Dining

Bonjour, Monsieur

Chef Corey Lee's new Hayes Valley French restaurant is one for all occasions

Monsieur Benjamin, Corey Lee's new California-fied French restaurant, may be emulating the modern bistrotheque movement in Paris—but it's all nouveau Hayes Valley in style and spirit.

This is Lee's follow-up to fine-dining destintion Benu. Here, he's trying to create the kind of all-occasion neighborhood bistro that's lively into the wee hours—and so far, it's working.

Chef Jason Berthold, a fellow French Laundry alum, is heading up the kitchen, and helped craft the extensive selection of 30-plus dishes. Because it's trying to be all things to all people, the menu's breadth may overwhelm at first, but soon we found ourselves seeing it as a choose-your-own-adventure meal map.

Looking for a quick pre-symphony bite? Sample a couple of petit plats, snack-size portions that go nicely with the restaurant's concise cocktail list. In the Camembert beignets ($7 for six), the buttery, rich cheese is folded into the dough and the delicate fried squares are sprinkled liberally with dried cep mushroom powder. Deeply savory, they were the perfect foil to the refreshing, rum-based Pass the Hat ($11) with Aperol, fino sherry, Bonal and lime.

And if you need a late-night bite after one too many at Smuggler's Cove, snag a corner table and indulge in the burger and frites ($18.50) or Monsieur Benjamin's take on a French dip ($18.50)—they're open until 1 a.m. nightly, making them a top contender for (relatively) late-night grub in the city.

Of course, you may want a multicourse meal of French classics, like pâté de campagne ($14.50) and a textbook steak frites ($36). The bavette steak has a gorgeous ruby-hued interior, herby jus, buttery sauce choron and a pile of thin-cut fries that you may not be able to stop eating.

Our favorite dishes showcase modern techniques and surprising ingredients that subtly show the chef's sleight of hand. It's seen in the steak tartare ($16.50), dotted with golden egg yolks, as well as cornichon, parsley, chives and white flecks of dried Wagyu beef fat, giving the plate an appearance of a messy painter's palate.

The real coup de grâce is the life-changing lobster ragout ($32), a carryover from Benu: Freshly made spaghetti is topped with an ample amount of sweet, fresh lobster, simmered in a bacony sauce with a touch of heat, thanks to Korean pepper paste.

Much like the menu, the somewhat industrial, airy space has something for everyone: hanging Edison bulbs, a wide-open kitchen, nods to oldschool bistro design (oxblood banquettes, wooden tables and chairs), a small fox decal glowing neon red against the restaurant's exterior (inspired by the fox from The Little Prince), an inoffensive sound track of Motown tunes.

A restaurant for any occasion? For sure. Welcome to the neighborhood, Monsieur.

Monsieur Benjamin 451 Gough St. San Francisco CA 94102 415-403-2233

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