As the city of Philadelphia started prepping for the nation's bicentennial celebration in the mid-seventies, Chef Georges Perrier, the irrepressible French immigrant and proprietor of Le Bec-Fin, was firmly establishing himself as an incontrovertible figure in the City of Brotherly Love. He opened the doors of Le Bec-Fin in 1970 and by decade's end, his eatery was a de rigeur stop for the newly created class of Philadelphia foodies – a decidedly non-native species that Perrier almost single-handedly cultivated, inculcated and propagated. More impressively, Le Bec-Fin morphed into a venerable pilgrimage destination for foodies far and wide. In subsequent years, legions of chefs who apprenticed in Perrier's kitchen launched their own regional establishments. Thanks to Le Bec-Fin's seminal role in those dynamics, Philadelphia today boasts one of the nation's finest food scenes.
For 26 years, Le Bec-Fin has remained a celebrated eatery along Walnut Street's renowned Restaurant Row. That moniker itself owes its origin to Le Bec-Fin's arrival there in 1983 [prior to 1983, Le Bec-Fin called 1312 Spruce St. home]. In its now venerable Walnut Street location, Le Bec-Fin resides in the beating heart of the business district, a stone's throw from Philly's handsome City Hall, and two blocks removed from the kinetic glam of the Avenue of the Arts.
Outside the doors of Le Bec-Fin along Walnut Street, pedestrian traffic bustles to the pulse of the workaday world from which the upscale restaurants that populate the attractive thoroughfare offer welcome sanctuary. The historic Art Deco exterior of Le Bec-Fin's Walnut Street location, attractive and understated, belies the elegance housed within. Inside the doors, the allure of the main dining room draws mojo from the spectacular chandeliers mounted high above. These crystal pendants sparkle luminescence into a gracious, well appointed space bounded by 20-foot walls chicly painted a soothing tone of muted beige. The separation between tables in this spacious room that accommodates 80 diners abets intimacy and privacy.
Perrier's waitstaff ranks among the finest anywhere. Black-garbed, cravatted servers and multi-tasking staff bustle helpfully and unobtrusively throughout. Each member of this team is studied in his métier, conveytin to each guest that he or she alone is the server's raison d'être for the evening. Dining here celebrates the leisurely pace of a gracious European-styled multi-course meal.
To reboot James Carville's political truism for gastronomy however: It's the food, stupid. To stay atop the pack in Philadelphia's competitive restaurant market, the food has to be conceptually sound and consistent. It is. Some other classic French restaurants have fallen by the wayside, victims of a stolid refusal to adjust or update. In contrast, Le Bec-Fin has ushered in numerous guest-focused/ friendly innovations to accommodate changing tastes as well as change-deprived pocketbooks. Nothing however is done to the detriment of quality.
The menu roots in the classic-French tradition, with coherent nods to other cuisines. Le Bec-Fin's dishes never come across as contrived or heavy-handed efforts at fusion, or con-fusion as the case may be elsewhere. Delicacy in preparation and presentation is the defining characteristic that distinguishes Le Bec-Fin.
Delicately diced and charged with verdant shallots, Chilled Maine Lobster is garnished with mixed greens. The lobster payload hunkers down in the large recessed center of a massive concave white plate perforated with scores of circular holes. Four chunks of grapefruit spoke out around the plate. This concave dish rests atop a second plate which is flat and pooled with lavender flowers. The server – if you're lucky, it might be Georges Perrier himself – pours boiling water through the perforations. A heady cloud of lavender wafts skyward infusing the crustacean with additional sweetness. Notable in this preparation is how finely and delicately the lobster is diced and how much more flavorful it is than whole lobster.
Veal Sweetbreads treat the eye as well as the palate. A coddled egg stretches across lobe-capped sweetbreads delicately dusted with herbs. The duo lazes atop a tangled bed of arugula and artichoke. Long red slivers of roasted red peppers outline the plate's circumference. For silkiness and sweetness, the fork-tender sweetbreads [an ample portion, I must add], vies with foie gras. Punctuated by stingy arugula and the pursey juices of lemon vinaigrette, the result is a coup de résistance. Chilled Seafood Salad convenes a medley of calamari, lobster, shrimp, crab, scallops and baby clams in a notably light apple cucumber consommé. The appetizer is served in a huge concave white plate [white plates are the canvas of choice for Le Bec-Fin's culinary artwork]. The ensemble heaps together inside the plate's large recessed center in a presentation conceived for both visual appeal and functionality since the presentation enables the juices of the consommé to mix more universally and effectively with the seafood.
