benu

Dinner – Friday, August 9, 2019

Corey Lee has come a long way in the time since our first visit to benu. In 2011, the restaurant was relatively new and the team had everything to prove. Fast-forward 8 years, and all the accolades have come in – 3 Michelin stars, 4 stars from the Chronicle, and listings on the OAD and World’s 50 Best lists. The restaurant family has also expanded to include two siblings – we’re fans of both In Situ and Monsieur Benjamin. We were long overdue for a return, but at a base price of $310/person, we hesitated. However, the significant realignment of the menu towards more Korean flavours over the last few years finally pulled us in.

1000-year old quail egg, ginger potage, cabbage jus

Oyster, pork belly, kimchi
We had a much less sophisticated version of this dish many years back. Here, there was an unexpected temperature contrast of hot and cold in this bite that worked really well. The “glass” of kimchi was also remarkably pleasant. Nice work.

Marinated mussel, glass noodles, vegetables
Beautiful presentation, and a mouthful of different textures. Excellent.

Squid, perilla, soondae

Fried jellyfish-wrapped prawn

Acorn pancake, Iberico ham, black truffle

Abalone-stuffed charcoal-grilled chicken wing

“Shark’s fin”, Dungeness crab, steamed custard

Bread and butter with ginseng-infused honey

Lobster coral xiao long bao, homemade soy sauce and vinegar
I’ve heard that they keep this on the menu because it’s a demonstration of the skill required to form the pleats in the dumpling. Compare this to the xiao long bao from our first visit and you’ll see a world of difference – these were properly made and far superior. This time, we were more than happy to eat them.

Green onion short grain rice
Rock seaweed, Hokkaido uni, spicy caviar

We were instructed to create bites by spooning rice and uni (which was sauced with fermented crab) into the seaweed – this was fantastic. Midway through the course, the caviar arrived, nestled over a fudgy egg yolk. This was to be eaten with the remainder of the rice – also delicious. My favourite course of the evening.

Summer chrysanthemum tofu soup, baby corn, winter melon
Impressive knifework on the tofu “flower”. The soup was light and refreshing – a great follow-up to the richness of the previous course.

Barbecued quail, XO condiment, pickled fennel
Steamed black truffle bun, black truffle cream

The quail was just amazingly meaty and tender – some of the best we’ve ever had. The lacquered skin was equally impressive – on the whole, it was just a perfectly cooked protein. It paired very well with the XO sauce and fennel.  The truffle cream was delicious by itself and with the steamed bun, but I didn’t see any synergy with the bird.

Charcoal-grilled veal short rib and banchan
The meat arrived with an assortment of side dishes. These were (clockwise from top-left): (1) tomato meju (similar to miso); (2) an assortment of leaves and lettuces; (3) watermelon radish and pear kimchi; (4) kohlrabi kkadugi; (5) a dressed salad of sesame, perilla and pine nuts. All were excellent, and the course was a nice way to finish off the savory portion of the dinner.

Omija, olive oil
I believe this was my first encounter with omija, also known as the five-flavour berry. It is the fruit of the magnolia tree, and is supposed to exhibit elements of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and pungent. The acidity was most prominent here, making it a great palate cleanser before dessert.

Milk pudding
Salt, smoked caramel, peat

Gingko cookies
Mochi, white chocolate, preserved persimmon

Malted rice tea, pine nuts
Toasted mint crisp

Our meal tonight demonstrated that benu has grown into a worthy reflection of Corey’s vision. The precision has always been a trademark of his cooking, but now comes the spirit. The funny thing is, while we both appreciated the meal, we both agreed that it wasn’t somewhere we’d return to immediately – I think we’re good for a few more years.

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