The term “California cuisine” is most typically applied to a style of cooking and ingredients that reflect a Mediterranean tradition. That should not be surprising given the Mediterranean like climate that most of California enjoys as well as much of its history since the arrival of Spaniards centuries ago. Mediterranean ingredients tend to grow very well in California, which has also developed a strong wine culture to go along with the food. Cuisines, like most things, however, are not static. They evolve depending on the influences that come to bear on them. Such has been the case with the cuisine of California over at least the past ten years. This evolution in fine dining began to be influenced by the cuisines of Asia, in part because of the burgeoning populations of Asian immigrants in California over recent times, but also because a number of influential chefs, both Asian and non-Asian, began to look toward Asia, in particular Japan, for inspiration. One of the first and perhaps the most influential to date has been David Kinch of Manresa. Others such as Hiro Sone of Terra in the Napa Valley and Ame in San Francisco have also incorporated Asian influences in their restaurants. Sone, originally from Japan, learned western cooking techniques before venturing to cook in the United States. He made his reputation in California and back in Japan cooking “California Cuisine” that was inspired by the cultures and foods of the Mediterranean at Spago, both in Los Angeles as well as at an outpost in Japan. His western approach to cooking was still predominant when he moved to Napa along with his wife, Lissa Doumani to open Terra. It wasn’t until he opened Ame, however, that Asian elements were brought to the fore in his restaurants. The rise of Asian influences in top end California restaurants generally not considered to be “ethnic” restaurants has been readily apparent including my recent visits to Saison and Aubergine.
It is not just in California, though, that Japanese cuisine has been influential. That influence has been evidenced for over a decade in Europe in such places as elBulli, Mugaritz, L’Arpege and many others. Japanese influence is also common in a number of high end restaurants throughout the United States too with the Peruvian-Japanese food of Nobu Matsuhisa being amongst the first to bring it to mainstream American fine dining palates via his Nobu restaurants. The global rise of Japanese culinary influence has been pervasive and it has been a major part of the evolution of California cuisine into what it has become today, but the evolution of the cuisine has not stopped there. California cuisine is no longer just a cuisine based upon Mediterranean influence. It is no longer even a cuisine that is Mediterranean-Japanese even if those two influences remain the most prominent throughout fine dining in the state. Given their popularity as ethnic cuisines, it is somewhat surprising how little Chinese, Thai, Korean, Indian or Vietnamese influences have seeped into western fine dining kitchens around the country. Most restaurants, even those run by westerners such as Andy Ricker’s Pok-Poks, Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food restaurants¹, Johnny Monis’ Little Serow and others, as good as they may be, are generally considered to be ethnic and not “fine dining” restaurants as they lack the trappings of most fine dining establishments. Korean influences in American fine dining seem to be on the rise, but interestingly enough that appears to be more prominent in New York City with establishments like Jung Sik and Danji, amongst others, utilizing Korean culinary concepts and ingredients within a western fine dining tradition. It is in California, though, more than any other part of the country, that non-Japanese Asian influences are beginning to meld with the kind of Mediterranean and Japanese cuisines most people associate with California with Corey Lee’s Benu leading the charge to continue the natural evolution of California cuisine.
Corey Lee was born in Seoul, Korea, but moved to the United States around the age of five. He grew up in New York City and at the age of 17 started working in restaurants. He began working in the front of the house at Blue Ribbon Sushi then quickly found himself migrating to the kitchen. His culinary education accelerated quickly and he found himself working in a number of high end restaurants on either side of the Atlantic until 2001 when he began working for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Lee worked for Keller on both coasts, ultimately becoming Chef de Cuisine at The Laundry before finally leaving to open Benu. The curious thing is that with the exception of the beginning of his culinary career, Lee’s training was almost entirely in high end western fine dining. Of course, he also had his native Korean family cooking to influence him along the way. With Benu, Lee has forged a style of cooking that combines western (predominantly French) culinary traditions with those of western Asia, specifically Japan, Korea and China as well as a California sensibility of top notch, fresh ingredients. With that, Benu has become a prime example of what I consider the New California Cuisine. While his style is more pan-Asian than most, other restaurants that fit into this category would include Saison, Coi, Manresa and Aubergine in northern California and places like Providence and Hinoki and the Bird in southern California. The tie that binds these restaurants is the way they combine both European and Asian influences, presentations and techniques with what have become the accepted traditions of California cuisine – top-notch, seasonal ingredients prepared to highlight the flavor and textural qualities of those ingredients.
