Jennifer Martiné
Removing the hand-etched cloche reveals a Mid-Atlantic classic Corey Lee revives with Bay Area sensibility: snapping turtle soup garnished with a butter poached langoustine and vegetable matignon.
magnify Click image to view more.

First Flight

Carolyn Jung / September 2010

Tucked away behind massive iron gates, past a serene garden courtyard dotted with Japanese maple trees and a profusion of flowering vines, the restaurant that may very well have been the most highly anticipated new establishment this year in California--if not the nation--opened its doors last month in the heart of San Francisco's kinetic South of Market neighborhood. That restaurant, set inside a historic 1912 building, is Benu. Its name, tellingly, derives from the Egyptian word for phoenix, the grand mythical bird that is a universal symbol of new beginnings. And it epitomizes precisely what this project represents to chef/owner Corey Lee, 32, the James Beard Award–winning former chef de cuisine of The French Laundry in Yountville, California, who set out to create his own restaurant for the very first time here.

"I always wanted a name that summed up what we're going through," says Lee, whose older sister stumbled upon the name after more than a year of combing through books and song lyrics to find the perfect one. "It stands for renewal and rebirth, and also longevity, which is so hard to achieve in this industry. The name is a constant reminder that those things are vitally important."

Lee seeks not only a long life but a new life for this space, originally home to a printing press, then more recently to two David Gingrass restaurants--Hawthorne Lane, which the chef morphed into Two. Richard Bloch, the New York City architect who masterminded the look of Masa (San Francisco) and Dovetail and Le Bernardin (New York City), gutted the space before fashioning and finessing Benu into a veritable Savile Row suit of a restaurant during four months of construction. Bloch calls this project the most custom he's ever crafted--from the 30 sculptural mahogany and glass wine lockers to store private vintages for Benu's investors, to the one-of-a-kind porcelain serving pieces created by the premier Korean ceramics producer KwangJuYo, to the luxuriously plush, gray-blue wool carpet in the dining room hand-loomed in Thailand.

Tim Harrison of Harrison & Koellner in Mill Valley, California, who's constructed impressive back-of-the-houses for The French Laundry, Per Se (New York City), L20 (Chicago), and Citronelle (Washington, D.C.), oversaw Benu from scratch, including its centerpiece, a cutting-edge Viking suite manufactured specifically for Lee.

With all these lofty touches, Lee is coy about how much Benu cost. His parent company owns 90 percent of the restaurant, while the remaining 10 percent is split among 18 individual Bay Area investors, who run the gamut from lawyers and high-tech moguls to his mentor, Thomas Keller. "I did it to support Corey," says Keller, who gave Lee access to his chief financial officer and chief operating officer, as well as business advice, as did fellow chefs Grant Achatz, Michael Mina, and David Chang. "He did a tremendous job at The French Laundry and became a colleague, friend, and now partner. It's a privilege and honor to help him take the next step."

Lee set out to build a fitting setting for his elegant progressive American cuisine that reflects his Korean heritage, as well as his classical training at Lespinasse and DB Bistro Moderne (New York City) and his nearly nine years at The French Laundry. It's a place designed to spotlight inspired à la carte ($12 to $32) and tasting menu ($120) dishes such as abalone porridge with wood ear mushrooms; rigatoni with braised sea cucumber, oxtail, star anise, and red wine; and lobster hot pot with chrysanthemum, tofu, and beech mushrooms. After all, he says, conception begins with the food. "It has to. It's like if you want to make Krispy Kreme doughnuts, you can't just buy any machine. You have to know what your product is to design the factory."

Bloch couldn't agree more. Before he would consider Lee's project, he had to experience his food. When Lee was still at The French Laundry, Bloch came in one night to dine alone at a table inside the kitchen. He was Lee's only cover that evening. After a 15 course repast, Bloch knew all that he needed. "It was spectacular," Bloch recalls. "The level of detail was extraordinary. Everything on the plate had meaning. The same is true with this design. We tried to throw out everything that wasn't necessary. There was a process of pruning everything down. The thing about simple, though, is that you can't hide behind anything. This was a challenging design."

Lee's cooking style also factored heavily into his decision about location. During his two year–plus search, Lee considered opening his restaurant in New York City, where the Seoul native grew up. But he soon realized that for him the breadth of top-notch produce and other specialty ingredients found in the Bay Area just couldn't be matched there. After weighing 40 to 50 possible spaces, the majority in San Francisco, Lee found what he was looking for at 22 Hawthorne Street. All it took, he says, was stepping inside the striking, bougainvillea-accented courtyard, a rare oasis of tranquility in the heart of this supremely urban setting. This soothing entryway set the tone for the rest of the restaurant he envisioned.

