A Truly Great Meal

May 23, 2014

It might have been the company. We were happy together.

But when I found myself  closing my eyes on the very first bite so I could concentrate on the intricate tangle of tastes and textures in my mouth, I knew I was in for a wonderful journey. I sat, eyes shut, following the flavors as they slowly faded. When I opened them again I saw that he had also closed his eyes. 

I hadn’t expected this.  The last meal I had at Benu, perhaps three years ago, was very nice, but it did not begin to prepare me for tonight. Walking in, through a calm garden into the spare elegance of the dining room, I was impressed by the voluptuous quiet. It is like entering a Japanese temple.  I sat down and ran my hands across the dark wood of the table, appreciating its size, its distance from the other diners.  Benu offers, among other things, the luxury of privacy. You are aware that others are also dining here, but they do not intrude.

I sit in the hush of the room, enjoying the tactile pleasure of the flat black oval of wood that anchors my napkin. I pick up a glass, amazed at its fragility. Then  that first bite…

If it is possible to pack more intensity into a single spoonful, I have yet to experience it. 

Egg

I dip my spoon into this tiny bowl, scoop up the thousand year old quail egg with its funky, mysterious flavor, and encounter a jolt of ginger, the smoothness of the warm potage. 

Oyster

Astonishing! One minuscule mouthful that goes crackling into the mouth.  A tiny oyster, slick and soft, is wrapped in a casing of dried pork belly and zapped with kimchi. The ingredients do a little tango in the mouth, dipping and swaying as the flavors leap across each other.  

  Anchovy

Who know celery could be so sexy?  Add anchovy and peanuts, and you get crisp, crunch and salt in one tiny bite. 

Tofu
A new texture. A change of flavor.  This trembling little spoonful, sunflower tofu, is all suave subtle smoothness. 

  Sausage
Another tiny but intense bite. The sliver of dried xo sausage is so thin you barely feel it in your mouth. But the flavor lasts, lingering like the final note of a flute whose sound you feel long after the music itself is gone.

Crips

 

On the menu this is called “salt and pepper squid.” On the plate it looks like a brooch you might pin to your dress.  In your mouth it is… astonishing.

 

  Shrimp

Who would imagine wrapping a long prawn in jellyfish, and then embellishing it with caviar and horseradish?  It tastes even better than it sounds.

 

  White

How to describe this? It looks innocuous, but it somersaults into your mouth, a medley of crisp textures. Is it mimicking shark fin soup?  Perhaps.  But this wild bamboo fungus has a texture I’ve never known before, and I find myself dipping my spoon in again and again, eager for one more taste. 

Porridge

They call this “porridge,” so how could I have possibly imagined this little bit of poetry on the plate? Hidden inside is vivid orange sea urchin, the flavor as bright as the color.

 

Pig head
 Pig head in its most elegant incarnation.

Shao lin bao
 There is a kind of magic to ordinary Shanghai soup dumplings, their liquid filling wrapped inside pasta as thin as butterfly wings. But these, which hold lobster roe are especially joyful.

 

  Sea bream

This small, shining golden sea bream, with its crown of lily bulbs and spring onions, is infused with the flavor of dried tangerine peels. It couldn’t possibly taste as lovely as it looks. But it does. 

 

Abalone1
 

Abalone2

Dried, aged abalone from 2008. It tastes like nothing else on earth. The flavor has a kind of sherry richness, the texture is both soft and resilient. Everything that’s come before has been building to this moment, preparing the palate for this stunning jolt of flavor.  It is the high point of the meal. 

Quail
 Finally the meat portion of the menu: quail with olive, dandelion, mustard. Followed by beef braised in pear juice.  

Yuba

And finally dessert. First, sorbet in sake lees. Then this rather amazing yuba – tofu skin – with almond milk and white chocolate. Think burrata – and then think again. 

Bread
I haven’t even mentioned the bread, which was another astonishment: the crust crisp, the inside soft, served with this beautiful butter drenched in the lightest honey.

Corey Lee and his kitchen are doing something remarkable at Benu, and they get wonderful support from the dining room staff.  Sommelier Yoon Ha’s pairings are quirky and brilliant; the wines and beers he selected acted like a chorus, humming softly behind each dish.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a meal this much.

 

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