Amongst the primary reasons for visiting Philadelphia – research, museums, sports, dining, and culture – dining at Le Bec Fin was decidedly one of the more significant. Once considered by many the best restaurant in the United States I’d recently heard that Georges Perrier’s vaunted Le Bec Fin was to close its doors forever within the coming year…the rent was too expensive, American’s no longer fancied formal French, the chef was planning to use the money for myriad new projects – the reason did not really matter, I only knew I needed to enjoy the experience before it disappeared forever.
Housed in a bank-like vaulted building along Walnut Street I rather wished I could have seen Le Bec Fin in its hay day instead of under its current circumstances (housed next to an Urban Outfitters, for instance,) but having heard mixed reviews over the previous years I had it on good advice that the kitchen and service were on the up and up. With the mandatory jacket policy and fancy “Please Ring for Admittance – Merci” button replaced by business casual, lunch and prix-fixe options instead of the traditional tasting menu it seems as though Perrier realized the pretense was not packing the house. After a long walk from breakfast to a morning tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary I would make my seminal visit to Le Bec Fin for their Saturday Lunch.
Entering the small (think a medium size elevator) lobby I was greeted by a pleasant male/female hosting combination and upon checking in the female took my bag to a storage room while the man led me to a fine seat in the center of the elaborate dining room. With the room more than half full I was glad to see most everyone dressed appropriately – I wore a jacket because it felt right and most of the crowd, 50+ year olds in general, did the same. Browsing around the multiple chandeliered room with large twenty foot high pale yellow walls and floor to ceiling mirrors everything felt very fine – even a spot pretentious, but not overwhelmingly so.
Settling into what may be the most comfortable chairs in dining history and placing the thick linen napkin on my lap I was greeted by a young man who inquired as to whether I preferred tap or bottled water – selecting tap my glass was filled and remained well above half-full throughout the meal’s two hour duration. Three knives, three forks – all silver, a potted plant, and salt and pepper shakers decorated the well padded table and I’d shortly be greeted by my server, a pleasant and jovial man who admitted to being new to the Perrier family, but never failed to have the (right) answer to any question or request. Presented with the menu it was explained that there was an a la carte, a 3-course business lunch, or the tasting menu – I was also told of three specials and given suggestions as to the restaurant’s signatures.
Left for a few moments to decide on my choices I browsed the room and fellow diners – most if not all seemed to be celebrating events and it seemed as though there was a 2-server to 1-table ratio throughout. Tables were well spaced while the music was somewhat cheesy-classic and low enough that it was ignorable but loud enough to drown the din of other tables conversations. Returning my server asked if I was ready to order, indeed I was. “I’ll have the tasting menu and I’d like to add a couple of courses.” “Sir, I must warn you that will be a lot of food.” “I’m sure I’ll be fine.” After a few jokes I inquired about the cheese and dessert cart and was informed they are not operated during lunch, but that any/all selections from either could be done as a composed plate.
Water refilled and silverware doled out for the first course the bread man would next arrive. Along with a surprisingly sweet butter there were three forms of warm bread at Le Bec Fin on the day of my lunch – a French miche naturally leavened with house-stock wild yeast, a traditional sliced white baguette, and sweet and dense potato bread. Sampling each I’ll ended up sticking with the miche – almost “sourdough” but somewhat smoky.
My first course of the afternoon would be course one of the tasting. Served in a small sauté dish which was uncapped tableside the Escargots Cassolette with Hazelnut, Champagne, Garlic Butter smelled like a dream come true – a very pungent dream. Featuring shelled and plump snails, at least ten to my tongue, plus tiny bits of chopped nuts in an aromatic broth with the bite of champagne but the base of pure butter and finely pressed garlic the dish wowed. While perhaps not something you’d want to order on a date night, the contrasting textures and rich aromatics were profound and well balanced…I soaked up every drop with a slice of baguette – my server agreed this was “the only way to do it.”
Course number two would be another successful dish and it would arrive with excellent timing, approximately ten minutes after I finished the Escargot. Titled Diver Sea Scallop, Charred Watermelon, Tomato, Rosewater Emulsion the dish did not really look all that interesting with a single scallop sitting in a cloud of foam, but looks are often time deceiving. Regarding the scallop – it was perfect, fresh, nearly brulee crisp on the exterior and practically raw within. More interesting than the scallop, however, was its bed – a texture I can only describe as finely chopped salsa with hints of smoke, sweetness, and acid all nicely balanced. The foam - tasteless, but with the nose of rosewater and melon – was a distinctive touch.
My third course would be one of my supplement courses – it would also be the best dish of the afternoon and every bit worth the title “signature.” Described in French as a Galette the Signature Crab Cake with French Green Beans and Whole Grain Mustard Sauce sat tall, proud, and without a bit of filler. More a crab burger than cake in shape/size and more a sweet crab omelet than cake in flavor the dish was topped tableside with a pour of buttery mustard speckled béarnaise that did not overpower but instead served to enhance – knowing that the recipe is readily available on the internet I only wish crab were more readily available in Ohio…not normally one to order a crab cake this is one I’d order at every visit.
