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Putting Le Bec-Fin to the Test

Pete Wells has fantasized about eating at Le Bec-Fin for over 20 years. But can reality ever live up to the dream?

All the arrangements had been made weeks in advance: the dinner reservation, the hotel room in Philadelphia and finally, crucially, the babysitter. After a volley of phone calls and faxes with the hotel concierge, I'd confirmed that a nanny would show up at 8 o'clock to watch our baby while my wife and I went out to eat. Around 5, just to double-check, I rode the elevator down to the lobby. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wells, but I don't see any record of your request," the concierge said. He checked with the nanny service; all their sitters were booked. "I can call my manager and see if we can help," he offered.

"Please do," I begged. "I've waited 20 years for this meal!"

Our dinner reservation was at Le Bec-Fin, a restaurant I've dreamed about since college. When I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in 1981, the school's promotional brochures bragged about what everybody in town called "the Philadelphia restaurant renaissance." The greatest of the renaissance chefs, the Michelangelo of Walnut Street, was Georges Perrier, who learned his craft at La Pyramide in France and began cooking in Philadelphia in the late '60s as a young man. By the time I arrived in the city, his Le Bec-Fin was recognized, both by the nation's reigning food critics and by the locals, as the best restaurant in town, maybe the best in the country.

I never went. I had grown up in the suburbs of Rhode Island eating what every suburban American kid ate in the '70s. My favorite fancy restaurant was the Rusty Scupper, where I always carefully studied the menu, miraculously printed on a wooden oar, before ordering baked stuffed shrimp. In Philadelphia, I was introduced to such exotica as bagels, sushi, tandoori chicken, falafel, tacos, Italian sausage, pad Thai, Brie, Peking duck and porcini mushrooms. As for haute cuisine, I remained in the dark. Just off the Penn campus was a desperate stab at a French restaurant called L'Artiste Affamé. I hadn't been to France, but even I knew that there was something not quite authentic about a place where, if somebody ordered Champagne, the gum-chewing waitress yelled out, "Harry, get the bucket!"

Evidence suggested that Le Bec-Fin existed on another plane, but, with its $65 prix fixe, it was always out of reach to me. Through stolen glimpses and secondhand reports, however, I began to build my own mental replica of Le Bec-Fin. Anyone who loves restaurants knows this process. You read about a place, your friends talk about it, and soon you develop a kind of crush. As with the more common kind of crush, imagination quickly outstrips the real thing. Perhaps the never-ending busy signal keeps you away from the French Laundry until you believe it's the second coming of the Garden of Eden, minus the snake. Maybe a flight to Catalonia to eat at El Bulli just doesn't fit on your calendar, so you find yourself dreaming about what "apple caviar" might be. A restaurant that lives in your dreams can be anything you want it to be, and you never have to pick up the tab.

After pacing the halls of the hotel for an hour—I was too nervous to sit in our room—I got a call on my cell phone from the concierge. He'd talked one of the hosts from the front desk into babysitting. After explaining to the sitter what to do with Dexter in every emergency scenario we could think of, my wife and I set off for Le Bec-Fin. On the four-minute walk, we passed Striped Bass and Susanna Foo, two restaurants that muscled in on Perrier's block after I left town. The city has renamed the side street across from Le Bec-Fin "Georges Perrier Place," but the town fathers can't do anything to slow the advance of ambitious new competitors with a more modern outlook. These days, menus in French and domed plates aren't enough to make you the best restaurant in town.

The entrance to Le Bec-Fin was still as forbidding as I recalled, with a brass plaque instructing us to ring the bell for admittance. Ignoring it, I pulled on the smoked-glass door and it swung open. We were in the world's smallest lobby; it was barely big enough for the hostess to step from behind her station and take our coats. Another door was opened and we were led into the dining room.

I believe we gasped. The new room was all white and gold, like a bride. Restaurants with chandeliers and mirrors usually make me picture either dotty great-aunts or beefy men with pinkie rings. This didn't. It was the kind of room that made you feel smart, cultured and attractive just for being there. At the same time, I wanted to run my fingers across the woven silk wall panels.

This was not the same room I would have seen in my college days. Five years ago, the Mobil Travel Guide demoted Le Bec-Fin from its top five-star ranking down to a mere four. Now, I have never met anyone who based his dining decisions on the Mobil Travel Guide. Who cares what a gas station thinks about food? Well, Philadelphia cared. The day Le Bec-Fin lost the star, TV trucks parked outside the door. And Georges Perrier cared. Boy, did he care. He had a nervous breakdown, followed by severe depression. He huddled with his psychic. He launched an investigation into what went wrong and fired a waiter he deemed responsible. He fired himself, turning over command of the kitchen to a chef from Daniel in New York. He hired a new wine guy, who added 500 bottles to the list. Finally, he tore down the dining room, ripping out the flocked persimmon-colored wallpaper, the fleurs-de-lis carpeting, the wrought-iron banisters, several walls—everything but the chandeliers.

Our first three courses were all pleasure. Perrier was still serving one dish I could have ordered back in college, his galette de crabe, a high-end crab cake. Meanwhile, my wife had a sunchoke soup that took its smoky depth from bacon and its substance from sliced quail breast laid on the surface. She followed that with lobster in red wine sauce; in its copper casserole, it seemed more bistro than haute cuisine. The same was true of my meat course, a roast pigeon, and even of my wife's dish of sweetbreads and veal with blue-potato spaetzle. The food had the simplicity and depth of flavor you find at those casually thrilling restaurants opened by Paris chefs who've tired of dancing the three-Michelin-star rumba. Often, after ambitious restaurant meals, I leave feeling that too many hands mucked around with my food, and that despite all the fussing, the result wasn't even remotely satisfying. The cooking at Le Bec-Fin was of a different order; you didn't notice how much work had gone into it until you tasted it.

