Monday, May 07, 2012

Dinner @ Benu, a la carte

We recently discovered that Benu offers an a la carte menu during the week.  Prices are pretty standard for the neighborhood: appetizers ~$15, mains $20-40, and desserts $12.  This seemed like a great way to try out some of the food, but not do the full on extravaganza of the $180, 18 course menu they always offer.

The space is well designed.  To get to the entrance, you walk by the kitchen, which is surrounded by glass walls, and even has a viewing platform.  You also pass through a really nice garden area.  Inside is swanky yet comfortable.  The bathrooms were really nice, with both hooks and shelves for your personal belongings, the toilet paper end folded into a V after every use, and high quality paper-clothes.  Yes I know, it is just a bathroom, but I was particularly impressed with this one!

Service was good, polite.  Dishes were presented and cleared synchronized.  Waitstaff were knowledgeable about all of the components of the dishes.  I tried hard to order one dish from the tasting menu that I desperately wanted to try (the foie gras xaio long bao that everyone raves about and I really wanted a chance to have before July 1), but the waiter wouldn't budge.

I was really looking forward to this dinner, but it just didn't wow me.  It wasn't bad, but there was nothing memorable.  I'm not sure if my expectations were just high given that they have two Michelin stars and I've heard such great things about it (although, always about the full tasting menu).  Or maybe it was just the seasonal elements being quite boring, as it is hard to get excited about things like fennel and cauliflower.  Either way, it really failed to leave an impression.  One of my co-diners had been to Benu a few times before, always for the tasting, and had loved it then.  His impression was that the small bites concept just didn't scale up to full size portions very well, and I somewhat can understand that opinion.

The most memorable part of the night was not the food itself, but rather the way things looked.  The serving pieces, particularly those that overlapped with the tasting menu, were very impressive.  I'd heard that many of them were designed for the restaurant, and that was quite clear, as these were unique, clearly single-purpose, pieces.  The plating and creativity in the desserts was also impressive, even if I didn't love the food.

I wouldn't go back for any of the dishes we had, although I'm still interested in the tasting menu, as it has some signature dishes that are supposed to be great.
Cute little stone that was used for all silverware placement. 
Each diner had a stone on the table in front of them.  When silverware was changed out, it was placed onto the stone.  I really appreciated this, even though I know they clean their tables, I still always hate my silverware sitting on them!

One annoyance though: I'm right handed.  I was the leftmost person at the table.  All of our stones were on our right, but the waiter moved mine to the left, presumably so he could better reach it?  But this made it so that my silverware was always on the left.  I moved it back once or twice to the right, but he moved it back each time.  Everyone else had theirs on the right.  It made putting down and picking back up my silverware kinda uncomfortable.

This spoon was our first piece of silverware, to go with our amuse bouche, which I somehow don't have a photo of :(  It was a cold sesame tofu dumpling, with a green asparagus broth and green asparagus chunks, topped with a tiny little bachelor button.  It was very cute, but I didn't actually like the tofu much.  It was firm, with no real flavor of its own.  I didn't taste the sesame.  The asparagus on the other hand was bright, light, and flavorful.  But overall, not very interesting.
Buckwheat lavash, toasted nori, sesame seeds.
Instead of bread service, you get a lovely wooden box full of these crackers, standing up in little slits.  Excellent presentation, the serving-piece clearly designed for this purpose.

I thought they were absolutely delicious.  The buckwheat and sesame seeds gave them a hearty taste and the nori added a saltiness and further flavor.  They were super thin, and crispy yet pliable at the same time.  They were flavorful enough to be good on their own, but I would have liked something to dip them into.
Brut Rose, $22.
I wanted only a single glass of alcohol for the evening, and wanted something that would pair with all of my courses, so went for the brut rose.  I expected this to be sweeter than it was.  It was surprisingly bitter.  I didn't like it that much.
Foie gras steamed in sake,  fennel, green grape, sea grape, arugula.  $16.
Of course we had to order the foie gras to start!  This arrived without the broth, which was poured over it tableside.  They didn't do any other tableside presentations on the a la carte menu (at least, given what we ordered), and this didn't really seem necessary.  A nice touch I guess?

The foie gras was a really interesting consistency.  It was really creamy and incredibly smooth like a mousse, yet firm and not fluffy.  It had clearly been processed quite a bit, as you can probably tell from the photo.  The foie flavor was weaker than I expected, again, more like a mousse than a torchon or pure lobe.  I didn't taste the sake it had been steamed in.

It came with fennel in several preparations.  First was the light fennel and star anise broth, then there were very thin slices of shaved fennel bulb, and a few, very flavorful, sprigs of the frond.  Fennel seeds were featured in the accompanying bread.  This was my frist fennel and foie pairing, and I'm still just not sure what I think of it.  I'm used to a sweet component paired with foie, which fennel isn't.  It didn't not work, but it didn't particularly work either.  Fennel is just kinda ... boring.  The frond however was really intense, and a bite with that really had a flavor pop!

