Around the midpoint of Benu's 12-course tasting menu, right when the fish courses are giving way to the redder meats and the sakes and white wines cede to the reds, comes a bowl of "shark's fin" soup, quotes included. The waiters bring out a bowl whose bottom is covered in an unattractive disk of black-flecked truffle custard, gussied up with a tussock of clear noodles and Dungeness crab. Then they pour a steaming cola-colored broth overtop. With every swish of the spoon through the soup, the custard melts, the filaments soften, and the intensity of the dish becomes more pronounced.
SFoodie's countdown of the 92 best things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.
Chef Corey Lee's dish doesn't just pulse with umami, it wittily ties
together four strands of luxury dining: Shark's fin soup is still an
essential, if controversial, element in many Chinese banquets ― and the layered, long-simmered supreme broth is itself a
technical masterpiece requiring several day to concoct. The black truffles, of course, play an equivalent role in classic French haute cuisine. (Incidentally,
Lee says he designed the bowls, which have a slight indentation at
their bottoms, specifically to serve the steamed truffle custard.)
Representing San Francisco's obsession with local, sustainable sourcing,
the chef skips the real shark's fin (phew) and adds our own Dungeness crab. The fourth, most contemporary school of haute
cuisine represented in the dish is the technical wizardry popularized by places like El Bulli and
Alinea; those fine strands of mock shark's fin are actually the same broth, gelled with a combination of hydrocolloids Lee spent months perfecting.
Conceptually, the soup is a tour de force. Thankfully, it tastes like one, too.
Benu: 22 Hawthorne (at Howard), 685-4860.
Other dishes in this series:
92: Goat tacos from El Norteño