What to Order at Corey Lee's New Monsieur Benjamin

French classics by Keller alums, complete with cocktails and French wines
July 29, 2014
by Virginia Miller

Welcome to the Cheat Sheet, a back-pocket guide to restaurants you need to know, based on findings from a visit close to opening day. 

The Gist: Just open July 9, Monsieur Benjamin is important first and foremost because it was opened by Corey Lee, the Thomas Keller pedigreed chef behind Benu, which has been a runaway success since it opened in 2010. The kitchen is helmed by chef Jason Berthold, previously of RN74, French Laundry and Per Se. Lee and Berthold met when they worked together at The French Laundry. Appropriately, the menu they've created together is all modern French bistro fare. Classic dishes meet current-day San Francisco in a Hayes Valley spot that serves food till 1 AM. 

The Vibe: Inspired by the fox character from The Little Prince, a neon-red fox marks the spot from the street and the same fox shape appears on plates and the back of menus. Inside, the vibe is casual-chic, with a bustling bistro feel and open space centered by the bar and kitchen. It's not overwhelmingly noisy, and floor-to-ceiling windows let in lots of light. 

Duck confit and duck sausages [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]

Eat This: With over 40 dishes, the menu encapsulates classic French dishes with current flair, running the gamut from Camembert beignets ($7) to lamb leg steak ($28). The kitchen's standout dishes dominate in the starters section, where the portions are generally quite small. A winning "petits plats" or snack-size order is pommes gaufrette, a tiny, whipped portion of chicken liver, fluffy and gorgeous, served with house waffle chips for dipping. While we didn't find the bone marrow ($18) overwhelmingly great compared to other versions around the U.S., it is a tribute to NY's classic Blue Ribbon where Lee used to work. The highlight of the dish is the accompanying bacon jam. The price for the seafood sausage is high — one small sausage for $17.50 — but it was the most impressive starter: a juicy, white link (pictured below), plump with scallops, shrimp, bass, clams, lobster and pine nuts in a beurre rose sauce.

Tread Lightly: Save for the more affordable burger and French Dip sandwich ($18.50 each), the entrees are solid, but the two we tried didn't wow for the high price tag. Our favorite was the lobster ragout over spaghetti ($32), based on a popular Lee dish at Benu. Meanwhile, tender duck confit and sausage ($27) was excessively salty, cut only with plump green grapes. It had us longing for the generous, perfect duck confit at Sent Sovi in Saratoga.

Drink This: Master Sommelier Yoon Ha features a number of small French and Californian producers. We liked a mineral 2012 Meyer-Fonne Pinot Blanc from Alsace, France ($12 a glass) and a rosy-dry 2013 Edmunds St. John Gamay Rosé from the Sierra Foothills. On the cocktail front, the menu is French spirits-dominant (Calvados, cognac and the French style of rum from Martinique, rhum agricole). We liked the savory, vegetal notes of the Way Back When ($10), a strong pre-drink sipper mixing St. George's Dry Rye Gin with Yellow Chartreuse and celery. Another favorite is The Ace ($10), a refreshing mix of rye whiskey and Calvados with Spirit Works Sloe Gin, honey, lemon and rosemary.

Cocktails: left, Pass the Hat (rhum agricole, Aperol, Fino sherry, Bonal, lime) and right, The Ace (see above) [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]

Skip This: Though the concept of palmier ice cream doused in Calvados caramel ($8 for 3 scoops) sounded brilliant, it was so sweet and rich, we barely got through one scoop. And we love rich food. 

The Damage: Particularly for the more casual vibe and small portion sizes, it's pricey. We paid nearly $250 for dinner for two, consisting of one item from the "bites" section of the menu, two starters, two entrees and ice cream, along with a cocktail and a glass of wine.

The Verdict: Only a couple weeks in, Monsieur Benjamin is already bustling with a sophisticated Hayes Valley crowd and energy and we like the modern-day French bistro approach. For cocktails or wine with bites, it's gratifying. As a full meal, it's less gratifying than other stellar midrange to upscale spots in its price range, including newcomers like Aveline or fantastic modern greats like Commonwealth. Don't come looking for a more casual Benu. So far, it's not even close. 

451 Gough St.; 415-403-2233

Seafood sausage [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]

Prior Cheat Sheet coverage on Zagat San Francisco:

alaMar, Oakland
Lure+Till, Palo Alto
Captain & Corset, Oakland
Piattini, The Mission, SF
Kaiju Eats, The Richmons, SF
Gashead Tavern, The Mission, SF

new openings
corey lee