The sea grape and green grape were interesting from a texture and visual perspective, but I didn't think they did much for the dish.  I guess the green grape added a little sweetness.  I didn't see any arugula, as was listed on the menu.

At $16, this was a decent foie preparation, but I think there was less foie gras in here than it looks like, with more filler making it as creamy as it was.  This dish wasn't particularly memorable, and while I'd eat it again, I wouldn't go out of my way to order it.
Whole wheat fennel seed roll.
This was the roll that game with the foie gras.  It was served really nice and warm, perfect temperature. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.  Like the lavash crackers, it was really hearty tasting from the whole grains.  The fennel seed flavor was really, really strong.  I actually thought it was too strong and overpowering.  I enjoyed spreading some of the foie gras on the warm roll, as it would slightly melt into it like butter.  But so much better than butter.
Whole steamed bass with crispy skin, gai choy, turnip, mustard seed.  $32.
Hmm, where to start.  This dish was not really a success.

The turnip came as tiny little cubes.  Nothing much to say about it.

The gai choy was a fresh nice vegetable component.  It paired really well with the mustard sauce.

Speaking of the mustard sauce.  It was the downfall of this dish.  It was insanely strong and intense, and totally, completely overwhelmed the light flavored bass.  It was great with the greens, but just took over everything else.  A few bites with this, and I felt like my palette was blown.

And speaking of the bass, it was cooked decently I guess, just simply steamed, flaky, but really, really boring.  It had no flavor to speak of and there was just absolutely nothing noteworthy about it.

The crispy skin however, was amazing.  It was completely separated from the fish, lightly coated in a thin breading, and fried.  It was as crisp as can be.  Spicy.  Salty.  Like the best chip you've ever had in your life.  I couldn't get enough of it.  While the rest of this dish fell down pretty hard, the skin really almost made up for it, it was that fantastic.  It actually brings a smile to my face just thinking about it as I write this.

I wouldn't order this again, but I'd tell someone else to, and steal the skin when they weren't looking :)  For $32 though, this was a very reasonable dish, and although I really didn't care for it, quality-wise and component-wise, it is on par with many fish entrees at lesser establishments in the area.
Lobster glazed in cognac sauce, cauliflower, ramps, celery, pine nut.  $38.
The cauliflower came two ways: chunks and pureed.  The chunks were cooked well, left slightly al dente.  Good enough, but at the end of the day, just cauliflower.  I didn't think it paired that well with the lobster.  The puree was more interesting, as it reminded me of creamy mashed potatoes, and the cognac sauce was like a gravy with it.

The ramps were pickled, with a really awesome tartness from the vinegar that made your mouth pucker as you ate them.  They went well with the cauliflower.

The celery and pine nuts came in the form of a ragout.  This went really well with the cognac sauce.

Finally, the lobster.  There was a generous chunk of tail meat, two chunks of claw meat, and another piece that I think was also tail?  The largest piece was really quite chewy, and I didn't like it much at all.  The medium size piece was better, but still not that great.  The chunks of claw meat were tender and fantastic.

The cognac sauce was good, with a very intense cognac flavor.  If you don't like cognac, you would not like this dish at all.

Besides the claw meat, the only part of this I really liked was a spoonful of cauliflower puree, with some of the celery, and some pickled ramp, and of course, the cognac sauce.  Those were tasty bites, but certainly not $38 worthy bites.  I wouldn't order this again.
Black truffle bun.
This came with the lobster.  It was a warm, doughy bun, filled with lobster confit, served nice and warm.  I liked this.  The truffle flavor was very strong in the breading.  If it had been served on its own I think this would have needed more filling, as it wasn't that plentiful or flavorful.  In fact, I couldn't really tell what was inside of it, was guessing there was lobster but couldn't distinguish it, and had to ask the server.  This was sooo good with the cognac sauce however.  The truffle and cognac were a fantastic pairing.  My favorite bite of the evening (ok, perhaps tied with the crispy skin!) was a chunk of this bun, smothered with cauliflower puree and cognac sauce.  It reminded me of Thanksgiving dinner, where I often take a chunk of warm roll and load it up with mashed potatoes and gravy.  Really tasty.  Honestly, this dish would have been better without the lobster itself, as there were some good things going on here!
Lamill Decaf Coffee, milk, sugar. $5.
As is my standard practice these days, I asked how the decaf coffee was.  The server very strongly said it was good, so I went for it.  I love sweets and desserts, but I love them even more when paired with a nice bitter coffee!

