Philly’s swankiest restaurant just got a little more accessible to the masses.
Visiting Le Bec Fin has traditionally been an experience most of us would only have once or twice in our lives—and that only if we were lucky. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and didn’t eat there for the first time until 2008. In that regard, it was kind of like attending the Super Bowl: You spend a long time waiting to go, a good bit of money once you do, it lasts for hours, and it’s a memory you can carry with you for the rest of your life, even if you never do it again.
A recent three-hour dinner there was my first since the restaurant came under new ownership last year. Since my editor won’t let me fill this whole newspaper with the minutiae of the richly layered, multifaceted evening at the table, I’ve come up with a Top 10 list of what I learned—including the exciting news that, for the first time, Le Bec Fin is about to start offering some less expensive dining options for those who aren’t up for the whole shebang.
1. The Omelet
Yes, an omelet. At dinner. As part of a $150 fixed-price menu. And the kicker? It’s absolutely an integral part of the experience. Most of us, I think, have gone through life having tucked into a series of good to very good omelets. But when’s the last time you took that first bite of one and stopped dead in your tracks? Which is what makes this one so remarkable: It arrives at the table looking fairly innocent: Nothing new here, you think, and then wonder why it’s on the menu in the first place. But then you take the first bite, and the world becomes silent for a bit, fuzzy around the edges. The hen egg is dense, yet still, somehow, impossibly light. The sharp nuttiness of the Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar plays off the bibb lettuce draped over top. And then the truffle comes in, perfuming it all like what I imagine the land beyond the pearly gates will smell like when I finally eat too much and my heart inevitably gives up trying to pump so much butter through my decrepit veins, and I pass into the great restaurant in the sky. This is an omelet like you’ve never had before.
2. The Beef
Few things bother me more than going to dinner and seeing that the smallest steak you can order is a 12-ouncer. I’m all for abundance—this is still the land of plenty, kind of—but a nearly one-pound slab on my plate always seems more like a challenge to my manhood than an invitation to eat. And then, of course, there’s that whole biochemical reaction whereby our brain, seeing that it’s getting all kinds of wonderful fat and salt, tells our mouth to keep on eating, often well beyond the point of fullness. (OK, that’s not exactly how it works, but you get the point.) Here, however, the beef—the last of the savory courses before the cheese—is a perfectly portioned little brick that, after having aged for 32 days, has been transmogrified into the perfect intersection of beef’s minerality and an earthy, rich funkiness that reminded me of mushrooms or blue cheese. On its own, it would have been magnificent. With bacon-flecked Savoy cabbage, cloud-light potato confit, and a wink-wink application of Dijonnaise, it embodied exactly why you go to dinner at a place like Le Bec-Fin: because at its best, it changes what you think certain ingredients are actually capable of tasting like.
3. The Pierogi
Yes, pierogi: The Polish-grandmother classic. At a fine French restaurant. It’s part of the vegetarian menu du jardin (“the garden menu”) and a highlight of the meal. Whisper-delicate pasta is wrapped around a fluffy, melting filling of ricotta and stinging nettles. It arrives all pan-browned and comforting, and is then anointed by one of the servers with a generous dollop of sweet-onion creme fraiche. I found myself taking extra-large bites of this course. And you know what? No one looked askance at me. I think it’s universally understood that great pierogi—like great dumplings in many cultures—deserve to be eaten with gusto and abandon, no matter where you are.
4. The Sunchoke Royale and Mushrooms
Somehow, Chef Walter Abrams has managed to take the gnarly, scraggly sunchoke and re-imagine it as a custard with all the richness of meat and a flavor that is essentially a concentrated essence of its own identity. And the foraged mushroom dish—like the beef, it’s the last of the savory courses in the vegetarian menu before the cheese—is a stunner. The mushrooms change regularly (they are actually foraged by a gentleman in Montgomery County named Phillip, who brings them to the restaurant), but the memory of the dish likely will not. Imagine all the meatiness of steak, the earthiness of the forest after an autumn rain, and the comfort of your favorite wool blanket.
5. The Foie Gras
California has banned its sale. Vehement protests pop up every few years against restaurants that serve it. Arguments abound over how this fattened goose or duck liver is produced. But after the first bite of Le Bec’s seared foie gras with fennel, aged balsamic, and huckleberry puree, even the angriest PETA member might pause a moment and reconsider. This dish is smoother than Barry White, more seductive than Sophia Loren in her heyday, and as seriously, sinfully delicious as anything I’ve tasted in a long time.
6. The Paw Paw
It’s a fruit whose flavor runs in the direction of banana, and it’s sorely underused in restaurants all over the country. Here, it plays a key role in two dishes. First as a riff on banana bread, alongside a piece of Langres Chalancey cheese, a soft, mildly pungent cow’s milk cheese from France. As wonderful as that cheese was, it was the paw paw bread—sticky and decadent—that tied the whole plate together and nearly stole the show. A spread of cheese on that bread, the whole thing dragged through the concord grape reduction and crowned with a black walnut, is one of the best single bites in town right now. Paw paw is also being transformed into sorbet, here to accompany a lovely candied citron melon. Two different uses of the same ingredient, resulting in two remarkable flavor experiences.
7. The Service
I’m always amazed by how many people who’ve never eaten at a place like Le Bec assume that the service is going to be snooty, that every male employee dons a monocle and possesses a permanently extended pinky-finger, and that every female employee will be more judgmental than your in-laws. But here’s the thing: That’s not how these kinds of places operate. In general, I’ve found that the more haute cuisine-y the restaurant is, the more competent the service, and the more you can just relax and enjoy yourself. And here, the service was in top shape: Watching the team weave around the table with their bottles, utensils, glasses, plates and more, was not all that different from being at the ballet. It was all amazingly elegant, unobtrusive, and it seemed like the staff was really enjoying themselves. Which in turn allowed our table to stop worrying about anything else besides conversation and the seriously delicious food.
8. The End-of-Meal Sweets
Not that you’ll be hungry at the end of an eight-course menu. And not that you’ll necessarily want more sweets after the sorbet and desserts. But you’ll be powerless to fight the urge to keep on grazing when the little extras arrive; pastry chef Jennifer Smith is at the top of her game, and even with the sweet mignardises, her gifts are on ample display. So just give in and enjoy: chocolate-covered popcorn. Macaroons. Chocolate truffles. And whatever you can’t finish will be sent home with you in a box fit for a wedding gift.