But nobody was getting more pleasure from the restaurant than the Lone Gourmand at the next table. He was toting the program for a scientific conference, but his true purpose in coming to Philadelphia was obviously dinner at Le Bec-Fin. On top of his conference program, he set a copy of Perrier's cookbook to await the chef's signature. Before dismantling each course, he photographed it. When caviar appeared, he held his hands above the plate and wiggled his plump fingers in the air like a concert pianist getting ready to play a particularly delightful mazurka.

I'd always supposed that Le Bec-Fin would be full of solemn old snoots whispering behind their fish knives. Instead, the joint was jumping. In the corner was a man, his face pink from wine, who waved a waiter over and demanded, "Please escort my wife to the ladies' room!" Then he said thank you very loudly in Japanese, although neither he nor the waiter looked Japanese. On our other side was a richly dressed Latin American family: a dour father, a glamorous mother, three daughters with long, straight, black hair, and their suitors. They were all having the tasting menu and they were all cooing over it, even the old man. I'd never been any place so formal where people were so loose. It must have been the waiters. There seemed to be an endless supply of them in black tuxedos of varying degrees of elegance. There was the one who lit the candles and the one who refilled our water; the bread-basket keeper; the cheese tender; the wine steward; the other wine steward; the dessert slicer; the crumb scraper; and on and on. Because of the restaurant's layout, they bump and squeeze past each other in the center of the dining room, treating customers to a floor show.

A former dishwasher once told a reporter, "You're either here two days or 10 years—nothing in between." This was evident on the floor. Certain servers seemed to have been picked up at the Greyhound station a half hour before dinner. The waiter who dropped off our amuse-bouche described it as "seared tuna with a black-olive tammanna." A what? (That's the closest I can come to his pronunciation of tapenade; no alphabet on earth can do justice to the way he said "amuse bouche.") Other servers, though, were both confident and knowledgeable. When I asked the sommelier which of two rosé Champagnes he preferred, he decisively replied, "Definitely the Paul Déthune," as if he'd been hoping for just that question all night. Another waiter stopped by from time to time to drop some quick pleasantry, like the host at a cocktail party. When I told him how much I'd liked my fish course, a black sea bass fillet with pickled lotus root and huitlacoche sauce (I know, an assemblage this eclectic doesn't fit into my haute-bistro paradigm at all, which is why I didn't mention it earlier), he shared some huitlacoche facts. "It's corn must," he said. "A kind of fungus that grows on the ears of corn. The word comes from the Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs, and it means 'black excrement.' So—black shit." He flashed a grin and pirouetted away.

Without a doubt, many diners do not want to hear about excrement or any of its synonyms in the middle of a meal. But our waiter somehow knew, from a few moments' observation, that far from offending us, his bizarre remark would smash any inhibitions we might be harboring. It told us, succinctly, that we weren't in church. I wish my 24-year-old self had been given the chance to hear a Le Bec-Fin waiter say "black excrement." It might have saved me from years of taking food too seriously.

It was lucky we were in such a giddy mood, because things were about to go downhill. After I'd chosen five tremendous cheeses and my wife had amused herself with a small salad that was perfectly—I mean perfectly—dressed, the sweet courses began. Sorbets were clumsy, studded with crunchy bits of ice. Le Bec-Fin's dessert cart is even more famous than the galette de crabe, celebrated for its sugary landscape of just about every dessert. Tonight, it held row after row of cakes and tarts. Clearly, the idea was excess, but not one of our four choices was worth the trouble of slicing it.

The time had come to go back to the hotel and relieve the babysitter, so I called for the check. With tip, the total bill came to just under $500. I'm still not sure I can afford Le Bec-Fin, particularly when the pastry chef seemed to have been nabbed in the same bus-station roundup that caught the tammanna guy. But we'd gotten something that's been absent from meals we've had in other elevated restaurants that were brought off without a flaw. My wife, with no preconceptions, and I, with decades' worth of expectations, had had more fun than we thought possible.

It's easy to forget that restaurants are human institutions. With rare exceptions, the great ones have a life span that is closely tied to the man or woman who made them great. By waiting 20 years to eat at Le Bec-Fin, I'd taken a giant risk. And, indeed, almost nothing had stayed the same. Butter and cream had fallen out of favor in the kitchen, nouvelle cuisine had been embraced and then rejected, the waiters who spoke perfect French and the customers who understood them were gone. But Georges Perrier has refused to go away.

In 2003, Le Bec-Fin got its fifth star back. Perrier owns three other restaurants, but he still shows up out of nowhere to torment the employees, parking his car across the street, on Georges Perrier Place. A portrait of Napoleon hangs in his office. Perrier is the reason that, 35 years after its birth, Le Bec-Fin was still around to show me a good time when I was finally ready. And he's the reason that the evening had surprised me at every turn, defying all my expectations. I was grateful for that. If things always turned out the way we pictured them, what fun would that be?

Le Bec-Fin, 1523 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 215-567-1000.

Published July 2005
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