Benu had trouble when it first opened. Corey Lee had been the chef at the French Laundry for so long that, when he announced the opening of his own restaurant, the expectations were sky-high.
The problem was that at first, Benu like any other restaurant, needed time to find its way and get things going. There were a few issues, and people criticised Lee’s cooking for being too clinical, cold and whatever else you can say. However, even back then, no one denied the potential in this place. There were sparks of brilliance (that Bresse chicken en vessie), and in general things seemed to look rather promising.
For those who come back a year later, things have radically changed. In terms of the dining experience, things are now a bit more relaxed and the service is spot on: Professional, passionate and knowledgeable. If someone remembers your name for a year, when a booking hasn’t even been made under that name, it is generally a good sign.
The cooking, and this was the issue a year ago, has become much more clear, exciting and quite simply enjoyable. Amongst the many dishes one can eat here, a few stand out nonetheless, as they show what Lee’s style has evolved like. This style is characterised by a notable Asian influence (he is Asian after all), beautiful dishes, and unusual ingredients on the plate. This combination of Asian ingredients with cutting edge technique creates something that would fit the label of techno-emotional cuisine quite well. However, as that term has been used by Ferran Adria to describe his cooking, it would be misleading to use it here. Nonetheless, there seems to be more emotion than just technique in Lee’s food at Benu these days. And that is a very good sign.
One example is a sea cucumber stuffed with pork belly, shrimp and aubergine. Here, the sea cucumber, which is relatively neutral in taste, is made a bit more interesting with the help of the filling. What is fascinating in this, is the sauce, strongly reminiscent of the kind of sauces you’d find in China with this kind of seafood. But at the same time, Lee plays with the flavours and textures of the sea cucumber: You have the gelatinous and bouncy sea cucumber and the soft, creamy and flavour-intensive filling. Generally this dish is atypical: Not only because of the sea cucumber, but also because of the fact that there is hardly a crunchy element in this. As most of what we are served in restaurants has at least a bit of a crunch somewhere, this is interesting and quite refreshing.
Another fantastic dish is Lee’s foie gras. He was famous for the liver he served at the French Laundry, and this is quite spectacular indeed. The texture here is what is really striking. No vein is left in this foie gras, no imperfection is to be found in it. It is a perfectly smooth piece that is steamed, giving it a unqiue suppleness. If someone can make something as omnipresent as foie gras interesting, it is a pretty good sign.
His salty dishes are already most promising, but the desserts manage to hold that high level. They are clever, light and intense in flavours. What they have to them is that lightness and refreshing element that characterises the food here in general. The Asian theme continues right throughout the meal, culminating in a lychee, red bean and matcha dessert. What sounds not all too special, turns out to be a beautiful composition that gives you a more pronounced flavour of those elements than you’d normally get in your “average” Asian restaurant.
Whilst Benu is already a very good restaurant, the evolution over the past year leaves you excited as to what we can expect in the future. Judging from the youth of this restaurant and Corey Lee’s enormous talent, we should be getting ever closer to the restaurant people expected to find in Benu. The only question is, where will he stop?