I recently spent three days in Philadelphia, and ate at several highly touted restaurants there: Alma de Cuba, Le Bec Fin, and Vetri. Le Bec Fin wasn't the first place I ate at, but it was by far the best. In fact it was one of the best meals I've ever had.
To start with, I had a choice of a six-course meal (appetizer, fish, main course, cheese course or salad, ice cream or sorbet, dessert), where I would choose the first three courses from the menu, or an eight-course degustation. The former is $120, and the latter is $155. That's right: Le Bec Fin is more expensive than Alain Ducasse (at least the last time I looked). But it's worth it.
I chose the degustation. It began with an amuse-bouche of mussel salad with fried onions, followed by gazpacho with lobster and a parmesan crisp, and then an oxtail and foie gras terrine. All were very good.
My next course was seared sea scallops in a light cream curry sauce. This was one of the highlights of the meal: the scallops were browned, to form a crust that was caramelized just enough, while inside they were buttery-tender; and they were incredibly flavorful. They were the best scallops I can remember ever having. Accompanying them was a zucchini blossom stuffed with sweet potato, rice, and chicken mousse, which was very good too.
Next was a swordfish with bok choy and sweet wine sauce (and some sort of fruit puree). I'm not much of a swordfish fan, and this dish left me indifferent at first. But as I ate it, it grew on me, and by the time I was finished I was enjoying it thoroughly.
Next was sauteed sea bass with ginger slices and lime oriental style. This, my waiter told me, was actually a complimentary course which the chef gave to single diners. And I've never been so glad to be alone: this was the second highlight. The skin was crisp and flavorful, the flesh tender.
The main course was sauteed medallions of veal with chanterelle mushrooms and Italian green beans in natural jus. This was the only (relative) disappointment of the evening. It was very good, but there was nothing that set it out of the ordinary, as there was with the other courses.
Next came the cheese course. This was a third highlight. Instead of having to select three cheeses, as at other restaurants, you can sample as many as you want. I chose two and asked the cheese steward (or whatever you would call him) to choose something that would go with them. He did, and then gave me another he said I should try, and then another and another, for a total of nine cheeses on my plate, from a mild triple-creme (I think that's what it was called) with creme fraiche mixed in to a very sharp roquefort. Two of the selections struck me as unusual. One was a hard cheese from Tuscany (if I remember correctly) with bits of black truffle in it, which had a strong truffle perfume; unfortunately I don't remember the name. The other was an orange, gooey, pungent cheese from Alsace with the improbable name of Monster-Garone (I asked the cheese steward what the name was and that's how he wrote it). All nine cheeses were very good, the ones I've mentioned particularly so; the triple creme in particular was outstanding. I've never had the cheese at Picholine or Artisanal, but I have had the cheese course at Gramercy Tavern and Jean Georges; and Le Bec Fin's was better than either.
The next course was a praline (I think) ice cream. This was just one small scoop, more of a palate cleanser than anything else, and I for one would not have counted it as a separate course. But given their bounty in other areas, I would certainly not want to split hairs, and this is the only complaint I could make. Besides, the ice cream was very good.
Last was the dessert. When explaining the menu, the waiter called this "the fun part," and he was right. They wheel out a huge dessert cart, with five shelves; there must have been at least twenty different selections. And, just as with the cheese course, you can have as many as you want. I picked out two, and the waiter gave me three more. All were very good, but the best was the "Piedmont," a pastry with dark chocolate mille feuille on the bottom and milk chocolate hazelnut mousse on top. The others were a frozen grand marnier souffle with raspberry sauce, also excellent; a pistachio dacquoise with lemon filling; a "Le Bec Fin" triple chocolate cake; and a creme brulee. And I wasn't so stuffed that I couldn't finish them all. Incidentally, there were nearby tables which ordered the six-course prix fixe, and as far as I could tell they all got the same deal on the cheeses and desserts that I did.
When I first read that Le Bec Fin was one of the top French restaurants in the country, my first reaction was disbelief (having spent two years in Manhattan). But going by the meal I had (which might, of course, be atypical) I would believe it. I've occasionally--twice, to be precise--had an individual dish at a French restaurant superior to anything I had at Le Bec Fin. But for consistency and total value, my meal at Le Bec Fin equalled any meal I've ever had at a French restaurant, and surpassed nearly all of them.
P.S. To those who demand to know why I didn't go to Tony Luke's: I planned to, really I did; but botched planning (in particular, not realizing that the northeast branch had closed since my three-year-old guidebook was printed), meant I missed my chance, and there wasn't another window of opportunity.
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