Having conquered the fine dining domains with The French Laundry (chef) and Benu (chef and owner), Corey Lee has set his sights on the casual dining realm with Monsieur Benjamin. With the help of chef Jason Berthold (RN74, The French Laundry, Per Se), Lee set out to create a modern French bistro with a moderately priced menu. After a month of opening, we decided to dine at the restaurant and understand how well his plans have been executed. The following is a summary of our findings.
Exterior / Interior
[maxgallery name=”monsieur-benjamin-exterior-interior”]Monsieur Benjamin is located in a reinvigorated area of Hayes Valley along a thriving section of Gough Street filled with restaurants and shops. Residing under the new 300 Ivy condominium complex, the restaurant sits at the building’s corner with large clear glass windows bedecking the entrance and exterior sides. The transparent glass walls add to the surrounding area’s liveliness by allowing the restaurant’s activities and energies to bleed onto nearby sidewalks and streets. Paying homage to a character in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, a glowing red neon fox crowns the entrance and represents the restaurant’s logo.
One large room occupies the interior with two separate dining areas flanking a center positioned kitchen and bar. The bar is situated towards the front and shares a common space with the kitchen in the rear. In the dining areas, hanging Edison bulbs send warm light over the austere yet modern styled tables, chairs, and walls. On our Saturday night visit, the atmosphere was warm and vibrant with a significant amount of activity from the kitchen and bar area.
Dagger of a Day (Cognac, Bonal, Apricot Liqueur, Angostura – $12.50)
[maxgallery name=”monsieur-benjamin-cocktail”]The Dagger of a Day was presented as a ruddy reddish brown liquor in a small stemmed tulip shaped glass. Sipping the drink revealed mellow fruit flavors of plum and cherry with a finish of alcohol and favorable bitterness. The only drawback to the velvety and complex drink was the apéritif sized glass held a small serving amount relative to the drink’s cost.
Potato and Leek Croquettes (Gruyere, Herb Crème fraîche – $7.50)
[maxgallery name=”monsieur-benjamin-croquettes”]The potato and leek croquettes arrived as four stacked fried balls stuffed with a chopped potato and leek filling. The outer fried shell was light and crisp and hid a simple filling that bursted with flavor and freshness. A ramekin of fresh crème fraîche was provided, however, the croquettes were best enjoyed alone.
Sweetbreads Grenobloise (Sweet Onion, Capers, Brown Butter – $16.50)
[maxgallery name=”monsieur-benjamin-sweet-breads”]The small sweetbreads grenobloise dish contained two chunks of sweetbreads doused with a grenobloise sauce of sweet onion, capers, and brown butter. Each portion was sweet, light, firm, and covered in a thin delicate fried batter. The acidic sauce had a slight sour pungency but overall contrasted well with the sweet and fatty richness of the sweetbreads.
Quail a la Chasseur (Mushrooms, Savoy Cabbage, Vin Jaune – $32.00)
[maxgallery name=”monsieur-benjamin-quail”]On a bed of cooked savoy cabbage, the roasted quail was uniquely presented with crossed legs and charred curled feet. Slicing through the crisp skin of the bird’s puffed breasts revealed an herb infused sausage patty that oozed flavorful juices to the tender quail meat below. A sauce server containing a mixture of quail’s drippings and vin jaune added a mild sweetness to the dish.
Artic Char Amandine, (Haricots Verts, Sunchoke, Beurre Noisette – $28.50)
[maxgallery name=”monsieur-benjamin-artic-char”]The artic char entree arrived as a cut fillet topped with chopped sliced almonds and herbs over a bed of string beans, sunchoke puree, and beurre noisette sauce. Visually similar to a salmon fillet, this char example had a creamy texture but disappointingly lacked significant flavor. The majority of flavors came from the nutty sunchoke puree, buttery beurre noisette, and chopped almonds. Given the perceived level of dish preparation and type of ingredients, the dish seemed somewhat overpriced.
Gateau Marjolaine, (Hazelnut, Praline, Crème Anglaise – $10.50)
[maxgallery name=”monsieur-benjamin-gateau-marjolaine”] The slice of Gateau Marjolaine was a triumph in french cake making. The layers of buttercream, hazelnut praline, and chocolate ganache harmoniously interacted with a balanced amount of sweetness, texture, and flavor. The crème anglaise custard added a creamy and eggy aspect to the cake’s cocoa, hazelnut and rum flavors.
Overall [usr 3.5]
Each dish showed proper cooking techniques, ingredient flavor balance, and overall reflected a maturity in french cuisine knowledge and experience. Despite being content with our dining experience, we felt the final bill of $139 (including tip) was somewhat expensive. We wonder whether Corey Lee has priced himself out of a moderately priced bistro experience he sought with Monsieur Benjamin. Given the somewhat upscale Hayes Valley location, vibrant social setting, and high quality French inspired menu, the higher prices may not significantly impact the restaurant’s ability to fill tables.