Le Bec Fin
(one visit November, 2004)
I’m so thrilled that Pete Wells decided to write about his experience at Le Bec Fin in the July, 2005 issue of Food & Wine magazine (“Putting Le Bec Fin To The Test”). His assessment of the French megalomaniac/psycho-chef Georges Perrier’s (he underwent therapy after losing a star from the Mobil Travel Guide) Philadelphia “institution” is nearly identical with mine… it was like reading about my own dinner. In fact, we had a lot of the same dishes in a $135 choose-your-own-five-course dinner.
Everything about this place is pretentious. For starters, the exterior building on the locally chic Walnut Street is as imposing and intimidating as the Gucci store on Via Spiga in Milan – windowless stone facade with a vault door heavier than the one at Fort Knox. Although a sign directs you to ring in on the doorbell, as Wells notes in his article, it’s simply for pretense.
Just inside the doors is a claustrophobically small reception room where I was greeted by two rather unfriendly receptionists. I would be unfriendly too if I was wedged in a corner with someone else behind a desk and looking out at the world through a ten-inch-thick glass and metal barred door.
There are two seatings every night. Early eaters dine around 5:30 and the second round at 8. I have something against eating dinner before 7pm, so I was booked at the later time. I arrived a tad early and caught the early diners exiting. A set of double doors opened (next to the reception desk). Like a Disney “theater ride” letting out, I, stepped aside to let the previous passengers file out.
After the early diners were gone, the doors were promptly shut so that the staff could turn-over the tables for the next seating. Meanwhile, I was shown downstairs to the Bar Lyonnais where an odd mix of fifty-somethings were suffering a no-doubt three hour long happy hour, having not met anyone to take home – yet. I decided to avoid the “scene” and stood in the entryway and amused myself by flipping through a Relais Chateaux booklet.
When they were ready to seat me, I was escorted upstairs to the unbearably small reception, now made even more cramped with the addition of the other waiting second-seaters.
Inside, everything screamed peachy-pink – pink silk walls, overly floral peachy carpet. Also, the décor was cloyingly ornate. Crystal chandeliers and tinkering light fixtures dripped from every cranny and nook of the room.
The furnishings weren’t the only thing screaming at me. The classical music piped in was LOUD. I hoped that, like Disney “theme rides,” the “seating” music would be turned down once the “ride” started. No such luck, I had listen to Ode to LOUD all night. The decibel factor was soon compounded by a LOUD four-top of dim-witted expense accounts in suits and ties to my left.
I was seated in the middle of the dining room, which was only about a third booked for the evening (I could tell by the number of tables that were prepped). Pleased with my fortuitous vantage, I was able to observe the service as well as all of the other diners.
The wait staff was robotic and very aloof – Americans feigning French. I was presented with the menu. I selected my first four courses. The fourth is a choice between salad or the cheese cart, I opted for salad. The last course is your choice from Perrier’s “famous” dessert cart.
For my first course, I chose Perrier’s signature “Galette de crabe aux haricots verts.” Literally translated, this is supposed to be a crab cake with French beans. On the plate it looked more like crab soufiflé with French beans as garnish. In the mouth, it tasted more like a crab omelette. To be sure, there was plenty of plump chunks of quality crab meat. But, the delicate crab was overwhelmed by an intense creamy-buttery-egg sensation. I’ve seen the recipe which only calls for a single egg per cake, so, I can’t figure out why it tasted so “eggy.” Also, the galette was doused with a healthy coat of buttery béarnaise which, no doubt, contributed to the creamy feel. It wasn’t bad, it just tasted more like an very fluffy omelette or soufflé than a crab cake.
I chose the “Filet de Loup Roti” for my second course. A wonderfully oven-roasted filet of sea bass rested on a bed of braised celery, kohlrabi and slices of lotus root with a “Huitlacoche-vinegar sauce.” The skin on the fish was expertly crispy. However, the underlying mix of seemingly pleasing earthy fall vegetables was utterly vile. I suspect the culprit of the acidic rancid taste was the “huitlacoche vinegar sauce.” The last time I checked, huitlacoche is a Central/South American ingredient, completely out-of-place in haute French cuisine. The fish, by itself, was very good, but unfortunately, the dish as a whole was regrettably destroyed by the accompaniments.
