Philadelphia Restaurant Review: The Return of Le Bec Fin

Le Bec Fin was once Philadelphia's greatest restaurant. Can it be again?

The search for a truly great restaurant is a quest for a mysterious kind of comfort. You want a refuge that veils the anxieties (and even some of the satisfactions) of your real life and replaces them with something fantastical yet uncannily familiar. You want to walk into another world, yet feel it’s where you’ve always belonged. And I have never found that magic behind the marble-framed door of Le Bec Fin.

Admittedly, I first arrived after twilight had fallen on its heyday. Georges Perrier, in a lunge for relevance that looked a lot like flailing, had abolished the dress code and surrendered to à la carte ordering. The food was still good, but dining beneath half a million dollars of chandeliered crystal in dress-down-Friday duds felt like wearing shorts to St. Peter’s. And even a year later, donning coat and tie hardly brought comfort. Not under the milky gaze of Marie Antoinette and beneath crown molding feathered with real gold leaf. Because, really, what was the point?

It’s possible that the only person left who had an answer to that question (and believed in it enough to upend his entire life in order to chase a point that only he saw) was Nicolas Fanucci. Fanucci was the general manager under whose watch Le Bec regained its fifth Mobil star in 2003. And after spending the past six years as GM of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in California, he bought Le Bec Fin and reopened it in June.

Fanucci is no stranger to risk. As a 17-year-old appalled by the tax bill from a summer restaurant job in Cannes, the underage Frenchman finagled his way into the navy—with the sole aim of discharging his military-service obligation so he could abandon his citizenship without qualms. But he’s also shrewd. His new head chef at Le Bec, Walter Abrams, and pastry chef, Jennifer Smith, are known quantities—fellow alums of Thomas Keller’s culinary temple. Sommelier Philippe Sauriat comes from Alain Ducasse.

And these days, you’d better come to the doors wearing a jacket or an evening dress, because under Fanucci’s second watch, Le Bec Fin has been remade in a spirit that seems ever closer to vanishing from this Earth. Abrams is orchestrating eight-course tasting menus in a dining room as resplendent as ever, but with fewer tables—and a veritable flotilla of servers for each one of them.

But if there was going to be any magic at all in my early first visit, half of those servers seemed bent on interrupting it. With each new wave of heavy silver utensils came nervous inquiries taking measure of our enjoyment, our pleasure—and thus transforming it into awkwardness.

Abrams’s cooking was outstanding: exacting but unfailingly agile. Any doubts about his vegetarian menu du jardin shattered like the trompe l’oeil cracke­r, fryer-popped and cradling a crème-fraîche-touched cargo of roasted carrots and beets.

But still, it pays to be an omnivore. Calf sweetbreads measured up to Bibou’s best, their richness magnified by egg garganelli and then tamed by the sprightly tang of sorrel puree. A 32-day dry-aged steak was the best I’ve eaten since a grass-fed rib eye at the Farm and Fisherman 18 months ago. An ivory medallion of h­alibut—poached in a fumet made of its bones, wrapped in a leek leaf and served with a compound bu­tter of pureed caviar—was the best h­alibut I’ve ever tasted.

Yet the quickness with which some dishes called other restaurants to mind nagged at me. Forty years ago, the gulf between Le Bec Fin and Philadelphia’s next-best kitchens may have been a chasm. Today, it’s more like a sidewalk crack. What had our $500 anniversary dinner bought us that a $200 one couldn’t have? “A view of chandeliers” came uncomfortably close to the answer.

But then I went back. In less than three weeks, almost every dish on both menus had changed. The table runners had conquered their nerves. All early obsequiousness had waned in the glow of Fanucci’s charisma. Meanwhile, Abrams wove the flavors of summer through a procession of subtle global influences.

From an opening teacup of chilled cucumber juice with watermelon and nasturtiums, to a seventh-course riff on ants-on-a-log (the celery as a sorbet, the peanut butter switched for candied almond butter and brittle, foraged mulberries in place of the raisins), the meal replenished all that the heat wave had scorched. A bonito emulsion graced a melon and smoked corn salad like fairy dust. Corn ravioli and mussels in a lovage sauce reeled me back 10 years to an unforgettable chowder on a wooden windjammer in Maine.

There was richness and depth, too: Cured Mangalitsa ham under parmesan foam inflected with mullet roe. Lamb medallions with garlic scapes and a subtle curry sauce. A tower of chocolate mousse and poached cherries almost decadent enough to overcome nostalgia for the retired dessert cart.

Sauriat is building a wine program to rally behind as well. Bargains abound, whether it’s 11 red burgundies under $100 (the French Laundry offers none) or the most expensive item on the list, a grand cru Domaine de la Romanée-Conti whose $4,600 tag is $5,000 below its retail/auction value.

There are glimmers of a new and compelling culture being born at Le Bec Fin. My final meal—but hopefully not my last one—ul­timately left no question about where the money had gone: to the unlikely sensation, for me, of feeling truly and fabulously rich.