Yuanfen 缘分, or “fateful coincidence”, is a Chinese phrase I learned at my dinner with Cecilia Chiang. It was a fateful series of events that led a food acquaintance to meet Cecilia, and it resulted in us dining together at a four-top months later. The occasion was an amazing milestone – her 100th birthday.
It didn’t matter that Cecilia already had a VIP birthday celebration also at Benu days earlier, she brought the energy and enthusiasm to this intimate dinner with just the four of us.
Throughout the meal, the conversation was free flowing, as was the wine – Cecilia made sure of that. At a few points, I found myself tearing up with a mix of admiration, empathy for the stories of hardship and grit, and gratefulness at being able to learn from a powerhouse credited for bringing real Chinese food and culture to America.
This was my third time dining at Benu after a few years hiatus, and my favorite menu thus far. I enjoyed some of the classics (including the black truffle steamed bun!), while new dishes added more depth to Chef Corey Lee’s increasing repertoire.
Highlights included a taco-like bite with an explosive umami filling of iberico ham and black truffle. Perfectly soft egg custard was elevated with seaweed and white sturgeon caviar. Sea bream prepared traditionally was simple and comforting with a side of rice. An eye-catching oyster and smoked haddock jean came with a coriander sweet soy sauce. I poured every last drop of the sauce over my rice.
A seafood feast of assorted shellfish included the rare abalone and razor clam, both hard to find in the Bay Area. The distinct chew of geoduck was my favorite. The texture of the razor clam rubbery, and very different than my fond memories of the ones in Barcelona. Nonetheless this course was a treat to enjoy, with stuffed mussel and dungeness crab completing this quintet.
I had a version of Benu’s barbecued quail prior, but this time the crispy, taut skin and extra tender meat was particularly standout. The meat wasn’t juicy per se, but it was still tender as if it were juicy. Such an incredible contrast I hadn’t paid attention to before.
For his take on the classic Korean BBQ course, Chef Lee treated us to three cuts – beef rib steak, grilled tongue, and braised short rib. All were fantastic, as were the accompanying pickles and meju. I look forward to Chef’s upcoming Korean restaurant, which may potentially feature Korean BBQ.
Of course, Benu’s signature celebration cake was not to be missed – this time larger, and with blackberry and coconut. Assorted desserts in the typical restrained style appropriately finished off this meal to remember.
How could you go wrong when Master Sommelier Yoon Ha chooses the pairings? A classic dry, crisp champagne kicked off the meal. Then out came a bottle of 2004 Hugel Jubilee Riesling. This dry Alsace was aged 15 years, and it had a lovely golden hue with a bright, smooth finish. Lovely paired with the seafood heavy first half of the meal.
With the barbecued and grilled courses came an earthy 2010 Peay Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir featuring an elegant, Burgundy-like complexity. And ending with the desserts was a Banfi Rosa Regale Sparkling Red – sweet, but still restrained.