Benu

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Benu has been the most anticipated restaurant opening in recent memory. Without a question. I was pretty thrilled to get one of the first seats on its second night. Unfortunately, it was a 9:00 seating so I knew it was going to be a late night considering I was going in for the full tasting menu. Walking up to the restaurant, there is an array of light beaming from the kitchen as large panels of glass separate the kitchen staff from the street-side gawkers. An austere and elegant courtyard welcomes the visitor, with the interior of the restaurant clean and similarly somber in its muted, beige and cream tones. For future bloggers, be warned that the ambient lighting late in the evening is not conducive to great natural photography so I apologize for the darkness of the images.

Sesame Lavash – served in a specially carved box which separated out the dark, crispy thin rectangles. Black sesame and salt was the predominant flavor and it would be a precursor to the evening that sesame was one of the most-used Asian ingredients.

2008 Alzinger Grüner Veltliner – Showing a tremendous amount of mineral and spicy qualities, I enjoyed this wine tremendously, but found it a bit too strong with too many citrus components for the following two dishes.

Thousand-year-old quail egg, black truffle, ginger, scallion – Our first taste and somewhat disappointing. I could not detect any black truffle and the extremely texture of the egg masked its flavors. Moreso than any ginger or scallion, it was the flavor of citrus oil with predominated.

Tomato, cucumber, dashi, summer blossoms – Perfectly spherical tomatoes with an explosive Molecular “tomato” that displayed a bright squirt of tomato essence. Very clean flavors with the dashi providing that Asian influence of austerity and balance. A nice, light start without overpowering the palate right off the bite.

2006 Juliusspital Wurzburg, Escherndorfer Silvaner Trocken – in a Matteus-shaped, this delightful wine produced a faint nose of clean, cut grass and fresh apricot. Bright and acidic on the entry, layers and complexity developed in the mouth. This was a fabulous wine which worked considerably better with the next two courses than the previous pairing.

Mountain yam, bottarga, lime, radish, perilla – The mountain yam crunched like fresh jicama in the mouth and yet blossomed to produce a gooey, gelatinous texture. This was an experiment in the lovely juxtaposition of textures and flavors as the crisp wine cut through the film in the mouth produced by the yam. The bottarga was sliced wafer thin and added a salt component with the perilla a hint of mint and the radish a touch of spice. All the flavors were reserved and slightly muted, were very well conceived and executed.

Caramelized anchovy gelée, peanuts, lily bulbs, chili, basil – In this dish we are working into stronger flavors, expanding the tasting menu with more contrast, both in textures and components. While both the gelée and the peanuts provided salt, the difference in smooth and hard crunch was balanced out with the bright lily bulbs, chili and basil. I especially liked the wine pairing with this course as well.

2007 Catatt Sancerre – I was surprised to experience so much cat piss in the aroma. Something I usually get from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc moreso than a French Sancerre. This was a wine with huge amounts of lemon rind and acidity that ultimately was very successful with the first of its pairings and less so with the second.

Veal sweetbread grenobloise, cauliflower, parsley, lemon, caper – Very tender morsels of sweetbread were fried to give a rich, crunchy exterior. The citrus component in the wine played well with the moderately-utilized lemon in the grenobloise. I was especially pleased with the amount of capers but believe my dining companion found them too overpowering.

Haiga rice porridge, abalone, lemon, sesame – In this regard, this was the first truly unsuccessful dish of the evening. The congee was so overwhelmed with candied lemon as to be a distraction. That citrus was compounded with the Sancerre and reflected in the wine with monumental imbalance. I found the abalone, cut into perfect squares, to be shockingly tough and chewy. The first dish to go completely unfinished.

Hitachino Nest, Japanese White Ale

Eel, feuille de brick, avocado, crème fraîche – Hard to detect in the photograph, the four-inch fried feuille de brick was wrapped in a monogrammed slip of paper and nestled in a specially designed platter, with a groove for the savory cigar and a small vessel for its dipping sauce. The crème fraîche was studded with fleur de sel and while the brick-wrapped eel was fun for the crunch factor, again these were muted flavors and no avocado tastes could be detected whatsoever. The Japanese white ale was a great companion beverage, giving the “bar food” mentality a heightened sense of fun with fried bits and beer elevated to haute cuisine. Surprisingly oily, but still fun.

2007 Prinz Riesling Spatlese Jungler – Lovely aromas of green apple, with a sweet entry. I can see why the sommelier chose to pair with the fake foie gras.

Monkfish liver torchon, apple relish, turnip, ramps, sorrel, mustard, brioche – Creamy and rich, the ankimo itself was perfectly prepared, complete with a thin gelée. Regrettably, the accompaniments were less than successful with brioche that was too thick and sweet, overpowering the delicate flavors in the liver and the mustard sauce, so creamy and potentially enticing, becoming strident next to the wine and completely diminishing the flavors of the liver. The apple relish showed brunoise sophistication, but failed to complement either the mustard or muted ankimo tastes.

At this point in the evening, my companion and I conferred that thus far, we were extremely underwhelmed with the evening. There was perfection in the execution, unquestionably. We could see the brilliance and vibrancy of the Asian flavors and the progression that the tasting was taking us, but we had yet to have any singular “wow” dish, although several of the wines were certainly impressing us. Precision dominated yet I could detect no soul or feeling. There was no “chi” or movement of emotion being experienced from the consumption of the food. I wanted and was hoping for transcendence and there was none to be found. But onward…

1977 Blandings Madeira – An amazingly delightful Madeira showing both rich caramel notes with balanced acidity and depth.

