Le Bec is back from the brink.
And it was as clear as the crystal baubles sparkling in those chandeliers. Somewhere between the silver spoonfuls of tomato-brined fluke sashimi, the succulent Québécois pork, the otherworldly bowls of foraged mushrooms, and the box of exquisite truffles and candied-apple macaroons we toted away from our meal, I knew Le Bec Fin, with new stewards, had escaped its near-death to become as exciting and relevant as it has been in a decade.
But is that enough? I feel hopeful, buoyed by three excellent meals. They were also extraordinarily expensive (no surprise), the eight-course $150 dinner ending up costing $500 for two all in, with only modest amounts of wine. And new owner Nicolas Fanucci has made a potentially serious misstep by not undertaking a bolder revamp of Le Bec's classic decor - which would have been a sign that he sees a new vision for the restaurant's soul, rather than a polished rendition of its past.
It's essential, since Le Bec had slipped from its once-towering pedestal of luxury over the last 10 years to eventually be submerged beneath changing tastes and rising competition. One can now eat just as well at half a dozen places, more casually, at a fraction of the price.
"In 2003, we were always packed," lamented Fanucci, wistfully recalling the year he left Georges Perrier's orbit to eventually become general manager of Napa's legendary French Laundry. "It is so hard to get people back."
It will be a fight. The freshened-up gold-and-navy dining room was not exactly dead that day. But the smattering of elderly patrons at the linen tables sounded close enough, hacking frequently between pauses, sending back their iced tea, muttering "Georges" every few minutes as if he were the patron saint. Which, of course, he is.
Fanucci and his team, led by fellow French Laundry alums, chef Walter Abrams and his pastry chef-fiance, Jennifer Smith, have already gone a long way toward restoring a worthy buzz to Georges' beloved 4-decade-old palace, which, when I last visited in January, was a crumbling ruin of its former four-bell self.
The engaging young service staff, some of whom also came from the French Laundry, are true professionals, eager to talk about the kitchen compressing melons for the sepia salad (a striking contrast of briny sea and summer sweet), or what coast the seaweed was foraged from for the house-blended furikake seasoning dusted over the sweet corn soup. And Abrams assures that their dialogue is more than mere pretense, quickly proving to be an exciting new talent with a knack for sourcing great seasonal and local ingredients, then spinning them into elegant combinations.
Quarry Hill Farm in Harleysville has been the trove for much of the early bounty. Its eggs are whipped into elfin omelet perfection, rolled around Mimolette cheese with black truffle butter. The farm's rabbits are simmered into rillettes, or ground into spicy merguez sausage beside shaved summer plums and a mini-arepa, paying corn-cake homage to Abrams' Colombian childhood. The farm's goats are transformed into tiny hors d'oeuvres cubes of the most tender confit, crisped on the outside but so sublimely savory I still think of them weeks later.
I don't know if humble goat ever made the luxury cut on previous Le Bec menus. But Abrams has displayed an encouraging and contemporary spirit of adventure, taking on live wild snapping turtles (for an herbal pond-green soup), ripe pawpaws (for a tart dolloped with Époisses), and all manner of curiosities unearthed by the restaurant's foragers. Most memorable was my first "tooth coral" mushroom, crisped in butter like some prehistoric fern and blooming over a bowl of pylon-orange chanterelles, sweet beets, and shredded chicken of the woods, magnified by the rich, starchy cream from risotto (minus the rice, skimmed for staff meal).
There were occasional flaws - the turtle meat should have been more tender; the Époisses overpowered the pawpaw's delicate tropical notes; a sweetbread crepinette sausage was oversalted. The various little breads between courses were too ordinary to be worthy of their own "tasting."
But these complaints were rare in meals that showed technical prowess and creativity, from the kaffir lime-infused tapioca beads set beneath a delicate oyster and seared scallop (a nod to the Laundry's "oysters and pearls"?) to the soulfully stewed boeuf bourguignon and gorgeous bouillabaisse (draped with creamy sea urchin) that anchored bistro flavors in the Chez Georges bar downstairs.
That a la carte bar menu, with entrees in the high $20s, and the $55 five-course lunch upstairs, may be the best point of entry for those curious for a taste of what the new Le Bec is cooking.
I'm still savoring some of the most elegant plates from our tasting menus: the meaty chunk of grilled cobia set beside the fresh pop of baby black-eyed peas; the ethereal crimson stream of chilled borscht poured tableside over tiny Mexican gherkins, puffed wheat, and tart yogurt; the pure silk of foie gras terrine, shaped like a gold brick beside fresh figs and a little baba cake dipped in coffee; the rosy glow of lamb chops with Fairytale eggplant; the juicy tenderness of St.-Canut Farms suckling pig with tart gooseberries and earthy farro.
I still miss the grand splendor of the old dessert cart. But Smith's exceptional pastries are a worthy consolation, from her vivid sorbets (foraged lemon verbena; Jupiter grape) to the Honeycrisp cider-Calvados shooter with a raw-milk ice cream float that prefaced the finale sweets - brown butter French toast with apples in salted caramel; the most delicate napoleon of cream cheese mousse and pistachio panna cotta; a jewel box of chocolates and whimsical macaroons colored with cassis, espresso, pumpkin pie spice, and lemon poppy.
With only a few months in the region under their belt, this chef couple's command of ingredients and seasonal inspirations is bound to become only more refined and personal. Whether they can surmount Le Bec's serious image problem as an anachronism remains to be seen.
Fanucci's mantra to "put Le Bec back to where it was," resulting in a disappointingly safe rehab for the space, doesn't help. This was a rare opportunity to attempt something inspired both in concept and look - a proper nod to the past, but wrapped in an inviting embrace of the future, or at least a room that doesn't feel funereal when half-full. What's wrong with a little fun?
By essentially preserving the room's classic decor with new colors and freshly gilded moldings, this genuinely improved Le Bec still wears the old model's stodgy clothes with a capital "S."
Sommelier Philippe Sauriat's substantial new wine cellar reinforces the old-school approach. He's tripled the former collection to 850 labels with a luxe parade of famous bottles from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and there's no questioning the quality. But there's precious little under $80 for those without Grand Cru expense accounts, and even by-the-glass pours (Gresser "Kritt" Gewurtz; Domaine du Chêne Saint-Joseph) run into the low $20s. The option of value, at least, matters to those who have saved up for months simply to sit at the table. And Le Bec sends many mixed messages, comping the valet and mineral water, but charging extra for a cup of coffee.
It's little wonder the under-50 crowd thronging to the city's ever-growing roster of no-starch restaurants may now be reluctant to commit. Fanucci's tall challenge, like that at other national icons such as Eleven Madison Park, Alinea, Le Bernardin, the French Laundry, and, yes, even Vetri, is to continue reinventing gastronomy into a compelling experience - ever mindful of the now-dynamic scene.
The old Le Bec tried to confront that reality, but did so clumsily and late. Le Bec Fin 2.0, despite its many virtues, still needs to master that elusive quest, or risk a similar fate.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Popolino in Northern Liberties. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.