One enters Benu not directly off the street, but only after passing through a gate-like opening into a quiet courtyard. From deep in the courtyard, one finds the main door to the restaurant to the right. The facade of the restaurant appears with traditional Japanese architectural elements. The interior of the restaurant is luxurious, but spare and minimalist. This has led some to feel that the restaurant itself feels “cold” and has a “sterile” environment.² The main design elements are linear and lack a range of colors. The walls were devoid of embellishment. Overall, I found the effect to be calming and tranquil, but I could understand how some might conclude that the combination of the visual effects of the space along with the extreme precision of Lee’s cooking and plating could be perceived as discomforting and even “soul-less.” I had heard those descriptions before I ventured into the restaurant, but ultimately, my take was quite the opposite.
Dinner at Benu wasn’t Asian per se, though essentially every dish contained Asian elements whether Chinese, Korean or Japanese. These were handled with European technique and California sensibilities. The pairings came from both East and West, though surprisingly, none were from California, except for the opener, a nice methode champenoise sparkler from Roederer.
As with most fine dining tasting menus today, the tradition of a series of small snacks popularized at elBulli has become an essential component of the meal. These “snacks” differ from the classic French amuse bouche, because they are typically offered as a series of small bites integral to the meal, whereas the amuse is one or two small bites offered as little bonuses to an a la carte selection. The first one brought to the table was the embodiment of East meets West. The central component of the plate was taken from classic Chinese cuisine – a “thousand year old egg.” Lee’s egg, however, was a quail egg rather than a hen’s egg and his was coated in classic French via a pour over of a potage made from cabbage and ham with a hint of ginger. It was evident from this first offering that presentation was going to be extremely important at Benu and indeed each and every dish was beautifully presented on an impressive variety of plates, bowls and other serving pieces. Beautiful presentations are one of the essential components of true haute cuisine, but mean nothing if the food is not delicious. We were off to a fine start.
Washing down the first couple of Asian-inspired bites was a consummate food wine, a steely, mineral and acid rich Gemischter Satz³, a Viennese blend from Austria. It had the weight to stand up to the rich soup and the body to withstand the kick of the next dish.
Lee’s focus on this bite moved from China to Korea with the addition of kimchi. Appearing like a Japanese netsuke of a water lily, it arrived on a small, carved wooden pedestal. It was a single bite of deliciousness with the slightly spicy kimchi delicately wrapped around pork belly topped with a creamy emulsion and peaked with a freshly shucked raw oyster. The dish combined textures and flavors with superb balance with the fresh brine of the oyster somehow continuing to shine through.
The pairing for the next course was overtly Asian with a savory Japanese sake. Sakes are wonderful food wines. with clean, mineral rich flavors they complement a wide variety of foods with seafoods particularly well accompanied.
Prior to the intended pairing, however, Benu’s bread service arrived. a crusty multigrain loaf had been sliced and brought out with a plate of molded, salted butter. Ginseng honey was poured atop the butter. The combination was nutty, rich and slightly sweet. It was seductive and inviting in the way good bread service can be, especially this early in a meal, but other than a slice just to try it, I managed to avoid the siren’s temptation to fill up too soon.
The sake had its moment to shine alongside a serving of tartared Hawaiian big eye tuna served with Japanese underpinnings of karasumi and charred scallion haiga rice and it did as it enhanced the nuances of sweet and savory flavors of the fish, the mullet roe and the scallions. The dish also provided a satisfying range of complementary textures.
Japanese influence carried over into the next pairing. Hitachino, a red rice ale, from Japan, was selected to accompany the next four one-bite dishes that would support a common range of flavors based upon dried protein products from land and sea. The fresh and toasty qualities of this ale would do just that.
The first of the four bites was centered on caramelized anchovy that was combined with celery and peanut. It was a beautifully sculptural presentation sitting atop an Alinea-like pedestal serving piece. The bite was full of delicious umami that was impeccably balanced in terms of flavor and texture.
