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Dinner at a San Francisco restaurant worth the hefty price

Benu – an Asian-influenced restaurant takes me on an 18-course food journey

Salmon with cherries and sour cabbage. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Salmon with cherries and sour cabbage. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Rarely am I speechless. Rarely can I find the words to describe food. But when I stepped into Benu, a restaurant that combined Asian flavors with European techniques, I immediately knew it was going to be a rare experience. After attending the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in San Francisco, I needed a food fix. Benu, located in a historic building in the SOMA district, only took reservations. But like most journalists I had to try to get in, and so I walked to the restaurant and asked if they had any cancellations.

Cooking staff at Benu create 18 course dinners. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Cooking staff at Benu create 18 course dinners. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Keep in mind most places like this offer fine dining and a price fixe menu but they don’t cater to just one person. There is no bar or lounge and no solo seating. But the Benu manager said “let me see what I can do.” While I thought there was no way I was going to get into this coveted 3-star Michelin restaurant, the staff whispered back and forth for several minutes.

Soon, and to my surprise, I was whisked to a table, set for one in a dining room with dark wood and grey and black walls. Only a few simple art pieces hung on the walls ensuring there would be few distractions from the food experience. I bubbled with excitement not just because I got a seat at this restaurant, but because I was going to be there for hours. Yes – hours of pure indulgence, because what awaiting me was a theatrical performance of service and food presentation.

I wasn’t intimidated by the price – $195, but I had to pace my stomach. Why? Because 18 courses awaited my taste buds. Some of them were just bite-size explosions of flavor but others were substantial portions on the plate. Knowing the price tag, I savored every bite.

A night full of unexpected flavors colliding

Quail egg, potage, ginger for the first course. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Quail egg, potage, ginger for the first course. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I’ve been to several high-end restaurants with interesting combinations of flavors, but rarely have I had an experience like Benu, where I couldn’t find words to describe the food. After several courses I realized I was tasting food that this Midwest girl had never had before, so there was no frame of reference to convey flavors, ingredients and spices.

Luckily staff was there to assist in describing the ingredients and how they were prepared by Chef Corey Lee and his team. While each of the 18 courses was unique, there were several standouts that showcased the chef’s creativity and skill.

The night started with a thousand-year-old quail egg, potage with ginger that had an undescribable yet enjoyable flavor with a silky texture.

The beggar's purse of treasures from the oak combined earthy flavors. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak combined earthy flavors. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The surprising dish of the night was the “beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak,” a pouch of earthy juices and flavors that combined truffles, mushrooms, egg yolk and Iberico ham that melted on the tongue. They presented this on a glass disc that was flipped into different shapes as the courses progressed. Often times the food appeared to be floating above the plate.

 

 

Nestled in a fish boat, salmon roe, eggplant, buckwheat and perilla resembled an abstract painting more than another course. The buckwheat cracked with a crunch like cereal in my mouth.

A hearty helping of wild summer salmon with cherry and sour cabbage, reminded me a bit of the Northwest. The salmon was cooked perfectly to medium rare and the cabbage provided a contrasting texture.

The fragile lobster coral xiao long boa melted in my mouth. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The fragile lobster coral xiao long boa melted in my mouth. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The lobster coral xiao long bao was memorable with its feminine paper-thin pockets of pillowy liquid lobster broth disintegrated in my mouth instantly, with no need to chew.

And then there was what I like to call – lick the bowl moment – when I sipped the faux “shark fin soup,” with dungeness crab and Jinhua ham custard.

 

 

Faux shark fin soup with Jinhua ham was rich, silky and aromatic. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Faux shark fin soup with Jinhua ham was rich, silky and aromatic. Photo by Christine Willmsen

An unidentifiable smell hovering below my face, with the broth having numerous ingredients including chicken, garlic, ham, ginger and carrot. But the texture of the Jinhua ham had a remarkable, creamy texture that I’d not experienced. The server said they finely grade the ham from eastern China while it’s still frozen to create the texture. In the end out of courtesy for other guests, I refrained from licking the bowl.

 

 

Rely on Sommelier to choose your drinks

Chocolates hidden in wood boxes surprise the guests. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Chocolates hidden in wood boxes surprise guests. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I stayed away from adding the beverage pairing for an additional $150. Instead, I relied on the sommelier to choose just a couple of beverage pairings that would last the evening and hold up to multiple courses.

I started with a glass of Chablis for the first few courses, then a bone-dry Junmai sake with flavors of lychee and unripened Anjou pear. I completed the night with a Pinot Noir to match my salmon, roast quail and braised beef.

The night ended with a server opened and spun wooden boxes in different angles to offer hidden chocolate desserts.

Not once during the evening did I feel uncomfortable sitting at my table alone. I walked out of the restaurant with a dreamy smile and a bulging, satisfied stomach. The exploration of flavors was worth the price.

