San Francisco’s modern minimalist marvel

For diners new to Benu, it’s hard not to get excited when walking down the San Francisco alley that is home to chef Corey Lee’s signature restaurant. Anticipation builds as you pass by a large window showcasing a bustling kitchen filled with smartly dressed chefs and waitstaff.

Turn the corner and walk into a quiet Zen courtyard. Instantly it’s as if you’ve been transported to another world. Little brown packages of meju — dried soybeans used to make soy sauce and other condiments — hang from the ceiling, blowing slightly in the wind. Black earthenware crocks for fermentation (called onggi) sit covered in the yard. From there, it’s a whirlwind of fine dining at its most dazzling.

Your coat is taken before being whisked to a table adorned with a gold charger, spoon and set of chopsticks. A sommelier pours a splash of champagne, and the parade of courses begins. Each bite is mind-blowingly delicious, leaving you hungry for more.

Our Inspector's Highlights

  • A native of South Korea who moved to the United States as a young child, chef Lee is a disciple of Thomas Keller, whose kitchens he oversaw for nine years. At Benu, Lee’s technique and precision is apparent in everything from the placement of the water glass on the table to the perfectly lacquered skin of barbecued quail.
  • The meal is like a beautiful ballet, with dishes timed to perfection and waitstaff moving seamlessly through the restaurant in a choreographed dance. The effect is soothing and gives you the chance to relax and revel in the decadence of the dishes.
  • The Benu team keeps tabs on all patrons. If it’s your first time at the restaurant, you’ll be treated to more than 12 courses of Lee’s greatest hits — including mussels stuffed with glass noodles and fine vegetables, and chicken wing filled with abalone — while returning diners will enjoy new items that are just as delightful.
  • Unlike some restaurants that have a see-and-be-seen type of atmosphere, Benu is wonderfully private. With its sophisticated, exclusive and posh vibe, the venue feels more like an intimate dining room in a modern art museum.
  • Lee’s cuisine has a strong Asian influence, and he also focuses on sourcing high-quality ingredients. This is also reflected in his plating — each dish has a unique serving platter (many custom-made by a Korean artisan), from the linen napkin that wraps warm bread to the smooth black circular stone that showcases a ground-acorn quesadilla filled with Iberico ham and black truffle.

Things to Know

  • Be prepared to enjoy a feast — with almost 20 courses, you will not leave hungry. The meal begins with eight “small delicacies” that all arrive before the actual meal begins.
  • San Francisco is a laid-back city, and this is reflected in the lack of dress code at Benu. If you love to dress up, throw on a gown, but if you feel more comfortable dining in tennis shoes and jeans, you won’t be turned away.
  • The dining room has a stark ambiance and almost library-like quietness. If you chose the later seating on a weeknight, say Wednesday at 8 p.m., you may get the restaurant all to yourself.

The Food

  • There is incredible complexity to Lee’s cuisine, and he has the uncanny ability to mimic flavors. Squid tastes like sausage, and Dungeness crab and steamed custard are transformed into “shark fin” soup that tastes wildly like the original.
  • It’s an interactive meal that involves a variety of utensils. Waitstaff instructs you to use chopsticks, spoons or fingers to build buns and seaweed wraps.
  • Fans of soup dumplings will wonder at Lee’s lobster coral xiao long bao. Accompanied with housemade soy sauce, the pillowy dumplings are amazing.

The Drinks

  • Beverage director Yoon Ha is one of the world’s top master sommeliers. His extensive wine list features more than 300 bottles, including distinct findings from France, Austria, California and every wine region in between.
  • While you could order a bottle off of the list, the best way to enjoy Ha’s talent is to partake in the wine pairings. You’ll sample fragrant aged grüner veltliner, liquid gold white burgundy and full-bodied brunello dimontalcino.
  • Pairings are not limited to wine. Ha chooses from the deep cellars of the San Francisco restaurant and pairs what he thinks is best with each dish, from madeira to sour beer to sake. It’s genuinely an adventurous pairing that takes the meal to an entirely new level.

Getting There
22 Hawthorne Street, San Francisco, California 94105
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