22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Chef Corey Lee
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Tried: August 2010
201 South California Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306
Chef Bruno Chemel
Lunch Friday only
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday
Tried: September 2010
I went to Benu with unbelievably high expectations and to Baume with relatively low expectations, and left with basically the same impression from both-- that each restaurant suffers from too much focus on appearance instead of content. Somewhere underneath the sculted exterior (in the case of Benu) and the unnecessary theatrics (in the case of Baume), the potential for great food is struggling to escape from each chef's blinding vision of what he wants the restaurant to be.
The plating and presentation of every single dish at Benu, from the starting amuse to the concluding petit fours, were flawless. They were easily the most beautiful plates I have ever seen in any restaurant, including French Laundry, and they could all be featured as museusm pieces if anyone were to curate a collection on fine dining. Sadly, the taste did not live up to the beauty and majesty of their appearance. Monkfish liver, one of my all time favorite ingredients, tasted fishy in the context of contorting it to look and act like foie gras torchon-- it was literally fish out of water. In a similar fashion, the components of most of the tasting menu were underseasoned or mismatched, not helped by wine pairings that were overpowering, had too high alcohol levels, or had lost aromatics likely from having the bottles open for too long. The "shark fin" soup, composed of black truffle custard, Jinhua ham, and dungeness crab, and the beef rib cap, served with mitsuba greens with a hint of Korean sesame-soy flavoring, were the only dishes among the lineup that contained a sparkle of vitality and animation, something that made you want to exclaim "mmmm" with a satisfied exhale.
In contrast, the food at Baume, if you could separate it from all of the distractions of the bubbles, foam, smoke, and sodium alginate, was almost delicious. For example, the abalone with matsutake mushrooms would have been pure poetry if not for the off-putting smoke and paint-chip texture of the shiso sorbet, since both the abalone and the matsutake mushrooms were perfectly prepared. Had the chef made a real sorbet, the dish would have been a winner.
Since I had the menu decouverte, I only observed but did not personally experience the sillyness of knocking over the vegetable terrine as the servers were instructing the diners to do with the dish in order to see its stacked presentation (begging the question of why it was not plated that way in the kitchen in the first place). The only thing I discovered from the menu decouverte is why most of these techniques have been discarded by restaurants years ago; I felt like I needed to get an antidote to liquid nitrogen after the meal. Ferran Adria must be turning over in his bed at Harvard. Baume is about as avant-garde as Madonna in ripped lace and plastic jewelry. Almost every dish was foaming, fizzing, bubbling, smoking, or encased in rubbery bubbles of sodium alginate. The most frustrating part is that there might actually be tasty food underneath the smoke and mirrors.
While both of these restaurants show glimmers of promise, I have neither the level of patience nor the credit card limit to be able to indulge in further investigation.