The exterior of Monsieur Benjamin. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The left/south-facing dining room. Photo by Michael David Rose Photography courtesy UrbanDaddy.
The view from the bar, on the right side. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
A look into the bar and kitchen. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The busy kitchen. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Oeufs mayonnaise with pimentón and chervil. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Marrow bones “Blue Ribbon” with bacon marmalade, country bread. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Exciting times in Hayes Valley. Last week we mentioned that ~MONSIEUR BENJAMIN~ was opening, and I got to attend a preview meal to experience it firsthand the day before it opened (I know, I’m a lucky lady). Corey Lee (Benu) has brought on chef Jason Berthold (RN74)—the two share extensive French Laundry and Per Se training and experience. Lee notes: “We know the playbook of French flavors well, and have stayed connected to them.” Lee said he and Berthold speak the same culinary language—their shared history and reference points make for a much more seamless workflow. Lee says, “I’m so lucky to have him. I want to be able to enjoy Benu and not lose sight, and Jason is what makes it possible.”
With Monsieur Benjamin, they are offering a modern bistro experience, which means they have updated cooking methods and use of ingredients with a modern sensibility, while making references to classic French flavor profiles. For example, the steak tartare (which Lee notes is a dish that has been done to death) is made with hand-cut beef, and there’s a pudding of yolk that is seasoned and piped onto the plate. You’ll also find a pissaladière that is sheeted (it has a crisp, lavash-like texture) with the flavors of anchovy and olive, and on the plate there are pulverized dried capers (which Lee notes are more delicate)—when you take a bite with your eyes closed, you taste a delicious (but updated) tartare.
It’s an extensive menu, with many small plates (from deviled eggs to oysters gratinées), a list of appetizers I want to try each and every one of (the sweetbreads and marrow bones “Blue Ribbon” with Della Fattoria bread were outstanding), plus 13 entrées that average around $27-$28—you’ll find steak frites ($36) and a burger ($18.50), as well as roast chicken and Artic char amandine. These à la carte dishes are not compositions: you have a sauce, a garnish, and voilà. Dessert includes a palmier ice cream with Calvados caramel; mon dieu was that good.
Aidlin Darling Design (Bar Agricole, Bar Bambino) is behind the urban and handsome 90-seat space. When you walk in, there’s a dining area both to the left and the right, with the bar in the center of the space—the open kitchen extends into the back. The south-facing side (closer to Hayes Street) has more light and a bar at normal table height (that is also ADA compliant), as well as a communal table made from a single piece of marble, while you’ll find a marble bar with tall bistro-style stools on the right side.
I had a cocktail at the bar, and they are doing a unique setup: your drink is prepared at an island in the middle of the bar area instead of assembling it in front of you, and you won’t see any liquor bottles—just the glassware that hangs above the island. It’s makes for a sleek and uncluttered view.
The dining rooms are in hues of charcoal (including the hex-tiled floor), with deep brown wood panels around the center bar island, and chestnut banquettes along the walls, with glowing filament bulbs suspended from the ceiling. The tables are topped with paper, and the wood chairs are in a classic shape. There’s definitely an urban aesthetic in play—especially noted in the custom metal shelving and the table legs of the communal table—mixing with references to classic Parisian style. Seamless windows surround the space with no breaks in the panels, creating a light-filled indoor-outdoor feeling; there will be outdoor seating added too.
A big deal is the fact this modern bistro is serving until 1am nightly. Lee has longed for a late-night bistro since he moved here in late 2009, but he didn’t want to create a super-traditional facsimile of a French bistro because as he says, “when it’s taken out of context, it feels hollow.” His first job was at Blue Ribbon in New York, and he learned how you have to commit to staying open late night consistently and you have to offer a full menu to truly cater to the late-night crowd. It will be the spot to go after the symphony and opera for sure. Hours for now are nightly 5pm-1am. Brunch will also be added soon.
A couple of other things that have Corey Lee extra-busy: in spring 2015, he has a book coming out with Phaidon, and he is casually looking into is creating a Korean barbecue spot—it’s another thing he thinks our city is missing. Lucky for us, Lee is a creative force who never stops pushing.