Dear Georges Perrier: What the Bec has happened?

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 No, the fact that its crystal lid had long since been replaced by plexiglass that split across the rear like a cheap suit was only a fraction of what was bothering me here.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?!

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.

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