Taste: Reviews: The French Evolution

After 35 years at the top of Philadelphia’s restaurant scene, Georges Perrier is ­shaking things up. What does that mean for meals at Le Bec-Fin, ­Brasserie Perrier and Georges’?

Brasserie Perrier
Step into the lively lounge at Brasserie Perrier, which starts revving its engines at 5 p.m. nightly, and see why this restaurant is Le Bec-Fin’s saucier sibling: The heels are higher, the necklines lower, the coiffures more tousled, the flirtation more determined.
You could spend an entire evening in this frisky front room, handicapping the mating games and dining very well on caramelized onion soup, frisée salad, steak frites and chic fondues. But the best prime rib you may ever eat deserves your full attention. To savor it without distraction, take a table in the Art Deco-inspired dining room, a calmer showcase for the talents of executive chef Chris Scarduzio.

The crowded, convivial Brasserie Perrier of today differs greatly in mood and food from the $3.5-million-dollar baby that failed to please almost everyone when it opened in January 1997. Customers primed for a casual-Friday version of Le Bec found the prices too high, the portions too small, the food too Asian, and the staff too snobby.

Scarduzio urged Perrier to pump up the portions, focus on hearty French and American classics, and soften Brasserie’s uptight image by introducing a happy hour with free hors d’oeuvres. It took nearly two years for the bottom line to jump, but when it did, along with public opinion, Perrier was so pleased that he made Scarduzio a partner.

The turnaround was accomplished without compromising ingredients or technique. Pastas are made-in house, none better than the spinach raviolis filled with ground veal, exotic mushrooms, fresh herbs, grated parmesan, and that secret flavor weapon of the French, duck fat. Goat cheese terrine is smartly dressed with micro greens, dried tomatoes, reduced balsamic vinegar and an edible nasturtium. Fresh anchovies lend real personality to the dressing on the Caesar salad, topped with a jaunty parmesan tuile. The duck carpaccio disappoints because there’s so little meat: The appetizer is dominated by poached baby artichokes and red-stemmed micro greens.

For evidence that tiny portions are no longer an issue, look no further than the formidable prime rib, available as a 34-ounce or 29-ounce cut, and only on Thursdays. A rubdown with fresh garlic and herbs infuses those flavors into the meat, which is meltingly tender after 12 hours in a very low oven. Scarduzio pushes the decadence envelope further by pairing the beef with a gruyère-parmesan macaroni gratin dotted with Serrano ham.

Choucroute, probably on hiatus by now, is so memorable that it merits a revisit in October or November. More than just
sauerkraut with boudin blanc and knockwurst, this version includes a layer of fingerling potatoes and a sumptuous crown of duck confit.
A lacy golden cap of shredded spuds adds texture to a halibut fillet cut as thick as a steak. It’s served on creamy crab polenta crisscrossed with white asparagus, baby carrots and green beans; the veggies make it difficult to get a full forkful of the polenta. Prices aren’t recited with specials: The halibut was $37, more than the highest-priced regular menu item.

Friday’s plat du jour is sunset-colored bouillabaisse, heady with saffron and fennel, generously endowed with lobster tail and claw meat, fish and shellfish, the perfect match for a glass of Provençal rosé. I loved the garnishes—flash-fried slices of orange and red bell pepper, a sprig of fried basil, toasted bread spread with garlic ­mayonnaise—but I’d prefer the white asparagus and French beans on a separate plate, not drowned in the broth.

Jesmary Sbraga’s desserts capture Brasserie’s lighthearted spirit. Her crunchy-creamy cheesecake “spring rolls,” served with a raspberry marmalade, bring a smile, as does the poached pear half that sports a belly button of caramel sauce, accompanied by a finger-size banana walnut cake and a wee scoop of vanilla ice cream. Miniature banana-chocolate cake is accessorized with a chocolate disc bearing the “bp” logo in a repeated pattern, in the style of a Louis Vuitton handbag. The bittersweet chocolate soufflé is truly French, as is the delivery: The waiter punches a hole in the puffy crust to pour in a cool stream of vanilla sauce. It’s a suave move, equal to anything that may be transpiring in the lounge.