In mid 2016, when the Michelin Guide announced that 29 restaurants in Singapore received Michelin stars, I had already been to 22 of them. Might as well visit the rest. Shortly after the announcement that Beni has a star, the French-Japanese restaurant closed for renovation and moved two floors down from its original shop at Mandarin Gallery. It reopened recently in Dec 2016.
French-Japanese cuisine is how Japanese chefs interpret French cuisine, and it’s in a class of its own. The kitchen is headed by Chef de cuisine Kenji Yamanaka, who graduated in 1996 from the L’École Technique Hôtelière Tsuji Château de l’Éclair in Liergues, France. His resume includes three Michelin starred restaurants such as Georges Blanc in Vonnas, France, and L’Osier in Ginza Tokyo, where he was under the tutelage of Chef de Cuisine Jacques Borie (who holds the title of Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France).
Beni serves only fixe prix menu, no a la carte. The most affordable: a 4-course lunch (weekdays only) at $68++. Lunch degustation (7 courses) goes for $128++, and lunch precieux (5 courses) with Yamanaka’s signature, Ozaki wagyu, at $228++. Dinner is at $178++ or $258++. Being penurious, I went for the 4-course.
The first course, which really ought to be complimentary and be called an amuse bouche, is counted towards the four courses. But it is fantastic. The Norwegian salmon smoked by applewood is a delicate touch of salt, chased by a lovely sweetness, like the first warm breeze of spring after winter. It is topped with leek puree, snowpea, and caviar from Paris. Although the dish is only about 3 teaspoonfuls, it’s umami and orgasmic. I closed my eyes and felt high.
The second course, an interpretation of a canape, is dominated by the earthly Hokkaido mushrooms done two ways, whole and puree, atop a puff pastry. There is a hint of pungency from pecorino cheese from France and a touch of saltiness from Italy’s chorizo. All these heavy flavors are undercut by the lemon sauce. Good balance.
The main course is kinmedai (red snapper) from Kanagawa prefecture, luxuriating in a black pepper truffle sauce. It’s a delicate, light fish, and in the hands of a lesser chef, it could be a disaster; the sauce could have overpowered the taste of the fish. But here, it is a delight. The subtle fish plays off the gravy like a moon in the encroaching darkness. The vegetables are amazing too, crunchy to the softness of the fish: snowpeas, yacon from Argentina, and petite verte which is a cross between brussels sprouts and kale.
Fish is always difficult to pull off in a restaurant because a fish dish depends mostly on the freshness of the ingredient, not culinary skills. Anyone can easily pan-fry a salmon, and a pan-fried salmon tastes the same whether it’s done by a 12 year-old or by Gordon Ramsay. But here, Yamanaka’s culinary skills come to the fore, and he has created a dish with contrasting textures and complementary flavors, all without drowning the taste of the delicate fish. Well done.
Baba cake is usually soaked in rum, but this one is in Hibiki whiskey. It is topped with chocolate mousse, yuzu peel, and gold foil, and paired with yuzu ice cream, and chocolate tuile. Inside the cake, custard fills it. Competent but a little incongruous to the clean touch of the savory dishes.
Most executive chefs no longer cook; they usually stand at the end of the line and check the food before it gets sent out to diners. I admire how Yamanaka does prep work and cooks the food in the open kitchen for us the customers.
I also admire the style running through the courses: it’s a light, delicate, clean, restrained touch like the gentleness of a Japanese novel. Not Murakami’s magic realism, not Mishima’s perverse beauty, but a quiet, small Japanese novel like, maybe, Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami.
Having recently eaten at the two Michelin-starred L’effervescence in Tokyo, which also serves French-Japanese food, Beni doesn’t pale in comparison. I paid $80 for my meal. And thus concludes my adventure with all 29 Michelin-starred restaurants in Singapore, and it concluded with a boomz. Well done, Beni. I’m willing to return and let you take more of my money.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.