Monday, July 13, 2009

Le Bec Fin

What is fine dining? What makes a restaurant great? Why does Philadelphia Magazine rate restaurants the way they do? I had not been prepared to think about these questions, much less discuss them, at Le Bec Fin, arguably Philadelphia's finest French restaurant. I was too busy being thrilled that I was called off the wait list for the promotion Le Bec is running, where, after being prepared a tasting menu, diners can choose to pay whatever amount they wish.

I was also unprepared for this discussion to happen with none other than Georges Perrier himself, Le Bec Fin's famous chef and owner. After we were seated at the 20-person communal table and introduced ourselves, I noted that the chef himself had quietly ascended the stairs, stopping to quietly size up the diners. When one of the more voluptuous college students at the table glanced over and greeted the chef, he proceeded up and pulled up a chair. Going around the table, he complimented the women on their beauty, the men for being with such beautiful women, and asked why we were here, all the while appearing genuinely interested in our responses. Entirely starstruck, I managed to mumble something about my friend having told me about the promotion. Said friend, on the other hand, had the presence of mind to say that Le Bec Fin was the best restaurant in town. Perrier was pleased to hear this, in a way that seemed both charming and sincere.

With a mischievous grin, Perrier explained that the promotional dinner was a bit of a gamble, one that hadn't always paid off in the last few days, but one that he clearly was enjoying. He talked some more, explaining his philosophy that food should be fun and mean something more than itself, more social, more celebratory. He wanted to attract a younger crowd, to redefine fine dining. I couldn't help but think of how vaguely intimidating it was to walk through the restaurant downstairs and wondered if it could attract an under-30 crowd who were not planning on proposing to their dates. I hoped so. Perrier's words, delivered with his alluring French accent and even-handed cadence, tantalized, suggesting anything was possible.

Telling you how wonderful the service and food were might be superfluous to explain what I took from the evening. It's worth a pause to say that, in line with Perrier's own explanation, the food was avant-garde and, in line with my expectations, cooked to perfection. Of particular note was a chilled English pea soup with a savory almond ice cream. The table collectively agreed that even among those of us who detest peas (myself among them), this was extraordinary and delicious, personifying summer. On the heels of an amuse bouche of roasted beet with citrus jelly, the soup showcased fresh, seasonal ingredients.

The next appetizer was a favorite of the table. A grilled scallop perched upon a charred tomato puree, adorned by pickled cauliflower and arugula. Again, the scallop and cauliflower naysayers in the group collectively agreed it was amazing. I began to appreciate the marriage between a traditionally cooked protein with, not a rich cream sauce, but an equally complex blend of fresh ingredients.

The scallop was followed by poached salmon with caramelized fennel and black olives, topped with garlic scape with a garlic cashew sauce. While the caramelized fennel was sublime and the salmon done to perfection, the garlic cashew sauce lacked the flavor punch for which I had hoped. The next course, roasted pork over a duo of a corn puree and barbecue (yes, barbecue) sauce was served with the intriguing pluot fruit, a hybrid of plum and apricot and a perfect foil to the pork.

What transpired among the diners was equally engrossing. We talked to each other -- figured out connections among strangers, points of interest, backgrounds. Of 12 diners there that night, 7 were college students who had responded to a campus list serve advertising the promotion. Two were a couple who had dined at Le Bec Fin nearly 15 years ago. And the remaining three comprised my party. We were seated in a sort of jigsaw puzzle, forcing conversation with strangers. We discovered who traveled to the same countries, who went to school together. We laughed at unexpected jokes and anecdotes.

By the time dessert was served, we were all in a good mood, happily full. And dessert was incomparably seductive -- a cherry clafouti with caramel chocolate ice cream. Assorted chocolates and petite madelines appeared on trays before us. I could not have been happier -- and then Chef Perrier appeared again. That's when things got interesting.

I'm not sure how it all happened, how over the next 30 to 45 minutes, Georges Perrier came to share with us his views on such wide-ranging topics from how wonderful his mother was (a great cook and renaissance woman) to how his daughter agreed with the table's sentiments that he should appear on Top Chef to, most vociferously and lengthily, his affront at Le Bec Fin's being ranked number 48 of 50 restaurants by Philadelphia Magazine. (To which I responded, how can you take a magazine seriously that ranks Zahav as No. 1, but Perrier emphasized to me the power of the press). I also was able to tease out that Perrier likes pizza like the rest of us, although he does cook at home. An avid gardener, he appreciates his wife's cooking, too. I'm not sure at what point I realized Perrier had charisma on par with his celebrity status or how extraordinary it was to have this conversation, but I felt lucky. And I was having fun.

Back to fine dining, great restaurants, and Philadelphia Magazine. I have since reflected upon the evening itself as quintessential fine dining -- an experience that celebrates fresh ingredients, perfect preparations and good company without regard to whether the price is high. While grateful that Perrier has resisted some of the Disney-level themes other Philadelphia restaurateurs have embraced, I remain worried that the tenor of Le Bec Fin is a bit stuffy, as though walking through, you might break something. The service, however, eschews elitism in favor of quiet assistance in a way that only a fine restaurant can offer. A restaurant is made great through its heart, the combination of personalities, service and food that is cohesive and consistently good while keeping up with changing palates. And I don't know why Philadelphia Magazine rates restaurants the way they do, why they focus on holding the hands of mainline suburbanites over city dwellers, or why their failure to celebrate a city's culinary landmark in favor of trendy spots is somehow acceptable. I actually don't much care on that last point, since I had an evening with the first two points.

And because I know you want to know, the majority of the college students paid $35 for their meals and I elected to pay $75 with a generous tip. Frankly, I would have paid a lot more for such undivided time with a legendary chef. But that was part of the magic, really, that money had been taken out of the equation. Conversely, the promotion "worked" on me; I would likely return to Le Bec Fin and pay menu prices to enjoy this experience again. Kudos, Chef Perrier.

Le Bec Fin is located at 1523 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pa, The promotion continues through August and while fully committed, the restaurant will accept names for a wait list. The promotion is also BYO.


Passport Foodie said...

Nice post. Le Bec Fin is a wonderful restaurant. I love that Perrier is not a snob and has lost Michelin stars because of his lack of snobery, his specials and for not wanting to conform.


Passport Foodie

Mary said...

Excellent post. Your measured praise is very fitting of a Le Bec-Fin experience these days; it's a weird blend, their new promotions and opulent decor, and my recent experience there had me thinking, "Was this place this accessible and all along?" Your post perfectly captured that happy skepticism. Thanks!

Kate said...

Thanks, guys. Mary, to your point, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that what Perrier seems to want is a hybrid of Brasserie Perrier and Le Bec Fin. Perhaps infusing a little spirit of Brasserie's front room/open air tables into Le Bec might help with the feel of the place.

Mike Rosenberg said...

Hello Kate. It's always a pleasure to read your food reviews and your comments on Le Bec Fin during the 'pay what you wish' promotion were especially interesting. I also had the pleasure to dine during this promotion but didn't not share the same experience. Service was second to none but the food was average at best. During the third course we were given a piece of skate which most of the table sent back. Towards the end of the meal I had asked to see what Georges Perrier was up to and he wasn't even the one preparing the meal. You can check out my girlfriend's blog post which recounts the evening.

Take care,