Food: East, West flavors meld impeccably at Benu

Benu, the heralded new restaurant from former French Laundry chef de cuisine Corey Lee, surprises anyone expecting a traditional, high-end dining experience. Lee has changed all the rules.

His restaurant takes up a small portion of the old Hawthorne Lane space. A windowed kitchen bristling with a dozen cooks is visible only from Hawthorne Street, not from two small, austere, windowless dining rooms.

Guests sit at wood banquettes and tables tucked beneath crisscrossed earthquake beams and wrapped ceiling ducts. There are no tablecloths, flowers or art. The one seemingly decorative object on the table, a polished oval of ebony tucked into a Frette napkin at each place, turns out to be a silverware rest. Service is equally restrained.

However, as you spend time at the table, you realize how comfortable you are. Strategically placed cushions soften the benches. Your table, positioned for privacy, feels like an island, and the acoustics allow for easy conversation.

Everything that actually lands at the table — food, ceramics, glassware — is refined and interesting. The waiters don’t intrude or bore with endless description, and sommelier Yoon Ha quickly solves drink dilemmas.

The rhythmic arrival of 13-plus courses of the tasting menu ($160) becomes a dance, with portions corresponding to appetite.

As in the early French Laundry days, diners leave the table excited and not overfed. Thoughtful functionality is the esthetic.

The artistic triumph here is the Asian-inflected prix fixe, an imaginative and disciplined exploration of the way Eastern and Western forms and ingredients can intersect.

Our menu began with a half of a 1,000-year-old quail egg resting in a tiny spoon, garnished with a filament of scallion and a shred of pickled ginger, Chinese ingredients always eaten together, but gently transposed: a quail egg instead of a duck egg, pickled ginger instead of fresh, a whisper of spring onion. This one prescient bite set the tone for the rest of the meal.

Four courses later, we dipped a cigar of shatteringly crisp, filo-like pastry filled with eel into a fluff of avocado and creme fraiche; then we crunched on caramelized anchovy, lily bulb and peanuts — a turn on a Japanese beer snack. We finished the course with a little square of warm mountain yam and dried shrimp cake.

Each mini-dish got its own dollhouse-sized ceramic bowl, pedestal or plate.

By the sixth course — a faux sharks’ fin soup of intense, meaty consomme, scented with threads of dungeness crab, cabbage and Jinhua ham, poured over a thin layer of black truffle custard — I was in love.

With all its variety, the tasting menu coheres — a finished, poetic, unified work.

Ordering from the a la carte menu, however, is tricky. I didn’t know how to make a meal out of it, though ample portions of sea urchin risotto topped with five big fingers of roe ($24), and a stunningly original sablefish gratin ($26), have entered my taste memory. Yet I wouldn’t want to have both of them in the same meal.

Lee has personalized the French Laundry form with his own wit, culinary references and consummate skill. Believe it or not, the $160 price tag would be a buy for either a kaiseki meal or a Michelin-style three-star extravaganza. The beauty of Benu is that it gives you both.

Patricia Unterman is the author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Benu

Location: 22 Hawthorne St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 685-4860

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Price range: $160 prix fixe; a la carte menu $12 to $32

Recommended dishes: Tasting menu; sea urchin risotto and sablefish gratin on regular menu

Credit cards: All

Reservations: Accepted 

→ Follow Patricia Unterman on Twitter: @SFExaminerFood!

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