The story: Chef Corey Lee established himself in San Francisco’s fine-dining scene when he opened the exquisite Benu restaurant in SOMA. For his second restaurant, he takes a more casual route but still creates a sophisticated and modern French bistro spot called Monsieur Benjamin on the ground floor of a splashy new building in Hayes Valley.
Why I went: Why wouldn’t I go to a place that bears my name? 😉 Turns out, Lee didn’t name the restaurant for a particular person, but just heard the name and thought it would be fun for a French bistro. My friend Craig suggested we check out my namesake for dinner.
The vibe: A modern and contemporary spot, brightly lit with bistro touches but with a more elegant vibe. The crowd is mostly young, a bit of the “new money” techies who saunter around the hip boutiques of the neighborhood.
The menu: A diverse menu that looks and feels French because of ingredients such as frog legs and escargot, but has a sense of modern California with a nod to fresh, quality ingredients. Led by Chef Jason Berthold, most recently of RN74, the menu included so many unusual items I wanted to try, from beef tongue to sea urchin. My friend Craig is a bit more conservative in his ordering, so he went with a simple chicken and vegetable soup ($12) as a starter, but with the first bite he said he could tell this wasn’t just your every day chicken soup. Plates are creative and full of flavor, but despite being Lee’s casual restaurant, it’s still on the high-end with main plates ranging from $18.50 to $36.
The booze: There’s a nice wine and beer list, with several French wine to pair with your meal. However, I went with the sole Napa Valley white wine (a Chardonnay) for dinner, and it was a refreshing medium-body wine to go with my meal.
My favorite dish: I had two favorite dishes. The first was my starter of Sweetbreads Grenobloise ($16.50) that was pan-fried with a bit of panko and served with sweet onions, capers, and brown butter. There was a nice tartness in the sauce that helped cut into the richness of the sweetbreads. My second favorite dish was dessert, an amazing layered cake called Gateau Marjolaine ($10.50) that was primarily a chocolate cake with creme anglaise. Every layer was a surprise in varying texture and taste, some crunch and some saltiness, blending for the perfect bite.
Insider tip: The sommelier for Monsieur Benjamin is extremely knowledgable and friendly, so don’t be afraid to request his assistance when ordering (especially since I found our server didn’t have a deep knowledge of the wine menu). I even saw a group of young diners come in to just get a glass of wine at the bar, and the sommelier gave them a quick wine tasting. The bar is a fun place to get a glass and see the chefs in action in the open kitchen.
The last bite: Monsieur Benjamin doesn’t remind me anything of Benu, and instead probably reminds me more of Berthold’s work at RN74, which is a good thing because it was an approachable menu but with a lot of style. While a meal here is still on the high-end, each bite makes you feel like it’s money well spent.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Monsieur Benjamin, 451 Gough St. (near Grove), San Francisco. PH: 415.403.2233. Open daily for dinner and late-night dining, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.monsieurbenjamin.com
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