Travels with Penelope

Travel, Food, Wine, Spirituality and Everything Else

December 15, 2015 Benu





Is it worth it?

Is what worth it?

That small fortune put out for dinner last night.


This morning I’ve been holding court with myself on the subject of last night’s dinner at Benu, a three star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco. When it comes to spending money, all of us have our choices. For some it’s a game of golf, for others a trip to Hawaii and so on. For me, a fabulous dinner takes precedence over almost any other choice I can think of. Food is connection, it nurtures, it sustains; in brief, it is bliss. When the food rises to the occasion, I feel at one with the universe. No, I am not trying to be a drama queen. I really mean it. And that is why my son and daughter-in-law gave my partner and me a gift certificate for a special occasion to Benu.

On the way to the restaurant, I read the on-line reviews of Benu to my partner. Most were positive, but I tend to be skeptical about yelps, trips, and open tables. I do stand to attention for the professionals, but even for Bauer’s and Gold’s I hold reservations until I have tried their recommendations. Admittedly, reviews from the first three, a general audience, can be helpful, but ultimately, one has no knowledge of the state of or sophistication of the palate of the generic critic. I have to admit though; I was thrilled by the positive comments from vegetarians because I had requested a full vegetarian meal. My partner, fish and fowl.

When we arrived, the parking valet addressed us by name. How did he know who we were? Yes, we had a reservation, but so did a number of others. In any case, it felt welcoming. And the welcoming continued throughout the evening.

The austere entry with its meditative Asian garden enabled me to put behind the busy streets of the city, the cares of the day.











IMG_4145 MR



Benu’s Zen-like interior reminded of a white box art gallery  that is designed for one purpose only: to showcase the art.










I entered the temple internally quiet, yet not quite prepared for the gastronomic gift that awaited us. As I was about to discover, Chef Cory Lee is  a composer, a painter, and a sculptor of edible art. When the first of eight tastes,  listed on the menu as “small delicacies”  arrived at our table, the not-to-be-forgotten experience began.


IMG_4101MRfruit apple and cake


IMG_4102MRalvera aged tangerine peel, tofu, cyprus seed


IMG_4104MRmy partner’s uni with egg


IMG_4103MRblack beans, taro root


IMG_4108MRcharcoal grilled carrots and pickled ramps


IMG_4107MRnori, turnip, puffed buckwheat and parella


IMG_4112MRcrispy white cloud mushroom and horse radish


IMG_4113MRcherry blossom with red bean


IMG_4114MRmy partner’s oyster with kim chee


IMG_4115MRshitake mushroom taco with shiso leaf


IMG_4116MRsprouted bread, orange blossom honey infused with ginseng


IMG_4117MRpotage, smoked egg, ginger


IMG_4118MRchilled noodles, celtuce, radish, lovage


IMG_4119MRJapanese artichoke with sunflower hozon and bonji


IMG_4121MReggplant, pine mushroom, gingko nut, chrysanthemum


IMG_4122MRlettuce heart, bellflower root, black trumpet, pear, charred scallion


IMG_4123MRpartner’s serving with fish


IMG_4124MRyam, chestnut, black truffle bun


IMG_4125MRsunchoke, soybean date, dandelion, fermented pepper


IMG_4135MRmungbean custard with beech mushroom




IMG_4138MRfuji apple


IMG_4139MRdried apricot, osmanthus, almond

Melding form with color and texture Chef Lee created a masterpiece that tasted as good as it looks. It is no surprise to me that so much has  been written about his skills and how he has become one of the world’s leading chefs. By the end of the dinner, my consciousness in regard to food had shimmied up several notches.

Neither my partner nor I did the pairings. With the astute knowledge and help of Bobby Conroy the sommelier, I chose a brut rose and a sake from an outstanding wine list.  My partner, the driver for the evening, a glass of Czech Rebel beer at four per cent, that paired well with every dish.

In a recent discussion with a friend over a meal we shared in a restaurant, we were critical of the meal, not fully pleased, she wrote off our meal by saying, “…food is food.” Yes, food is food, but only when food is food is it worth its price in gold! Get my drift? Benu surely did.

In the last few years I have seen a significant uptake on the influence of Japanese cuisine on American chefs. Seems many of them want to go to Japan. A recognized, rising chef from the OC, recently married, told me that he and his beloved are heading to Japan for their honeymoon. The food that is coming out of Cory Lee’s kitchen is no exception. The presence of metal chopsticks as part of our table setting signaled his Korean background. I had heard that the food of Hong Kong has played a role as well.




There are times I get embarrassed by how critical I am of food. In the case of Benu, I had only one critical comment. Of the more than twenty items served, the fuji apple ice cream was a bit too firm to be cut into easily by my spoon. In Japan, the home of more Michelin starred restaurants than any other country in the world, this is the kind of criticism one finds of their three star Michelins. Not bad company!

Much has been said about Lee. In a past interview he described his own history and creative process. Before opening Benu, he had some of the best mentors in America. The team that works with him has a similar background. After my meal I would have to agree with the French who have just listed him on Le List, their spanking new list of greatest restaurants and best chefs in the world.



  1. WOW! YOU LIVE WELL. Enjoy your holiday. do call me and visit when you are in the area.

    Claudia Chapline


  2. Wow. Every dish looks so amazing. I like how the presentation is very simple, keeping the focus on the food.

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