When two ambitious head chefs, both mentored by the famously rigorous Thomas Keller, decide to quit Keller's kitchens in the same year, restaurant groupies the world over are left with a reservation quandary: which coast first? Jonathan Benno and Corey Lee hung up their aprons at Per Se and The French Laundry respectively, but while neither has strayed far geographically - Benno from Columbus Circle to Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Lee from just south of Napa Valley to San Francisco - their new menus are a radical departure, not just from Keller but also from each other. In New York, Benno packs his essential Emiliomiti for old-school Italian flavours at Lincoln; in California, Lee jettisons his stockpot for a journey to the Far East on the menu at Benu. "Chefs aren't cast in a mould like they used to be," says Keller of the very different flavour profiles his protégés have chosen for their solo ventures. "The food is infused with our personality, our points of view."
At Lincoln, Benno eschews Keller's interpretive French stylings for what could be construed as uptown down-home Italian. Why spag Bol from the man who earned raves for his ability to interpret the Keller oeuvre? Let's just say Benno's disc-shaped lasagne verdi alla Bolognese with a veal and pork ragù is a far cry from what nonna used to make. Of his decision to focus on la cucina vera, he says, "I love the food, the people, the culture."
At Lincoln's bar, dishes arrive swiftly for those who prefer the characteristic informality of Upper West Side dining. A seductive slab of foie gras-rabbit-sweetbread terrine is both silken and coarse, though rigati pasta dressed with sea urchin sauce and a modest chunk of Dungeness crab meat is unlikely to inspire plate envy in the hedge fund manager on the next stool devouring the gutsier lamb shoulder, garlic sausage and Romanesco cauliflower. The sleek glass box, with its grass-covered roof that slants like a tent, is positioned next to the performing arts centre's reflecting pool. It's the perfect outlook for diners who choose to linger over pastry chef Richard Capizzi's delightful cherry tartufo rather than rush out with the locals as the curtain rises at the Metropolitan Opera.
On the West Coast, Corey Lee's Benu (which is backed by Keller, among others) has just 24 tables, less than a quarter of the seats at Lincoln on a busy matinée day. His first solo venue is located in SoMa, south of Market Street, a hip district of nightclubs and major art institutions slap up next to the grittier Tenderloin neighbourhood. Benno may dream of sunny Sicily but Lee takes his cues from Korea, China and Japan. It could be argued that he has an equal challenge opening a pan-Asian dining room in a foggy city where some variation of egg roll is found on menus from the Embarcadero to Nob Hill. But no one else is cooking with acorns. "People eat them in Korea, where I was born, but they also have a long history as a food source in Mesopotamia," Lee says. "I like to pair them with Ibérico ham and black truffles. The marriage is obvious." And the humour equally so, like that of his former maestro.
Lee also does pasta on his à la carte. His rigatoni, though, is swirled with sea cucumber, oxtail and star anise while the tomato-garlic spaghettini has a dollop of salty karasumi (Japan's dried mullet roe) with a chilli kick. The ever-changing tasting menu, a dozen or so kaiseki-style bites, inspires lyricism in those tantalised by such pairings as caramelised anchovy jelly with peanuts, eel and crème fraîche, or sweet rice sorbet and pine-needle-infused honey. When asked if he misses the world-class foragers associated with The French Laundry, Lee says, "I chose San Francisco to stay close to those purveyors, but even 50 miles south, I can source wonderful ingredients from small producers not on our radar in Napa."