Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Le Bec-Fin

Early evening at Le Bec-Fin, in its 19th-century-Parisian-salon styling.                                      (Michael S. Wirtz)
Early evening at Le Bec-Fin, in its 19th-century-Parisian-salon styling. (Michael S. Wirtz)
About the restaurant
1523 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19102
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
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.

If Georges Perrier is to be believed, time is ticking on Le Bec-Fin.

"Three more years and I walk away," says the chef, now 62. "This kind of restaurant, unfortunately, is on the way out."

He's right to predict the demise of multicourse blowouts like Le Bec-Fin, a truffle-'til-you-drop culinary orgy in which no luxury is spared, and more than a few expense accounts have met their maker in a blinding flash of polished silver and premier cru Bordeaux. People no longer need to gorge themselves on six courses (and spend about $200 a person doing it) to approach culinary nirvana. Le Bec's Old World formality, albeit un-snooty, isn't for everyone.

And yet, a meal at Le Bec-Fin remains an experience unlike any other, a rarefied pursuit of dining perfection in its most symphonic expression, from the lavishly gilded room (think King Louis) to the genuflecting tuxedoed servers and a cellar stocked with some of the world's most prestigious wines.

Most impressive, though, is how Perrier's kitchen has remained up-to-date, all the while honoring the signature dishes that made it legendary to begin with. First-timers might not want to miss the amazing escargots in champagne-hazelnut butter, or the wild mushroom ravioli, or game birds like the wild Scottish partridge that are carved tableside and glazed with the essence of their natural juices.

Anyone seeking refined contemporary cooking, meanwhile, will find it the rule, not the exception, at Le Bec-Fin. Lunch chef Jerome Bacle turns familiar tuna tartare electric with pickled raspberries that tingle with gingered spice. His black bass is a stunning evocation of Spain, perched atop an orange chorizo emulsion swirled with black squid ink.

Dinner chef Pierre Calmels is no less modern with dishes like pesto risotto topped with garlic foam, or tomato water shots with olive oil. But his menus rely more on soulful seasonality. Luscious scallops pair with honeyed red cabbage. Black bass luxuriates over a fall study of squash: beer-marinated kabocha, caramelized butternut, and pickled Cinderella pumpkin.

Few of these plates are petite. And by the time you're halfway through one of the exquisite meat dishes - veal medallions with sweetbreads and chestnuts, or lamb with flageolet beans - the mere notion of three more courses sounds absurd.

Oh well, you're here. Your bank balance already will never be the same. So why even pretend to resist the chariot of cheeses, the chalices of sublime sorbets, and the pastry cart that glides to your table lavished with frozen souffles and chocolate-ribboned temptations?

Enjoy them while they last.

Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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