Cheers

Christine

Benu on Urbanspoon

A Great Sushi Happy Hour

Happy Hour Sushi for those on a budget

Large chunks of sashimi at Kozue restaurant make this the perfect quick dinner spot for one person. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Large chunks of sashimi at Kozue restaurant make this the perfect quick dinner spot for one person. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Kozue Japanese Restaurant is my new hot spot for singles to visit. This sushi restaurant not only has a great happy hour, but fresh fish at reasonable prices. Sometimes I just need my fix of sushi and want a place where I can grab sashimi, rolls and sake – and that’s why I love stopping in this little Wallingford restaurant, at 1608 N. 45th St., Seattle.

My go-to salad at this restaurant is the seaweed salad for $3.75. Photo by Christine Willmsen

My go-to salad at this restaurant is the seaweed salad for $3.75. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The Kozue happy hour, 5-9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5-6:30 p.m. on Friday and 3-6:30 p.m. on Saturday includes sake and rolls for $3 each.

Nibbles like the spinach with salmon skin, spicy tofu and spring rolls are also just $3. Other items on the menu that I recommend include sake sashimi (salmon) and unagi (freshwater eel).

Don’t forget to order the Black cod’n Tofu, which is two Japanese-style kabobs with tofu and black cod or the Tuna Poki Salad with avocadoes, each just $5.50.

Thanks to my friend, Athima, I discovered this hot spot that I think you’ll want to try too.

Cheers

Christine

Kozue Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Corn and Salmon Salad Recipe and Grilling Tips

A winning combination of ingredients for this chopped salad is salmon, corn and cherry tomatoes. Photo by Christine Willmsen

A winning combination of ingredients for this chopped salad is salmon, corn and cherry tomatoes. Photo by Christine Willmsen

 

Seattle’s smoked salmon, grilled corn and fresh garden ingredients make this salad a full dinner

It’s sweet corn time. As a girl who grew up in Iowa, we always bought sweet corn from a pickup truck on the side of the road after the farmers had picked the corn that morning. So it’s only natural that I find myself buying numerous ears of corn in July and wanting to create different recipes in addition to just putting them on the grill.

I’ll never forget a surprise gift from my dad several years ago when he was visiting Seattle. When he arrived he opened an extra piece of luggage and about two dozen corn picked that day from an Iowa farm spilled out of the bag. My heart was warmed by my dad’s sincerity and we ate plump, juicy corn for days. With sweet corn being grown throughout the U.S., almost anyone can get fresh corn from their farmers market or produce store.

Quick grilling tips for corn

Pull back husks of corn and remove any hairs, then season with salt, cumin and chili powder. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Pull back husks of corn and remove any hairs, then season with salt, cumin and chili powder. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Grill corn for 8-10 minutes in the husks to keep them moist. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Grill corn for 8-10 minutes in the husks to keep them moist. Photo by Christine Willmsen

To successfully grill corn, prep and season it. That means you need to pull the husks back, remove all the silk (fine hairs) and spice it up by rubbing a mixture of salt, chili powder and cumin.

Try your own spice combination. Rewrap the husks around the corn and grill for 8-10 minutes on medium-high heat. I always poke the corn with my fingernail and if it pierces the soft kernel and the juices explode then it’s time to pull it from the grill.

While I may eat an ear or two for dinner, I’ll grill another one so that I can use it for a salad the next day. I’ve created this recipe that combines Seattle’s finest smoked or cooked salmon with garden ingredients that are ripe right now including arugula and cherry tomatoes. This is a hearty salad that’s perfect for one person for dinner. To see The Solo Cook assemble the salad, watch King 5’s New Day Northwest show. The recipe below is inspired by the restaurant Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I had a memorable salad. I know once you try my salad you will be hooked on cooking extra ears of corn for this chopped salad.

Hot in the Kitchen: Corn and Salmon Salad Recipe

Cut all your ingredients and line them up to place them in a line on your plate, then drizzle dressing on top. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Cut all your ingredients and line them up to place them on your plate, then drizzle dressing on top. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Ingredients:

1/2 cup of corn or kernels from 1 grilled corn cob

1/2 cup chopped arugula

1/4 cup diced cherry tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped smoked salmon or cooked salmon

1/8 cup slivers asiago cheese

3 tablespoons pepitas

1/4 cup cooked pearl or Israeli couscous

Pesto Buttermilk Dressing:

Gently stir dressing in with the salad ingredients. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Gently stir pesto buttermilk dressing in with the salad ingredients. Photo by Christine Willmsen

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup pesto (store bought if easier)

Half of shallot chopped

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/3 lemon squeezed for juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine mayonnaise, pesto, shallots and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice into food processor and blend thoroughly.  As food processor continues to run, add buttermilk, remaining lemon juice and salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To prepare salad for presentation: place each ingredient in a line such as 1/4 cup arugula, 1/4 cup corn, tomatoes, asiago, salmon, pepitas, couscous, 1/4 cup corn and 1/4 cup arugula. Drizzle dressing on top of the ingredients. When ready to serve, lightly fold dressing into the ingredients. Leftover dressing can be stored for several days. Use the remaining dressing as a dip for fresh cut vegetables.

Cheers

Christine