This was indeed fairly complex for a decaf, with some real bitter quality to it.  However, it had a strange, almost chalky aftertaste that was a little unpleasant.  Served with it was steamed cream (I usually drink my coffee black, but I love it when they steam it!), raw sugar, and then, hidden under the wooden lid, some assorted other sweeteners in packets.  I was very amused that they hid those unsightly things! :)  Nice presentation all around, with wooden coasters and handless mugs.
Chocolate ganache,  peanut pudding, miso ice cream.  $14.
I have been staying away from ordering chocolate desserts in the evening these days as I've found them causing me problems with sleep (yes, my caffeine tolerance is that low these days ... long gone are my zillion shots of espresso per day days!), but this was on a bunch of lists as a top dessert, so I had to try it.

I had seen photos of this one before, so I knew what to expect, but it still was a sight to behold.  It was beautiful, well thought out and nicely composed, with a lot of contrasting textures, colors, and flavors, but it certainly looked better than it actually tasted.  Not that it was bad, but it just wasn't that good.  Chocolate and peanuts ... how do you go wrong with those???

First, what should have been the star: chocolate!  The chocolate ganache came in the form of some little logs.  Soft, creamy, but it was only ok.  I was a little surprised, as I expected more flavor intensity from the ganache.  The next chocolate component was the chocolate sponge cake.  It was a little dry, again, not very chocolatey, and just not that interesting.  You certainly wouldn't want to eat it on its own.  The best chocolate component was the chocolate shards.  These were totally surprising.  They were insanely thin and insanely crunchy!  I'm not sure what made them so crisp and crunchy.  I really liked them.  There was also some chocolate "soil" on the plate, adding a little texture to the creamy pudding, ganache, and ice cream.

Next up: peanut components!  The peanut pudding was piped on as a rope.  It was very creamy, and peanuty, but again, just not that interesting.  I'm not sure what it needed, but it needed something.  It was certainly more like just plain old peanut butter than "pudding".  Peanuts also appeared in their whole form, crispy, roasted, and slightly candied.  These added a good crunch.

And finally, the most interesting parts, the miso components.  The meringues were apparently miso flavored, but I didn't pick up the miso, they just tasted like plain meringue to me, which was pretty boring.  They were crunchy though, and added something texture-wise to the dish.  The miso ice cream was by far the most interesting thing on the plate.  It was sweet, a little salty, and really quite good.

I did have fun making myself different bites, trying to combine different flavors and textures.  There was a lot to play with here, but I didn't ever find a bite that really wowed me with flavor.  I appreciated this dish more for its texture than taste.

I'm glad I tried this, but I wouldn't get it again.  $14 reflects the plating and creativity behind the dish.
Rhubarb,  yogurt, quinine, lavender tapioca.  $14.
Crazy, right?  There was stewed rhubarb and raw rhubarb, hiding under a blanket of yogurt gel, on top of lavender tapioca, with some quinine ice cream on the side.

This wasn't my dish, so I only had a few bites, but it was pretty marvelous.  The rhubarb was fresh, crisp, refreshing.  The yogurt blanket was slightly sweet, but still tart, nicely complimenting the rhubarb.  The flavor of the ice cream was really, really strange.  The lavender tapioca was lovely.

Overall a light, refreshing, not too sweet, dish.  I didn't have enough to fully evaluate it however.
Assorted chocolates.
Another very interesting serving piece, clearly designed just for this purpose.  These came in a box, which the server opened to reveal the tiers of chocolates.  Interestingly, we had five people at the table, and received two boxes, each with two sets of chocolates in them, four different kinds.  Luckily for us, one person dislikes sweets and has been to Benu several times and tried these before, so he just passed on them, but I found it really odd to serve like this.  I'm not sure how we would have divided them up otherwise, as there is no way to evenly distribute them.

Each of these chocolate surprised me, as they didn't taste anything like they looked.  They were all very sweet and not really that good.  From top to bottom along the left hand side, as described by server:
  • Dark chocolate with lychee pate de fruit: this was actually a very thin dark chocolate shell, filled with lychee buttercream, with tiny chunks of lychee in it as well.  It was very sweet.  Not at all what I was expecting from a dark chocolate.  Third favorite.
  • White chocolate with dried mixed fruit and almonds: This was actually the least sweet of all of the chocolates, which is not what you'd expect from white chocolate.  It was filled with tiny bits of dried fruit, in particular, I detected some apricot, which paired very well with the white chocolate.  This was my favorite piece, which is so strange, as white chocolate is rarely what I go for.
  • Milk chocolate and walnut: this was a thin milk chocolate shell around a walnut caramel goo inside.  Not at all what I was expecting when I bit into it.  Topped with a crispy candied walnut.  The walnut and chocolate were a good flavor combination.  Second favorite.
  • Milk chocolate and toasted sesame with cherry compote: The sesame here was very subtle.  The cherry didn't come through very well, which is a shame, as cherry and chocolate is a great combination.  The salt on top was a nice touch.  I didn't like this one.  Least favorite.
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