My third course is where my dinner definitively fell apart. I ordered the “Carre d’agneau Roti” – roasted rack of lamb, medium-rare, emphasizing the rare. The table-side carving and plating was amusing, if not verging on ridiculous. The wine-drinking expense accounts got the experienced Captain to cut their rack, as did the distinguished couple to my right. However, when they wheeled my cart over, I landed the “new guy,” who clumsily hacked his way across the bones and fumbled the meat onto the awaiting plate with the accompaniments.
My mis-cut medallions of the rib meat straddled a pile of black barley risotto with fresh celery and Chorizo oil. My lamb was clearly overdone. Opportunely, the Captain happened by to check up on my meal. Very politely, I reminded him that I had ordered my lamb medium rare – on the rare side, but my cut was obviously not medium rare. Without even looking at my plate, he assured me that it was and brusquely moved on to check up on the couple to my right.
I heard the wife turn to the Captain and say, “I ordered my lamb well-done, but I think this is rare.” With a snap of his finger, the Captain had a junior server snatch her plate away to be re-done as he almost bent over backwards in apology. After picking my lower jaw off the floor, I sawed through the rest of my lamb and tried to consume as much as I could manage to chew. I found more pleasure in the black barley risotto which had been gussied up with the piquant flavor of cheese.
Salad was a joke. Four leaves of baby lettuces does not a salad make. The wife next door had also made the same mistake. But, this disappointment was immediately addressed as the Captain, after serving the other tables, turned the cheese cart around and made a bee-line to her beck and call. She was not a difficult or outspoken woman. She hadn’t complained louder than a slight whisper to her husband, which, somehow made it to my ears, and the Captain’s, despite the droning Ode to LOUD.
By chance, (I’m sure, to his regret), the Captain caught my eye. Already “on notice” of my general displeasure, he reluctantly turned the cheese cart around. He opened the case and offered me cheese.
“Please, choose whatever you like.” Not wanting his pity, or pathetic attempt to salvage what was left of his gratuity, I reminded him that I had chosen the salad. He insisted. I thanked him. The variety of cheeses offered was overwhelming – there must have been over twenty-five different ones. Boggled by the choices, I let him choose for me – giving him my general preferences for goats and sheeps milk cheeses as well as rich blues. I landed generous cuts of Valencay, Pouligny and Blue d’Auvergne. All were great, served with an array of dried fruits and nut and fruit studded breads.
Perhaps Le Bec Fin’s signature feature is their famed “La Charette de Dessert” – their dessert cart. Indeed, it was very impressive looking. The Rolls Royce of food carts, ornately gilt, majestically lumbered out of the kitchen, accompanied by an entourage of servers. It bore a stunning display of iced, glazed, brulee, butter creamed , rummed, infused and macerated sweets. It seemed that there were just as many dessert choices as there had been cheeses.
The intricacy and design of each cake, pie, and pastry was an absolute marvel. Everything, from cheesecake and flourless chocolates to soufflés and tarts, was gorgeous. Even more impressive was the fact that none of the cakes and desserts had been cut or touched. That means that for each night’s service, the restaurant had to prepare two of each item – one for the early service and one for the later. I don’t understand how they could sustain such an operation. Even if they ordered all of the cakes from other sources (which supposedly they don’t), there’s no way the cost could justify the excess as there was absolutely no way that the dining room, even at full capacity, could consume even half of the cart’s offerings.
Overall, I have to echo Well’s impression of desserts. I sampled about six different desserts, of course, only having a bite of each. Although each was a picture-perfect slice of heaven, the only memorable items were a small assortment of berries macerated in a vanilla infusion and a delightful basil-glazed key-lime tart. It was a stunning combination of the minty-herbal basil with the sweet-tart tang of key-lime.
Petites Fours outdid the dessert cart. Alcohol-infused truffles and other sweets came out with the bill. My favorite, by far, was a truffle infused with Earl Grey ganache.
Tired of the event, tired of the disappointment, annoyed by the service and nearly deaf from Ode to LOUD, I quickly settled my account and left, assured that I would never return. After reading and hearing the praises of Georges Perrier and his incomparable Le Bec Fin, I was sorely disappointed. I will leave it to my critic twin, Wells, to sum up my experience. He ends his article by observing, “If things always turned out the way we pictured them, what fun would that be?”
Le Bec Fin **
1323 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.