gets, and between it and the vinegary sauce, beverage director and master sommelier Yoon Ha is bravely strategizing that sour upon sour would cut the dumplings’ fatty richness. (Ha is also kind of a character.)
Uni came next. Unquestionably, it’s delicious on the merits, but not especially creative — especially with respect to the delicately fried frog legs that followed, tasting of scallops. Although winter is a dead zone for fresh produce, the bamboo shoot with spinach that rolled out nexts had the wet crunch of a water chestnut and the earthy sweetness of a virgin forest. My favorite dish at In Situ was a mushroom risotto dish called “The Forest,” which comes from Mirazur, sometimes regarded as the best restaurant in France. While the ingredients are nothing alike, there’s still a palpable through-line to the bamboo.
I was puzzled by the corn-heavy sauce that went with the barbecued quail, which was almost like a vegetable chili, but the bird itself was phenomenal, even more lightly done than the frog legs. Then came the only true flop: an overdone, dry strip of smoked rock cod that did nothing for me. (My Benu buddy, the publisher of this paper, was even more dismissive.)
However, what came straight after was one of the very greatest things I’ve ever eaten: a slab of pork belly braised in rosé, with a bao and a whipped truffle sauce. It was magnificent, like the world’s best bacon, and it was approximately that phase in the meal when my general contentedness boiled over into a frenzy. The rib steak, notwithstanding its various banchan-like pickled vegetables and Marmite-like sauce and sturdy Syrah pairing, couldn’t touch that pork belly. It was still foremost on my mind as I ate the delightful omija (or five-flavor berry) in olive oil and even the acorn-in-chocolate whose tannins had been reduced to a whisper, like something a Basque gourmand in San Sebastian might feed to a prize pig.
A dinner for two whose price tag comes with a comma in it is the very definition of elite, but however rarefied Benu might be, this tasting menu indicates just how high up the ladder a populist sensibility has climbed. It would be so easy for a destination restaurant in this echelon to seduce San Francisco’s new money with Vegas-style glitz, but Benu doesn’t do that.
Beneath the subtlety, there’s an eros to it all. “Benu,” I later learned, isn’t a word with Asian origins, but rather an Egyptian concept referring to renewal and longevity. By the most widely cited metric, Lee’s restaurant can’t climb any higher, but it definitely has not peaked.