We once opined that we were hard pressed to find great casual French restaurants in San Francisco. Now Monsieur Benjamin, opened last July by Co-Owners/Executive Chefs Corey Lee and Jason Berthold, is definitely filling the void. Both chefs are heavily pedigreed, with Lee having spent several years earning Michelin stars as Executive Chef at the French Laundry under Thomas Keller before striking out on his own with the excellent Asian-inspired Benu. Berthold was the opening chef for Michael Mina’s RN74 and stayed there for almost four years before joining forces with Lee to open Monsieur Benjamin.
Both chefs are extremely well versed in French cooking techniques, so it was with high anticipation that we dined at Monsieur Benjamin, their more casual (albeit still classy) bistro-style restaurant. Whimsically named by Chef Lee after he heard the name called out by a bellman in a Paris hotel, Monsieur Benjamin struck him as a perfect moniker that is both very French and very American. It’s an apt name for the restaurant since the menu evokes classic French fare while keeping San Francisco sensibilities.
On our first visit, we started with two of their cocktails: the Way Back When (Dry Rye Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Celery) and The Ace (Rye, Calvados, Sloe Gin, Honey, Lemon, Rosemary). Both drinks were not only very pretty to look at, but also well balanced in sweet and savory aspects:
The ambitious 50-item bistro menu is divided into six primary categories: Fruits de Mer (chilled seafood), Petit Plats (small plates), Hors d’Oevres (appetizers), Plats de Resistance (main course), Garnitures (sides) and Fromage et Desserts (cheeses and desserts). Over a couple of visits, we tried to sample as much of the menu as we could but still haven’t made our way completely through.
We tried the delicately baked Oysters Gratinee (note: these may not be on their current menu). The bivalves were topped with a breadcrumb and vegetable mixture that was crisply warm and creamy, but the oysters themselves were miraculously more on the raw side, offering a nice contrast of hot and cold in the same bite:
Benu Sommelier Yoon Ha has put together a fabulously affordable wine list that leans heavily toward the Old World wines with a few domestics thrown in – just the way we like it. For the seafood course, we opted to go with the Tavel Amido Les Almandines 2013 Rosé which had enough acidity to make it a perfect pairing:
Making our way through Petit Plats, we tried the Potato and Leek Croquettes with Gruyère and herbed creme fraiche sauce. Luckily, they gave us an even number so we wouldn’t have to fight for these perfect bites:
As big offal fans, we had to try the Pommes Gaufrette which came with a whipped chicken mousse. Waffled potato chips? We now can’t think of better vessels for the airy liver dip:
The Camembert Beignets alone are definitely worth returning for. The fluffy and savory beignets have been liberally dusted with dried cep mushroom powder providing a strong umami flavor:
We made our way to the Hors d’Oeuvres section and tried the Sweetbread Grenobloise. The lightly dredged and fried thymus glands made for a great classic dish from Grenoble, served in a pool of delicious brown butter and caper sauce:
Also from the appetizer section was the Beef Tongue Dijonnaise interestingly perched on a rye crostini, plated like it was sticking itself out at us. The herb salée (herbs preserved in salt) and mustard sauce made this taste like a great interpretation of a corned beef tongue sandwich. But looking at the carrots perfectly diced in equal minuscule size reminded us that there were some very high-end cooking techniques applied to this great dish:
It was time to move to red wine as we selected the ever food-friendly Domain de Piaugier 2011 Gigondas, a favorite of ours made from a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah from the Rhône region:
We also moved on to the Plats de Resistance (main course) and ordered the Duck Confit and Sausage. Served with turnips, grapes and a sauce au poivre (peppercorn sauce), it was a great tasting of duck two ways. Duck confit means the leg quarter is usually stored in its own fat for awhile before being pan-fried, but in this case, the duck was prepared sous-vide then crisply fried. So some “modernist cooking” techniques are applied with classic French style to come up with great updates of bistro-style food. The entrée might seem on the smaller side upon first inspection, but it was the right size given the richness of the overall dish, especially with that sauce:
For the other entrée, we had to go American with The Hamburger. Perfectly enveloped by melted Gruyère cheese and caramelized onions and served with excellent frites, we would easily come back for this burger:
From the Garniture (sides) section we went with the sinfully delicious potato and artichoke gratin:
On another visit we tried the Grilled Gem Lettuce served with a nicely acidic Sauce Ravigote:
We’re not much on dessert, but did share a plate of Comté Cheese, interestingly served with Pistachios and a fruit compote:
We met General Manager Thomas who pleasantly makes his way around the tables to make sure all are happy. Upon the completion of one of our dinners, he provided us with a thimble-sized digestif of Calvados which was just what we needed to end a great meal:
One of our visits was shortly after their opening, and we spied Chef Corey Lee working very hard at the pass (that’s his back) with hardly any time for a rest break:
An outside view of one of the City’s newest hot spots:
We’re definitely looking forward to making our way through the rest of the menu. The chilled seafood platter is a new item that we are definitely looking forward to ordering.