Damn, It's Good
By Paul Gerald
JULY 10, 2000: I have to confess, this is not the report I wanted to file from the world of fine dining. The preparation I had received for a trip to Philadelphia's Le Bec-Fin, one of the most prestigious restaurants in America, had led me to think that I was going to be absolutely miserable. I was already working up an arsenal of smart-ass remarks about it, in fact.
I am, after all, a lover of the simple life and would rather grill a fish over a fire than be faced with a menu entirely in French. So I was prepared to make fun of the pretentiousness, the stuffiness, the ... you know ... the Frenchness of the place. I was ready to say that I had had a more enjoyable night eating Memphis barbecue at Red Hot and Blue in New Jersey.
But long before the triple-tiered, 30-item desert cart rolled our way, I had been broken. And it was worse than that: I loved them for breaking me. Le Bec-Fin is still not a place that I would actually go to more than a couple times in my life, but I think now that that's just because of the price, rather than because it offends everything I hold dear, because it doesn't.
Le Bec-Fin is in downtown Philadelphia, but it is not of the world most of us inhabit. It's of the world that lives in the pages of Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, where people toss around words like coulis and grand cru and just assume that, of course, you know what they mean. It's in that world where a restaurant is part theater, where everyone is elegant and clever, where you drink the finest wines, and, no matter how good the sauce, it would never do to lap it up with bread or tongue.
Le Bec-Fin has been in Philadelphia for 30 years, and it's always raking in this award or that. "The Best French Restaurant in America," says Esquire magazine. The highest rating available from every guidebook or service. Georges Perrier, "Chef of the Year" according to the premier international society of French chefs, makes regular appearances on David Letterman.
You enter Le Bec-Fin -- which, by the way, is French for "the good taste" -- through an ordinary-looking doorway on Walnut Street, a bustling avenue of shops and restaurants. The main dining room seats only 55 people, but it looks like it was airlifted straight from Versailles. Their literature says it's Louis XVI style; the chandeliers, fireplaces, and flowers made me think I was about to eat in a museum.
I decided I was instead on stage in a participatory theater. First the drinks waiter came by with bottles of water; he asked us, in French, if we wanted them with or without gas. Then came the bread waiter -- that's all these people do, apparently: bread and water.
Soon our menu waiter came and escorted us through the offerings. This was necessary, as there wasn't a word of English on it. First he described the 10 entrees; I went with the Napoleon de Crepes au Sarrazin Fourre au Crabe et crevettes facon Andalouse, parfume a l'Orange, which of course was layers of crepe pastry stuffed with crab and shrimp (Andalouse style) with orange and tarragon sauce. It was one of three options whose descriptions I could even recall when the waiter was done.
Next up were the 10 poissons, or fish. I remembered that much from Monsieur Dalle's class at MUS. From these selections, I had monkfish wrapped with bacon, stuffed with lobster, topped with a honey vinegar, ginger, and Banyuls reduction sauce.
The next course to be described was les viandes et volailles, at least one of which I was sure meant meat. Again, the waiter worked entirely from memory -- 30 dishes in all! -- and this time what floated out of his sing-song stylings was "Roti de 'Poulet' au Confit d'Ail Mouille dans son Jus, Puree de Pommes de Terre au Hommard." That's heavenspeak for "breast of roasted chicken, mashed potato with lobster, chicken sauce, perfumed with hazelnuts."
While my dad conferred with the wine waiter -- excuse me, the sommelier -- I looked around at the movements of the tuxedoed wait staff. It was impressively smooth; they appeared to be dancing more than working, descending on tables to unveil dishes in unison, never letting a glass get empty, swooping in with bread where it was needed, and apparently never saying a word to each other. Clearly, this is the Olympics of the restaurant world, where every movement is precisely correct, endlessly practiced, and choreographed to perfection. Chef Perrier is also said to be so demanding that his employees last either two days or 20 years.
Finally the food started to hit our table. My crepes descended from the stars on the wings of angels; the monkfish was certainly prepared by someone divine; and the chicken? I would have killed my own family members over two bites of it.
The evening became a blur -- and I don't even drink. There was a salad course; there was a cheese course where the cheese waiter offered us about a dozen selections, some of which were made from morning or afternoon milk; there was a sorbet course; and then of course there was the desert cart.
They make 30 deserts a day at Le Bec Fin, going through 72 pounds of butter, 24 quarts of cream, and 30 dozen eggs in the process. I think I had hazelnut milk chocolate crunch cake; chocolate cake with a hint of rum, whipped chocolate butter cream with hand-shaved chocolate fans; a lemon tarte; and a few of the little candies and treats that they bring with the check.
Oh, yes, the check: Well, it was a family special occasion. Le Bec-Fin runs $120 per person. (Lunch is "only" $38.) If you're drinking, things can quickly get out of hand: There were only a few wine selections in those 28 pages with just two digits; one was $1,500.
But you know what? I'd pay $120 to eat there again sometime. I didn't want to admit it -- even afterwards, what with all the trash-talking I'd done beforehand -- but that was just about the best damn dinner I ever ate -- and I used to pull king salmon right out of the Bering Sea and throw them on the grill. And considering what you get for it, $120 seems pretty reasonable. By the end of it, I didn't even care that our menu waiter, the one with the thick French accent, was from Spain.
Is Le Bec-Fin pretentious? Sure it is. And Tiger Woods is cocky. Who cares? They speak French there for the same reason opera singers speak Italian and Michael Jordan talked trash: because that's what you do when you're the best. The great advantage of being the best is that you don't have to give a damn what the rest of the world thinks. And Le Bec-Fin most certainly does not care.
Georges Perrier has opened a less expensive restaurant, Brasserie Perrier, just down the street. Lunch there is $26; dinner is from a menu. For more information about Le Bec-Fin, surf over to www.lebecfin.com or call 215-567-1000.
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