The Wall Street Journal has pegged Benu as the next big restaurant, Momofuku extraordinaire David Chang says it is the best restaurant in the US, Michelin recently awarded it two stars for 2012, and chef/owner Corey Lee has received years of accolades from his tenure at The French Laundry.
So, did it live up to all of the hype? Sort of.
Without hesitation, my friends and I go for the 19-course tasting menu to get a ”why have one when you can have it all” version of the haute Asian cuisine.
Food presentation: Stellar. The visuals are exquisite, even down to the dishware. Each eating receptacle is carefully paired with the food. Apparently, Lee actually designed the china to go along with the menu items. I have never seen so much grace and elegance put into food presentation.
Ambiance: I sort of expect more. Benu is clearly going for the Zen theme, but ends up feeling a bit flat to me. Gray carpets. white walls and a well-equipped staff lurking around each corner made me feel like I am in a Nordstrom during a slow February day and I find myself half expecting to encounter a shoe sale. We are seated in a corner side room, adjacent to the main dining area so that could have made a difference. With a youthful chef/owner at the helm, I expect a more chic vibe.
The food: Strong creative concepts. I mean, who else is tackling molecular gastronomy with an Asian flair? It is not every day you encounter a thousand-year old quail egg with a lily bulb and ginger or eel feuille de brick with creme fraiche and lime. Out of the 19 courses, I deduce: 8 are out-of-this-world delicious; 9 taste pretty darn good and 2 do not come together for me. I am digging the contrast in textures, but not all of the flavor combinations are spot-on.
Regardless of what Lee is doing in the kitchen, he has got a nighthawk view of spotting any plate that comes back with even a semblance of food left on it. The wait staff knows Lee will instantly walk over to them and ask why the plates aren’t licked clean.
Highlight of the night? Getting a tour of the kitchen, watching the staff at work, and meeting the modest, reserved and earnest Corey Lee. Escorted around by the hot bouncer with an Australian-sounding accent, he monitors our every move.
In awe, I comment to Lee who is in his early 30′s - You look so youthful, yet you run this entire operation. He responds with an easy laugh and in a self-deprecatingly manner states – “I don’t feel young.”
My prediction is the precocious Lee will surpass 3-Michelin starred veterans Juan Mari’s Arzak and Pedro Subijana’s Akelare before he reaches his 40′s, but until then, I am going to enjoy going along for the ride and watching Mr. Lee further refine and master his dishes.