When the anchovy course was finished, the server turned over the pedestal to reveal what would become the receptacle for the following spooned bite, a Chinese-inspired seafood symphony of faux shark’s fin made with hydrocolloids, dungeness crab, caviar and rousong. The flavor and texture of this bite, served without the soupy accompaniment that made this dish famous, was delightful. Lee has reportedly nailed the texture of shark fin with this dish, but never having had that rarified and ethically questionable delicacy, I am unable to confirm or deny that aspect of the dish. The mere fact that he is able to create such a winning facsimile is worthy of great respect and admiration.
The clever pedestal was utilized yet again with the third bite, which arrived on the tip of a slender skewer and continued the Chinese theme. “XO” sausage was paired with a basil infused curd. This bite had a distinct Eurasian feel to it.
The pedestal wound up seeing full duty throughout the four small bites as it was again turned over and covered with a clear disk upon which sat a dim sum like “beggar’s purse” with “treasures from the oak.” This was another Eurasian inspiration as it combined Iberico ham with Parmesan cheese, pickled red onion and black truffles set in a cold acorn flour crepe. With those ingredients and fine execution, how could this not be a tasty bite?
The ale did a great job of working with the four bites, but the next course saw a resumption of wine service with one that was chosen because of a bit of residual sugar. This German Riesling, had some residual sugar, which was well balanced by its great acidity.
The sugar in the wine did present a nice boost to the dish, especially the various incarnations of shrimp that were involved. An elegant play on cold sesame noodles, this one featured raw and dried shrimp as well as shrimp roe, pickled hearts of palm and mint with palm noodles, the combination of which provided more of a southeast Asian feel than was previously encountered in this meal.
Food friendly wine pairing continued with a slightly sweet, but extremely well balanced fruit-driven, mineral laden, Pinot Gris Calcaire from Zind-Humbrecht. This one was to pair with the next three seafood based courses.
The first of the three courses was a take on a Chinese classic – salt and pepper squid. The Asian influence on this dish was manifest in the presentation, which was distinctly different from any classic preparation that I have experienced. The squid came in the form of a crisp cracker, much like a shrimp cracker. The flavors were enhanced with herbs, a bit of chile and creme fraiche.
The next bite was a Eurasian mix of eel wrapped in crisp feuille de brick in a way that was reminiscent of a spring roll. It was served with creme fraiche fortified with lime for dipping.
The third member of the seafood trilogy was raw geoduck with the unlikely combination of salted cucumber and crispy chicken skin. These were all dishes that were creative, interesting and successful as was the pairing.
The next pairing, to cover the following two courses, returned to beer, the Duchesse de Bourgogne, a kombucha-like flemish red brown ale from Belgium. This was delicious beer!
I love xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. Chef Lee served us his take on the Shanghai classic, but with lobster coral and lobster broth instead of pork or crab, the kinds I most commonly encounter. These were sensational! They carried all the finest attributes of great soup dumplings, but with each taken a step further. The skins were veil thin and the broth rich, lobster-sweet and decadently delicious. This was my favorite course of the night. The slightly sweet and tart pairing of the ale worked surprisingly well with these delicate dumplings, the dipping sauce to which was a combination of soy and Banyuls vinegar.
Chef Lee’s Korean background had not yet shown up in any significant way, but that was about to change with the second course of the pairing, a delicious pig’s head terrine. Once again. Once again, Yoon Ha, the restaurant’s Beverage Director, was right on with his pairing. He hit the nail on the head with each pairing.
Perhaps Yoon’s most challenging pairing came with the next dish, which incorporated a variety of flavors. He chose a Marsanne from Cuilleron, which played very nicely with all of the flavors with a few in particular setting up the match.
The dish in question was a Japanese butterfish treated with a maple glaze and served with daikon, matsutake mushrooms and pine nuts. It was a fine marriage of forest and sea with the daikon probably the most difficult pairing element.
Sommelier, Bobby Conroy presented the next wine, our first foray into red for the evening. A nice Volnay from Burgundy brought what to me is the most widely food friendly red varietal, Pinot Noir, to our table.
