With an abundance of food channels and social media, it has become more and more sexy for restaurants to come up with the next Instagrammable dishes using unexpected ingredients and techniques. That trend is perhaps more acute in big cities such as New York where diners can be quite discerning and at times overzealous to experience the next big thing in town. Against this backdrop, we have Benno, a new restaurant from chef Jonathan Benno who formerly made his name at the venerable (or is it still? I’m looking to actually find out soon next month with my wife Jun for our anniversary dinner) Per Se and then at Lincoln. I had visited Lincoln a couple of times and while the food wasn’t too bad it was not groundbreaking either. If chef Benno comes out of the ceiling of Lincoln Center and strikes out on his own with his eponymous restaurant, what would it look like? In looking at the menu itself, you wouldn’t know this is one of the best new restaurants in NYC. The menu at first glance looks like a dated hodgepodge of classical French and Italian dishes designed to play it safe. Well, Jun and I have always taken a position that boring but delicious dishes are always so much better than creative but not-so-delicious dishes, and we both agree that chef Benno was right on the money with his approach to cooking that may be predictable but technically sound and sophisticated.
Benno only has tasting menus (a la carte options are available at the bar), at $95, $125 and $124 per person for three, four and five courses respectively. If you want to explore chef Benno’s culinary philosophy without stuffing yourself with too much food, I would say the four-course option is the best way to do so that you can order one appetizer, one pasta, one main dish and one dessert. One dish that you should not miss whichever option you choose is the coddled egg with mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, young leeks and black truffle mousseline. The photo (Jun only took the upside view of the dish) doesn’t do this dish enough justice; you have a combination of ingredients that work beautifully together and will fit at any other fine dining restaurant. The Monterey Bay red abalone a la polonaise was another stand-out appetizer, with abalone, mushroom and cauliflower giving a pleasantly citrusy kick t hanks to the use of lemon. Since chef Benno’s last stop was an Italian restaurant (Lincoln), you should give a try to at least one pasta. Jun and I absolutely loved the lumache with Maine lobster using fra diavolo sauce that gave a nice kick but didn’t overpower our palate. The balanced flavor, along with the perfect al dente feel of the pasta, made this dish one of our favorite for the night. The other pasta dish that we shared, spaghetti di grano arso (made with burnt-wheat), was quite earthy and provided a very nice contrast to the clams and sea urchin that accompanied it.
For the entrée, as an eager duck meat person, Jun ordered toe Rohan duck without hesitation and it turned out to be the smart move. The duck meat was juicy with impeccable balance in texture, and the addition of foie gras and turnips was spot on. I ordered the black bass, which was quite expertly cooked, and the moderate flavor of garlic-parsley butter and the side of fingerling potatoes certainly helped enhance the fish’s appeal, although I wasn’t sure the escargots in the same plate fit in. For dessert, the decadent babka with dark chocolate, pistachio halva and coffee-cardamom gelato is the way to go if you don’t feel guilty about all the calories and sugar. The other dessert we shared, which Jun thought was the only dud among all the excellent dishes she had tried, was cheesecake with pine nut and basil gelato. As a huge Junior’s Cheesecake fan, Jun didn’t think the texture of the cheesecake was quite up to her standard.
Now that all the accolades from critics (deservedly so) have been coming in, Benno has become a more difficult restaurant to book during prime time so make sure to book in advance. There is full bar at Benno, and I was quite pleasantly surprised that the restaurant’s wine list carries some fantastic value below $100 per bottle from the leading wine regions of the world. The service was more or less up to the standard of peer fine dining restaurants, although curiously the staff brought out a candle celebrating my birthday next to the cheesecake (and my birthday is in December). Jun and I both liked the décor and ambiance of the restaurant which is not too stuffy but stylish without sacrificing subtle elegance of the dining space. Benno is without question one of the top newcomers in the crowded dining scene in NYC. If you are looking for molecular gastronomy or the next “It” dish to put on your Instagram, you might be disappointed; if you are just looking for a fantastic dinner with classical dishes displaying exquisite execution, this is really the place worth giving a try.
KenScale: 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10)
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 9.0/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 9.0/10
- Value: 8.5/10
Address: 7 East 27th Street, New York, NY 10016
Telephone: (212) 451-9557