An 18 seat private dining room with a wall of steel-trimmed windows overlooks its own dedicated garden, while the main 48 seat sunken dining room of white, gray, and brown hues is designed to set off strategic splashes of color such as the haunting green-tinged stems on Grüner Veltliner glasses. Tabletops--an artsy blend of steel and two kinds of wood--are bare, save for handcrafted wooden utensil rests. All the better to set off the 32 piece porcelain line in matte white, matte black, celadon, and transparent glazes. Among them are cloches with hand-etched designs of lobsters and sea urchins to hint at what's inside. Lee's mother, an artist, had to lend a hand for one piece, though. She created a painting of a truffle to guide Korean porcelain makers who had never set eyes on one before.

The dining room staff, which makes up a third of Benu's employees, don custom uniforms by Andrea Lenardin Madden of ALM Project in Los Angeles, an architect and designer who is the creative director for Sprinkles Cupcakes. The outfits reinterpret the look of an apron, a sartorial reminder that the staff serves at the behest of its guests.

Benu takes up half the footprint of the old Two restaurant. The kitchen sits where the former restaurant's foyer was, while Benu's dining room fronts what used to be Two's kitchen. Lee intentionally mixed it up to take advantage of certain existing architectural details, including a dramatic light well at the back of Benu's main dining room that provides a peephole into the art gallery upstairs in the building. The well has been shrouded in three sets of sheer drapery, which obscures the view with an ethereal touch. Two imposing K braces, built to shore up the space against earthquakes, got a creative makeover. The floor-to-ceiling zigzag one in the main dining room was left visible, creating an almost modern sculpture-like focal point. The one in the kitchen was walled over, but niches were punched into it to create clever cubbies for printers and computers.

Benu's kitchen, which takes up a little less than half of the restaurant's total square footage, is much smaller than what Harrison typically works on. But the refined look and feel of it, with its gleaming white tiled walls and seamless, flush counters, he says, is similar to what he created at The French Laundry and Per Se. Benu lacks some of their sumptuous finishes, though, since its kitchen equipment budget was significantly less than Per Se's.

Even so, Benu's kitchen boasts two hallmarks of a Harrison design. First, the legs were removed from every piece of equipment, so that it could be mounted atop a raised curb. That way, dust never accumulates underneath. Second, the kitchen was configured to have multiple access ways within it and leading to the dining rooms. "We design so there's always more than one way out, so there's no cul de sac," Harrison says. "The last thing you want is to need something, but have to push someone out of the way to get to it."

Benu's kitchen also has a rare feature--a wall of windows covered in opaque film, with a pattern of cutouts so that passersby on the quiet street can still glance in. "Most kitchens have no exterior windows, especially in urban areas," Harrison says. "Chefs here can work in an area where they can look outside. It makes all the difference in the world."

When it came time to choose the stove, Lee considered the prized and pricey Bonnet, the hand-built French favorite, as he's cooked on six different ones in his career. But in the end, Viking made him an offer he couldn't refuse. A traditional Viking stovetop is designed to have the most heat at the front with very little graduation in temperature. The custom stainless-steel island suite Viking created for Lee sports heat diffusion similar to a European stove, with the apex of heat at the center and temperature gradations decreasing outward from it. Rather than the traditional sauté, grill, and garde-manger, kitchen stations are based on responsibility of courses. So, one sous chef might oversee two first courses, while another the next two. Even the pastry department is called upon to do a savory course, Lee says, so that it becomes a much more integral part of the team.

Instead of walk-ins, which have so much wasted space at their center, Benu has four ThermalRite reach-ins. One each is dedicated to produce, meat, fish, and freezer to avoid cross-contamination. They are steps from the kitchen's delivery entrance and near the prep island with two Imperial stockpot ranges that are backed by a glass partition to provide separation yet visibility from the rest of the kitchen. All compressors and condensers are located in the parking lot, so as not to take up valuable space in the kitchen and add to the noise and heat. Drains in the kitchen are recessed two inches into the floor, which is covered by black synthetic rugs rather than rubber mats for hygienic and aesthetic reasons.

Lee is particularly proud of three other features: a super-speed two-gallon Vita-Mix blender to puree vegetable and fruit trimmings for nutritious shakes for staff lunch; a coveted Clover drip coffee machine, no longer for sale since Starbucks bought the company, but which is on loan to him from Lamill Coffee boutique in Los Angeles; and an adroit solution to an awkward support column space: it was turned into a staging niche with four rows of shelves to hold 18 plates at a time, something he always longed for at The French Laundry.

"I've been so involved in every process that I can't think of a detail that I haven't considered and reconsidered," he says with a proud smile. "Sometimes I look around and think, ‘I can't believe all this is here just to cook some food."

But then, it takes a lot for a phoenix to rise.