Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dear Georges Perrier: What the Bec has happened?

Gallery Image
Entrance to Le Bec Fin. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Gallery Image Gallery: Le Bec Fin
Le Bec Fin Video: Le Bec Fin
About the restaurant
1523 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19102
215-567-1000
Rating:
Neighborhood: Center City Parking: Free valet parking
Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday, 6-10 p.m.
Reservations: Recommended
Open Table
Prices: $$$$
Payment methods:
American Express
Discover
MasterCard
Visa
Cuisine type: French
Meals Served: Lunch - Mon., Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri. Dinner - Mon., Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri., Sat.
Style: A new owner and serious cooking have brought this bellwether gem of French gastronomy back from the edge, with French Laundry alums Nicholas Fanucci and chef Walter Abrams providing the talent Le Bec needs to someday rise to the top again. But while the $150 eight-course menu has extraordinary moments of modern inspiration, it hasn't hit its full stride yet. Even more concerning, aside from astronomical wine prices, the decision to restore the room's stuffy classical look rather than undertake a bolder revamp risks relegating the institution to the aging demographic that doomed the original as a relic in the first place. Dinner eight-course menu, $150; lunch five-course menu, $55. Chez Georges entrees, high $20s.
Specialties: Amuses-bouches (scallops and tomatoes; caviar tea sandwiches; goat confit; fluke sashimi); truffled omelet with Mimolette cheese; chilled borscht; foie gras; rabbit merguez with arepa; grilled cobia; scallop with kaffir lime tapioca; Lava Lake lamb; St. Canut Farms pork; mushroom "risotto"; apple cider shooter; napoleon of cream cheese; milk chocolate and passion fruit gateau; mignardises. Chez Georges: boeuf bourguignon; bouillabaisse; coq au vin.
Alcohol: Amiable sommelier Philippe Sauriat has nearly tripled the old cellar to 850 labels, 60 percent are French, 30 percent American, and 100 percent priced for those with Grand Cru wallets. The double to triple markups themselves aren't unusual, with prestige bottles from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Napa that expense accounts will find fair. But for mere mortals there are far too few choices under $100 a bottle. And though wines by the glass are uniformly outstanding, prices hitting the mid $20s are a put-off.
Weekend noise: Easy conversation at 78 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
Smoking: No smoking.

Downgraded 2 bells.

The cheese trolley is broken at Le Bec-Fin. And that's not all. No, the fact that its crystal lid had long since been replaced by plexiglass that split across the rear like a cheap suit was only a fraction of what was bothering me here.

The clueless server, scowling with faux gravitas, had rolled it up to our table backward, misidentified half its contents, and allowed the rind of one sloppy wedge to smear back and forth against the lid.

Dear Georges Perrier: What the Bec has happened?!

More coverage
  • Perrier will keep Le Bec-Fin open
  • Changing tastes, a fumbling economy, rising competition, and an even more inflated ego (Perrier's) have all played a role in the demise of what was the premier showpiece of Philadelphia dining for an incredible four decades.

    But the formidable challenge of evolving an institution rooted in the precision and lavish details of haute French gastronomy has proven, in this case, impossible. No Restaurant Week menu, no empty threats of closure, no gourmet burgers or renovation of the downstairs bar (which looks like an airport lounge) can save it.

    Over the course of four meals, I realized it had fallen farther and more swiftly than I'd ever imagined. There were occasional flashes of contemporary culinary wit that made it clear why Perrier had chosen young Nicholas Elmi, 31, as his chef. Batons of salsify root came draped with sea urchin over foamy poufs of bacon dashi - earthy, briny, smoky in one bite. Perfect duck with rutabagas was napped in rich red sauce edged by the sweetness of reduced maple, cider, and juniper. Truffles still worked magic on veal. A nutty froth of sweet vermouth enveloped branzino and artichokes. The splendid dessert cart was still proper, albeit reduced from its former grandeur.

    Elmi's feel for the classics, though, is spotty. The famous crab cake, once a perfect pedestal of creamy seafood mousse, arrived as an eggy, overcooked dome drenched in mustard mayo. The sausage-stuffed quail was basically a bird-shaped Bob Evans patty. The gamy wild hare terrine was sloppy with fleshy flaps. The stone crab terrine had the texture of tarragon-flecked chicken loaf.

    Even so, Elmi has three-bell skills, at least. But he has been given the impossible task of turning out ambitious tasting meals that will never be worth $85 to $185 with this decimated service team. Where once there were legions of career waiters whose pride and grace helped lend magic to this potentially intimidating room, we now have food runners stomping about in suits wondering what to do. Nearly an entire meal passed without my table's being crumbed.

    And Bernard, Georges' sommelier and younger brother, managed to utter something offensive at every visit. When I noted that my wife's riesling wasn't cold, he snapped dismissively: "That's the temperature I serve my wine."

    I can only imagine the surprise on my editors' faces when, at the end of their meals (having visited after my reports), they watched the cheese-cart lid go up and release a fruit fly, giddy from feasting on shriveled grapes.

    Someone, at least, was happy.

    Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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