Four years ago, I couldn’t hear my food the music was so loud. Stiff, stilted, out-dated, and aloof, the food and service on my first visit to Georges Perrier’s vaunted Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia had me vowing never to return.
But I’m a firm believer in second, and sometimes third, chances.
For years, it appeared that Le Bec Fin had been progressing on that other side of the hill; slipping and sliding toward a sorry end.
I must have caught it near or at the nadir.
The happy story is that Le Bec Fin seems to have found another hill to summit. My recent lunch (I was too skeptical and cautious to commit to a full dinner) demonstrated that redemption and forgiveness were within Perrier’s reach.
Le Bec Fin has gotten a makeover. No, he hasn’t gotten rid of that ridiculous doorbell or the iron gates. The carpet and wall paper are still Versailles on a budget. But, he tossed the prix-fixe-only dinner menu. He’s toned down and updated the music (I believe Sade, or some such soother – maybe it was – dare I say it – Celine Dion – helped us through part of our lunch). And there’s a noticeable bounce in the servers’ step.
If anyone doubts that Perrier is trying to shrug off some of the pretense at Le Bec Fin, you’ll only have to see the man setting the example. Monsieur Perrier was in the house during our lunch. He wasn’t in the kitchen. He was in the dining room. He was eating with, or rather, joining friends of the house – seemingly last-minute – for lunch. He was wearing a (pink) t-shirt. I kind of liked that.
Click here for all of the photos from this lunch at Le Bec Fin.
At $54, the four-course “Summer” lunch prix-fixe menu seemed like a reasonably fine alternative to ordering a la carte.
Chilled Lobster Consommé
Flavored with peach
Le Bec Fin Signature Crabcake
Le Bec Fin’s Famous Dessert Cart
The highlight of my first meal was again the highlight of this meal. In 2005, I wrote:
“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, brulée, butter-creamed, rum-imbibed, infused, and macerated sweets.”
And this time, the cart was no less spectacular. Everything looked great.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse, almost literally.
A waiter briskly sailing through the dining room with an armful of yard-long baguettes wrapped in Di Bruno Bros. paper hinted at the fine basket of bread that arrived shortly. The lavender-colored Raisin Walnut Bread was particularly good.
And so was our second course, a generous medallion of pan-seared tuna luxuriating in a foamy sea of oregano emulsion and attended to by “Cherries Jubilee.” Unorthodox? Surely. The treatment was something you’d more likely find with les gibiers. But here, Perrier zoomed in on the steakier side of tuna – leaving the middle blood red and upending the loin cut, presenting it like a piece of red meat. It was an entirely surprising and successful accomplishment made even more successful by a fantastic wine pairing: a glass of Marc Colin et Fils Cassagne-Montrachet 2002 that was juicy and hit all the right spots.
Our first course, a chilled lobster consommé was more interesting than good. The clear, tea-colored broth was poured over fanned slices of peaches. The menu described this course as “flavored with peach.” I got no peach flavor whatsoever, either from the broth or the sliced fruit, which was shockingly under ripe, crispy, and devoid of all character. The broth, on the other hand, was heavily perfumed with lobster flavor – more shell and brine than meat – and was slightly sweet. It was French and Japanese at once. Light and “summery” though it was, it was my least favorite course.
Thankfully, the rest of the meal was stronger.
Because it was so memorable the first time, I suggested that my friends and I split a full order of “Le Bec Fin’s Signature Crab Cake” as a supplement to our lunch tasting. I remember it being a mysterious novelty and I felt the need to revisit it and to make sure that it really was as fluffy as I recalled it to be.
It was. As I had described it three years ago, the “cake” was more of a soufflé. Actually, it’s more like scrambled eggs meets crab meat in a cloud-form. It’s impossibly light and airy. The plump round wore a thick, velvety coat of cream sauce flocked with mustard grains that gave just enough vinegary zing to capitulate any reservation one might have.
Our last savory course, slices of roasted organic duck, would not have been half as interesting if our server had not recommended a pour of a rather humble French table wine ( Le Chemin Vieux Cuvee du Petit César ) that paired dazzlingly with the single sweated, grilled scallion on the plate. The breast meat was nicely cooked and the rind of fat sufficiently crisped, but it wasn’t the star of this show.
But back to that cart, which seemed more like a chariot this time – instead of lumbering out, it was driven out, steered by a sprightly face. We were encouraged to try anything and everything, and so my friends and I unabashedly asked to try it all: 12 cakes, lemongrass-soaked pineapple, Grand Marnier-macerated strawberries, and ile flottante. Our dessert fairy told us that anyone could walk in off the street and order this course a la carte and ask for a taste of everything. At $16, that’s quite a steal.
While I can’t single any one item out as being sub par, there were quite a few that etched a deeper impression in my taste memory. They included the Grand Marnier-soaked strawberries, fresh, glowing orbs of liquor – somehow the Grand Marnier had penetrated but not compromised the structure of the fruit; the “Kona” cake: Bananas Foster meets cappuccino; the “Tahiti” cake, a creamy tropical breeze involving coconut and other tropical fruits (I’m fairly certain pineapple was one of them); and the “Venetian” cake, which was, perhaps, my favorite – it was a square of pistachio dacquoise layered with a sour cherry marmalade and pistachio brulée paved with a cinnamon-kissed chocolate mousse. It was the cinnamon spice, which shot through each bite, that made that last dessert particularly compelling.
Le Bec Fin’s not the somber funeral parlor I remembered it to be. It’s starting to show a more upbeat side. There was a little more laughter in the room and little more verve in the air. The restaurant has relaxed and let down its shoulders, which made this experience much more enjoyable than my last one (which, admittedly, was dinner service).
Le Bec Fin is far from a bistro – that’s not what Perrier, or anyone else, wants the restaurant to be, anyway. The food is certainly not bistro food. But it doesn’t achieve that highest level of classic French finesse either. It’s confidently upper-bourgeois, if you will.
I can’t say that my recent lunch at Le Bec Fin was a complete success. The highlights were quite bright, but there were a few dips. However, there were no disappointments, no frowns, and no smug side glances. And that was an improvement that I’ll take happily.
Never say never – and even though I did, I’m glad I didn’t really mean it. Le Bec Fin won’t be at the top of my list when I return to Philadelphia next, but it certainly won’t be excluded. At the very least, I may just walk off the street and ask for that sugar bomb to be driven my way by the dessert fairy.
Le Bec Fin
1323 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102