“Shark’s Fin Soup,” Dungeness crab, cabbage, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard – Finally, a “wow” experience. Coming from the subtle muted flavors, this was an explosion of flavor. The soup consommé was a mixture of earthy mushrooms, crab broth, and the faintness expression of the ham. We were delving into depths of umami and complexity, expanded with the elegance of the truffle custard. Truly an inspirational dish and, ultimately, the highlight of the evening.

2002 Kiuchi Dainjon Vintage Sake – Intense flavors in this heavy-bodied, full and rich sake.

Sea urchin, potato purée, corn, celery – After the strong and rich flavors of the soup, I was frankly shocked at the mediocrity of the sea urchin. Expecting the progression of the tasting profiles to continue, we were thrown back into muted flavors but worse than that, textures that were all too similar to define exactly what we were consuming. My dining companion, in taking a large taste, immediately asked, “Where is the sea urchin?” I could detect it, but because it was puréed out as smoothly as the potato and corn purées, the three melded together in a malange of blandness. The only differing texture component were crunchy bits nestled under the pillow of puff; small brunoise of what I assume was either celery and/or corn. It was honestly hard to tell. Neither of us finished it and we both left almost half in the dish.

2007 Franck Balthazar Cornas Syrah – Here again we had one of those amazing moments of experiencing a phenomenal aspect of the evening; a wine with such a gloriously rich and complex aroma that I would have been happing snifting and tasting this wine for some time. Levels of mixed peppercorns, dark woodsy fruits, and distinct rich herbs in the nose, a surprising bit of tannins in the mouth, this was a wine I will seek out for personal consumption.

Pork belly, sautéed lettuce, onion, spiced sugar, cherry and black olive sauce – An interesting offering of a pork belly which was tender and rich but again, an odd confluence of tastes which were offered that I didn’t understand. On the edge of the plate was a sprinkling of spiced sugar and yet caramelized sugars produced from the grilling of the meat and the sweetness of the balanced and grilled onions, and the sugars from the cherry and black olive sauce should have been sufficient. Yet when drawn together, the only flavor which came to mind was that of Hoisin sauce so I have to confer that this dish was an attempt at deconstructed Hoisin, but why? It was all so sweet as to be distracting. The flavors of the pork and lettuce alone were quite sufficient, even with just a touch of the cherry/olive component, but brought all together in one taste was too cloying and saccharine. The pork was so full of flavor all on its own, demonstration superlative execution and it was the amazing wine which successfully cut through all the sugars in the dish, making it enjoyable.

2005 Château Potensac Medoc – Contrasting to the tannic Syrah we just finished, this 40% merlot, 60% cabernet blend was its antithesis, with a rich, smooth level wine

Beef rib cap, Bluefoot mushrooms, mizuna, pine needle honey – Hidden under the mizuna and not detected in the photograph was a small triangle of sausage to accompany the sous vide beef slice. The meat was extremely tender and rich, heightened with the wine pairing. The sausage was not very tender, but I appreciate the earthiness of the mushrooms and darker flavors in the sausage in contrasting with the rare beef.

2005 Jo Pithon Late Harvest Chenin Blanc - A deep yellow colour, it has a distinctive nose that is deep and sweet. The palate is concentrated, dense and complex with notes of dried apricot and layered spice.

Melon, sake, mint – Not a great pairing with the wine, we were much happier with this dish on its own as a palate cleanser. With micro leaves of mint placed atop the spheres of assorted melon, there was an infusion of mint as well in the broth that heightened the excellence of the dish.

Strawberry sorbet, buckwheat shortbread, vanilla – Again, we somewhat marveled at the choice of a wine pairing. Here again we have this bright fruit composition with the buckwheat shortbread crumbled around the sorbet. There were also macerated fresh wild strawberries of exceptional quality but it was an ingredient-driven dish moreso than one of execution and development of flavors. Texturally, I was ready for something with more tooth to it; an actual tuille cookie to bite into or a morsel of cake. We felt as though we just had two relatively simple fruit offerings with neither depth not

Chocolates – four chocolates were served in a specially carved box presentation which was artistically very interesting for me. The chocolates were a crème catalan with white chocolate, milk chocolate walnut, dark Valhrona chocolate, and a sesame nougatine. We shared these with a tea service and while they were very good quality teas, I would have appreciated the ability to pour my tea into another service pot or a strainer to remove the leaves; once a single cup was poured, the pot continued to brew, leaving me with a remainder that was too bitter and over-brewed.

The cost of the tasting menu was $160 with $110 wine pairing. To their credit, we asked to split the pairing as neither of us wanted to drink that much alcohol, but I believe we were given larger pours than a single pairing. The service was exemplary with one minor mis-step of having our still water replaced with sparkling later in the evening. I’m not a fan of sparkling as it tastes salty to me. We were the last ones out at 1:00 a.m., having sat down a few minutes before 9:00.

The meal was memorable for its execution and precision. I can understand and appreciate the development of Asian flavors which were being offered, however I feel there was such a preponderance of style over substance to have become a distraction. I wanted an epiphany and that “religious experience” which I have occasionally come to hope for. It is far too rare and makes me come to believe that I am truly jaded when it comes to haute cuisine.
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