I confess: Le Bec-Fin is the only place in the world [and I'm including France] where I occasionally fall off the no foie gras wagon. In Le Bec-Fin's rendition of this standard, fresh apricot purée domes languorously on the outer border of a maroonish pool of Sauce Rouennaise. A lush island of foie gras looms in the midst. The sauce adds powerful riffs to the sensuous texture of the foie gras, while the apricot puree lends subtle fruity finish.
Vibrant ruby coupons of medium rare Roasted Veal Loin glisten adjacent to a mound of hazelnut pommes purée pooled in white peach natural jus. Plated with an ethereally tender and luscious globe artichoke, each bite is scored with a harmony of delicious juices in a symphony sans faux pas.
Nowhere is the kitchen's striving for perfection more evident than in the Roasted Diver Sea Scallops – a creation that expertly balances a diverse slate of ingredients. The scallops are so light they're practically buoyant. Sauce Béarnaise, sublime and redolent of tarragon and lemon, lays a delicate hit of just-right juiciness. White asparagus poached in lavender lends verdant textural heft while a slice of peach chips in subtle fruity undertones.
Legendary in the Quaker City are Le Bec-Fin's cheese and dessert carts. Mere “come-down” courses at some establishments, here these final courses are booster jets. The Chef scours the world for superb cheeses. Each day, a varied, varying selection of more than a dozen different cheeses beckons from the classy cart that wheels up tableside after the main course. Do save room for the cheeses [and do save room for the desserts as well]. On our most recent visit, Valdeon, a blue Spanish cheese, Bobiola, a pungent Piedmont goat cheese, Nord Hollander, a nutty 6-year Gouda from Holland, Tomme de Savoie, a French alpine cow cheese, Delice de Bourgogne, a silky sweet triple crème from Burgundy were a few of the delights that treated our palates.
As for the Le Bec-Fin dessert tray, it's fair to say that bona fide Philadelphians rank this four-decade icon up with the Liberty Bell as a Quaker City treasure. In contrast to the Liberty Bell however, there's nothing cracked or non-functional about the Le Bec-Fin dessert cart. This beautifully crafted dual-shelved cart rolls its super-charged cargo of fruits, pastries, ice creams, tarts, mousses, and various other indescribables to each table to cap off the repas. Even the most unwavering weight-watcher cannot resist its veritable tsunami of temptations. Plums with cardamom, strawberries with Gran Marnier, flourless chocolate cake, chocolate espresso cake, fruit tarte, and pistachio mousse represent a fraction of the cart's bounty. Pastry Chef Jesse Prawlucki gift for presentation and creativity is impressive. So are his confectioning resources. Chef Perrier has constructed a special room devoted entirely to chocolate-making. Willie Wonka would be wowed. The special freezers, tables, ovens and utensils allows Le Bec-Fin to match the efforts of the finest of chocolatiers.
In recent years, Le Bec-Fin has reached out to become more affordable and attainable. Recently the innovative eatery, à la Radiohead with its “In Rainbows”album, offered a “Pay what you feel the meal was worth” special. In summer 2009, there's a $35 prix fixe dinner that includes an appetizer, choice of Scottish Salmon, chicken, or 8-ounce Prime Rib Eye, and the legendary dessert carte. Lunch choices include a $35 prix fixe, an express lunch including soupe du jour/ field greens salad and the Lyonnaise burger for $15.23 [Le Bec-Fin's Walnut Street address], or à la carte choices.
From its heralded opening in the seventies to the present day, Le Bec-Fin has held high the torch of gastronomy in Philadelphia. It remains the bellwether of Philadelphia cuisine - another Philadelphia bell that's weathers on in perpetuity.