The Volnay was paired with one of the most European dishes of the evening, roasted quail with lettuce heart and mustard. It was also, perhaps the most French Laundry-like dish of the evening, but that isn’t a bad thing. It was elegant and delicious. That is not to say that the dish lacked any Asian tones. It didn’t as they came from a marinade of Shaoxing wine, which slightly seasoned the bird. Intense balancing flavors came from the cooked down mustard greens that were mixed with the lettuce hearts. The wine provided some herbal and tea notes that brought it all together.
Another Pinot Noir, this time from Sonoma, was used to highlight the next dish.
This dish was an extra inclusion and was extra-special. It featured sea cucumber from Hokkaido Japan stuffed with shrimp and bathed in beef stock flavored with fermented pepper. It was pure decadence built around the unusual texture of the twelve time rehydrated and then braised sea cucumber and the flavors of the shrimp stuffing and the spiced beef stock. Further accentuating the plate visually, saporifically and wittily were balls of fresh cucumber and leaves of perilla (aka shiso). This was a wonderful dish and a fabulous gift from the chef.
The next dish called for a bigger wine and that came in the form of a vibrant, lush Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de la Solitude.
That dish was a charcoal grilled beef rib steak served with a fusion of eastern and western influences. Perhaps the least “sculpted” of the dishes presented throughout the evening, it was full of the rich umami flavors that we had come to expect in Lee’s cooking.
Dinner took a most unusual direction after the beef. Typically, that would be the final savory course, before cheese or dessert. We still had one more savory course, and it proved to be a perfect segue into dessert. It started with the wine pairing, an assertive, sweetish Madeira, the Verdelho 1968 from Blandy’s. This was chosen for its sweetness and ability to enhance and work with the deep flavors of the food.
This was a rich shellfish consomme poured around a raft enhanced with the likes of Iberico ham, Jinhua ham and chrysanthemum, further embracing the culinary joining together of disparate culinary cultures in ways that made them seem not so disparate. The dish was a contradiction in that it was both light and rich at the same time. The richness continued the theme from the savory portion of the meal, while the lightness and the sweetness of the shellfish were perfect for easing us into the next phase.
Green apple sorbet made an effective palate cleanser.
Technically we had but one actual dessert course, but it was a doozy. Served in western style, it was Asian themed, a white sesame cake with salted plum. The cake was abetted by a dry white Port from Churchill’s.
The cake was served whole and divided by us at the table. It also symbolically bridged the gap of traditional to contemporary dining. Lee’s cooking is cerebral and precise. It also comes with surprises such as this cake. If this meal had taken place in Germany and if Lee were German, it would certainly qualify as part of the Neue Deutsche culinary movement based upon the virtues of precision, exactness and craft. Of course, the meal was not German in any sense of actual German culinary tradition or engagement other than a few wines that were served. The point being that Lee’s style fits the parameters of that movement, which fortunately, does not sacrifice creativity or flavor in service to the movement’s ideals.
Our meal came to a close with the usual chocolate based mignardises, which were very good, but not so good as to sear their personalities into my by now alcohol and calorie laden brain.
Corey Lee crafted a meal that, while global in concept and which could have been successful in a variety of locations, actually spoke of its own contemporary terroir. It was a meal that, I believe, would not have been better or more emblamatic anywhere else besides San Francisco. It reflected the current population and culinary sensibilities of this specific location in stellar fashion, utilizing top quality ingredients from the area and when specifically needed from elsewhere. The fusion was one that came off natural and unforced. Precise, yes, but that is a virtue when it can be done to enhance the quality of the dishes as was done at Benu. Precise and artistic plating for its own sake is not a virtue if the dishes suffer in flavor and/or texture because of it. It doesn’t do a diner any good for a plate to look gorgeous while the food is not as delicious as it could be. That was never an issue at Benu, where Chef Lee and his team crafted beautiful platings and full flavored, complex and delicious food. If the cooking at Benu is emblematic of a New California Cuisine, and I believe that it is, then count me a fan of that cuisine.
¹Danny Bowien is of Korean descent, but was adopted by a midwestern American family during infancy and grew up in a non-Asian midwestern environment.
²Private conversations and communications
³Edited for a correction. The wine had been compared to a Gruner Veltliner by the sommelier. Thanks to reader, Clemens, for pointing out the correction.