Course four would be a return to the tasting menu - Mushroom Cappuccino of Wild Mushroom Veloute, Steamed Milk, White Pepper. Served in a coffee cup the dish was not fanciful to the eye, but more so to the tongue. Served piping hot the soup tasted the very essence of earthy aromatic mushrooms without detectable infusion of butter or enhancement. Topping the soup with creamy steamed milk and just a shake of salt and pepper served to bring out more subtle notes. Overall the weakest of the day’s courses, but certainly not a bad dish – good mushroom soup is never a bad thing.
Hitting a nice pace with a dish arriving every 15 minutes my next course would be the other supplement – 3 ounces of Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Port poached cherries, and French toast in a maple foie gras reduction. Flawlessly seared, perfectly clean, a little sweet, a lot savory – not a novel presentation, but a classic done classically.
For my main course there was the option of a black bass dish and lamb – I’d thought about asking if I could substitute in the Duck Margaret but decided to go with the lamb…a wise choice in retrospect. Described as Domestic Lamb Loin with Purple Cauliflower, Crunchy Oats, Marcona Almond, and Golden Raisin Reduction the dish was remarkable. Served medium rare and so tender that they opted against presenting it with a knife the lamb itself was a fine piece, slightly gamey as expected but well met with the sweet raisin reduction. Presented beautifully with the pureed purple cauliflower as a base and topped with a granola textured compote of oats and almonds the dish was a sight and flavor to behold.
Returning to find yet another empty plate my server seemed surprised stating “wow, I guess you weren’t kidding about having an appetite…but did you save room for dessert?” The answer was obvious and – and coffee sounded like a grand idea as well. Presented quickly in a sterling French Press along with the dessert menu the coffee was largely unmemorable, but it remained full and certainly wasn’t subpar. Looking at the dessert menu I was told I could order the Crème Brulee, a single cake from the dessert carte, or a few different slices of cake to try. “How about a little of each” I asked? Wide eyed the response was “of course.”
Waiting approximately 20 minutes while the desserts were plated in the kitchen the restaurant was now bustling – nearly every table full nearing 2:00pm. Enjoying my coffee and its subsequent refills the plates that would arrive yet were unfortunately not from a trolley or carte, but they certainly were beautiful. Arriving with ample description, two plates and easily a pound in weight – all nine of Le Bec Fin’s signature desserts – to the shock of my server I would clean these plates as well.
On the first plate, Gateau Le Bec Fin with Rum-Soaked Chocolate Génoise and Chocolate Butter Cream, Costa Rica with Praline Crunch and Baily’s Cremeux and Coffee Marscarpone Mousse, Seasonal Lemon Tarte, and Wendy with Milk Chocolate Mousse and Vanilla-Bean Crème Brulée on Vanilla- Soaked Chocolate Sponge. Each expertly prepared and none lacking in quality for their respective ingredients I must stand in awe of the Gateau – an absolute masterpiece that melted into boozy puddles of chocolate in the mouth and the Costa Rica – like Tiramisu but more dense, more coffee, and less alcoholic.
The second plate would feature five options, the Mathilde with Soft Vanilla Macaroon and Lime Mousse with Raspberry Gelée , The St. Nizier Flourless Chocolate Cake, Mahogany of Coconut Dacquoise and Caramel Mousse with Mango Lychee Gelee, a Frozen Grand Marnier “Soufflé” with Candied Orange Peel, and Pecan-Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Cinnamon Streusel. While I’d have personally plated differently and placed the St. Nizier on the other plate with the lemon tarte here, the highlight of this plate was definitely the Mahogany with its airy cake, caramel filling, and lovely sour Gelee.
Clearing my plates the server asked me if there was anything else I’d like and jokingly I said “how about some cheese” which brought about much laughter – I have to admit I was quite full. With the bill presented I settled the tab and requested a copy of the menu that was presented without hesitation. Bid farewell by my server and with my bag already waiting at the door I stopped by Le Bar Lyonnais to see the Lautrec before making my way to the street.
Stuffed and happy I reflected on the meal as I made my way to the Bus Station to catch the bus to New Jersey’s Adventure Aquarium. While some may call Le Bec Fin’s style dated and the food boring, I personally found the word’s classy and classic much more applicable. No stranger to hyper-modern cooking (Alinea) or loud uncomfortable seating in jeans and a T-shirt (Ko) for greater than $150pp I found Le Bec Fin to be a flashback to the way fine dining used to be. Sure, there will still be refined and high quality service, sourcing, seating, and food once Le Bec Fin closes its doors for good, but even then I’ll be glad to have experienced Chef Perrier’s gem while I had the chance.