Recently, I had the chance to visit the Benu restaurant in San Francisco. Famed for its innovative Asian fusion cuisine, the restaurant offers a one-of-a-kind dining experience with dynamic recipes, exotic tastes, and alluring flavors. It really opened my eyes on fusion cuisine and on culinary innovation!
Below are my observations and reviews on some of the most famed dishes of the restaurant:
(1) Thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
This is a beautiful play on porridge with pidan. The century egg made with a Quail egg is actually quite light and restrained while the characteristic earthy, funky flavors are still present. The potage, or French porridge with potato, is light and heavy at the same time, balancing the egg nicely. The key for this dish is to eat the two together, which results in a fantastic interplay of the two components, finishing off with a jolt of ginger.
The dish is a very interesting “time-sensitive” course, an interpretation of bossam (pork belly and kimchi) and siumai at the same time. It consists of bacon powder, cubed pork belly, and a singular oyster in a kimchi wrapper shaped like a siumai. Personally, I find the kimchi flavor a little too salty (or is it the bacon?) and thus somewhat overpowering. However, I like the flavor of the oyster.
These distinct dishes are presented simultaneously at the restaurant. Pieces of the fluke and daikon are marinated in a spicy and sweet sauce and placed in between two sesame leaves. The taste from the sesame leaf and fluke remind me of Japanese flavors, although it is slightly too saccharine. The crispy smelt is served with a mayonnaise-mustard sauce plated separately. The smelt is utterly savory and addicting, while the sauce provides a tangy finish to moderate the smelt.
This is an excellent combination of the creamy, ethereal ankimo with the trout roe. The brininess of the roe plays marvelously with the sweet, luscious sea flavors of the “faux gras”. Who needs foie gras if monkfish liver tastes so good?
Xiao long bao features lobster coral (eggs) and a lobster stock. The depth of flavor from the crustacean is beautifully exhibited, though the dish doesn’t taste much like its Shanghainese counterpart. (I guess that’s the point?…) The banyuls vinegar provides a fitting acidic counterpoint. Though I am not a fan of vinegar on xiao long bao, I am impressed by the exotic hearty feeling created by this combination.
The abalone is spot on, bathed in an umami-laden sauce and sits atop a nuanced chicken liver mousse. The combination of the richness from the liver with the characteristic abalone is a home run in textures and flavors. The fact that the abalone is grilled also enhances the dish with a smoky edge. The presentation in an abalone shell is quite impressive. Fantastic. My only concern is that the caramelized shallots on top may be overly saccharine.
Eel is roasted in its embers and served over a creamy, almost risotto-esque porridge, accompanied by a smoky buckwheat broth and a singular pine nut (not too sure what it is). The eel itself is pretty well cooked, with a firm but gelatinous mouth-feel. The broth is very deep and smoky, almost overwhelmingly so, and its intense aroma could be smelled while patrons eat the other components of the dish. The pine part of the dish doesn’t seem to fit in very well though, and the fact that it is presented separately doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, this is one the most popular dishes of the restaurant.
Pieces of frog leg are well cooked, served over finely chopped celtuce and mountain yam. Chives add a fresh zing and bite to the dish. The dish is also served with vinegar on the side, which when poured over, reminds me of traditional Cantonese seafood preparations. Not a standout dish, but the classic flavors work really well together.
The charred butter fish has a nice moistness and delicate texture to it, which is very appealing. It sits atop a cucumber puree of sorts, which adds a creamy yet fresh dimension, especially when mixed with the sesame. The charred scallion adds some astringency to the bite.
The bun itself is quite ordinary. What makes the dish special is the earthy and rich black truffle butter. The black truffle flavor is uniquely pronounced and made for a fantastic few bites in which one customer said he licked the plate clean. I guess I’ll do the same thing!
The extraordinary dishes I saw at the restaurant demonstrated the charm and beauty of fusion food—when East meets West, when the sense of taste sparks imagination, and when the best of distinct cultures inspire creativity, the world of culinary innovation is boundless!