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A thousand-year-old quail egg

The first course – of 16 – at Benu in San Francisco

Kassia St Clair | March/April 2015

Benu is not a careless restaurant. Its interior, tucked a couple of blocks away from San Francisco’s high-rise, financial crescendo, is all monochrome refinement: white walls, dark screens, lights made from looped sheets of paper. Before it won its third Michelin star this autumn, its chef, the Korean-American Corey Lee, replaced the symphonic messiness of à la carte with the controlled minimalism of a single, Asian-infused tasting menu. This dish is the opening note.

Despite its Cantonese name, the egg is only a month old. In the weeks since being laid, it’s been cured in tea, metamorphosing into a translucent, mahogany-dark jelly with a creamy, silver-green centre where the yolk used to be. Served on a mound of pickled ginger, with a creamy soup ceremoniously drizzled around it, it looks profoundly unappetising.

All but the most sophisticated diners will ease themselves into the experience with a spoonful of the potage. Stewed from the peasant triumvirate of cabbage, onion and bacon, this has the colour and texture of suede. It is thick, soothing: liquid comfort. And so to the egg. The jelly cleaves with only gentle pressure, glistening softly on the spoon. In your mouth it is firm, but still soft, and coats the tongue with minerally, umami unctuousness. A zippy tang of ginger, waiting at the bottom of the bowl, overlays the final bite.

Lee’s particular talent lies in marrying classic Western repertoire with the braver, less crowd-pleasing flavours of Korea and China. So this small dish is about trust. With it, he takes your hand before leading you into the more recherché areas further down the menu. It is an invitation to let him please and surprise you. You should accept.
~ Kassia St Clair

Part of a tasting menu of about 16 courses, $195; benusf.com

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