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Le Bec-Fin Review (long)

OK, so it's the morning after Le Bec-Fin and here's my review:

We arrived for a 9:30 reservation (we had come up by train from DC after work, hence the late seating) at about 9:15. They didn't have a table ready for us so they sent us down to the bar to have a drink. We were lucky to find a couple of seats at the bar. The bartender took quite a while to notice us (at least 5 minutes and she was not that incredibly busy) and when she did she was rather abrupt with my girlfriend. Eventually after getting a cocktail list from her (which is only 2 drinks long for some strange reason) I ordered a Manhattan and she had a French Martini. Hers was good, if not too strong and mine was poor. Someone needs to teach this place how to make a Manhattan. I ordered it perfect and there was NO vermouth in it whatsoever. Yay for bourbon and bitters.

Anyways, we went upstairs when they pulled us in for our table. Everything that's been said about this dining room is true. It is an incredibly remarkable space. We were sat down amongst a flurry of waiter activity between the napkin dropping, the chair moving and whatnot. Very nice, and a touch over the top, but whatever.

After a thorough review we decided to go with the 10 course tasting menu. We're gluttons for punishment, what can I say?

The amuse was a scallop in a tarragon sauce with a leek piece on it. The tarragon sauce was excellent but overpowered what we would find out to be a very tasty scallop.

First course: Oysters tartar and ossetra caviar paired with a 2005 Domine Raymond Dupoint Fahn Chardonay. The oysters were of decent quality though they tasted as though they had been shucked about 3 hours before we tasted them. Even though they were sitting on a bed of ice the actual oyster meat tasted as though it was at room temperature. The texture of this dish and the flavoring was very good, though not out of this world. The pairing worked, but a Chardonay with some more fruitiness and a touch more oak would have matched this better.

Second course: Lentils with black perrigold truffles paired with 2005 Domaine du Vieux Lazaret white Chateauneuf de Pape. This is where things got bad. First, we were poured our wine about 7-10 minutes before our food came. If the point is to pair there is no reason to pour a tasting glass and make me sit on it while my glass comes up to room temperature. Then our lentils came. Utterly flavorless and extremely hot, as though these were thrown into a microwave since they had gotten too cold. This wasn't the kind of off the burner heat you get with lentils when you make them fresh, this was fake heat. The pairing was abominable. Whoever thought this pairing was a good idea needs to stick his head in the sand for a week and come up for some fresh air. Not one flavor in the wine complimented the flavor in any part of the lentils.

Interlude: It's at this point I'm starting to get upset with the service. At 3 separate times by this point in the meal waiters have made it a point to conference right over my left and right ears. "There's three birthdays at that table. Did you know that?" "Napkin fold, that table" and so on. I actually had to ask a server to ask the staff to stop conferencing over my ear.

Third course: We opted to go with the scallop special instead of the black sea bass that is on the menu. The scallop was pan seared with a sesame crust and a saffron foam style sauce. Another service gaff. No one bothered to tell the semolier that we were having the scallops and came over to pur the paired 2003 Weingut Holzapfel Vordeselber Reisling with our "bass". I stopped him and asked him to check that the wine was proper to pour with the scallops instead. They conferenced and decided that it was acceptable for the scallops. They were wrong. The scallops needed a wine with significantly more citrus in it. The scallops were well prepared, and unique in flavor. Why couldn't they get the flavor of these meaty scallops in the amuse though?

Fourth Course: Swetbreads in brioche crust and roasted lobster (this is how it reads on the menu) with a 2003 Treana Mer Solell Vinyard. Sure, we got the wine pairing, but we didnt' get this course. What we got was roasted lobster without swetbreads or a brioche crust. The lobster was good, but it drives me nuts when a kitchen changes a course without telling us and trying to pass it off as though that's how it's supposed to be. The pairing worked for this course, but not extremely well. It didn't create the pairing flavor I was looking for, but rather worked as a wine with which one could gulp down to go with lobster.

Fifth Course: Fois gras with rasberry vinegar paired with a NV Pineau des Charentes. This was the first excellent course of the evening. The fois gras was a touch over seared, but the mesh of flavors with this sauce and the wine was absolutely perfect.

Sixth Course: Grapefruite and vermouth grainte recreated shot style (no pairing). Why on earth are they doing this at Le Bec-Fin? Why on earth are they serving me a grapefruit compote with pop rocks in it with a vermouth shot? This was neither flavorful nor interesting. If I want this I'll go to WD-50 or Moto where they actually do this well. Sure it was kind of funny in a tongue in cheek way but this didn't clear my palette.

Finally at this point the waiters had stopped conferencing over my ear.

Seventh Course: Roasted squab with confit of cabbage paired with a 2003 Until Vinyards Syrah. This was maybe the best course of the evening. It was simple, to the point and the pairing worked well. The squap was perfectly roasted and the cabbage was excellent.

Eigth Course: Cheese course paired with a 1998 Ramos Porto. An excellent course for the two of us since we both know cheese up and down. Their cheese man could learn a thing or two about service though. Just asking what kind of cheese people like without any guidance as he did to the table next to us isn't so helpful. We had a selection of bleu cheeses, a goat or two and some camembert. All were very good, though nothing to write home about. By the way, who on earth pairs with cheese without looking to the cheese that the patrons select? This pairing stunk, not to mention this port stinks. They needed something a little younger for this course.

Ninth Course: Sorbet & Ice Cream. I ordered the coconut sorbet and my girlfriend ordered the pear. They brought us each the other's sorbet. For a place that prides themselves on service, what the heck? They were both good, though again nothing to write home about. My coconut sorbet had a few chunks of ice on it.

Tenth Course: Dessert Cart paired with a 1998 La Chapelle de Lafaurie-Peyraguey. I had the Grand Marinier cold soufle since I'm a GM addict and my girlfriend had a selection from the chocolates. Mine was ok, not great. They really pushed the chocolates on her without concern with what she really wanted. This seemed a theme for the evening.

Petit Fours- all very good. Simple, nothing to write home about.

Overall I thought it was good, but not wonderful. Certainly not the best place I've eaten ever, let alone this calendar year (that easily goes to Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA). The service often heard us but failed to listen or pay attention. The food was good at points, but poor at other points. Would I reccomend this place? Not if you are paying with your own cash, but if you're on an expense account, by all means. ** out of 5.

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  1. Wow. I can't imagine having an experience like yours at LBF. Of course, I've only been there twice, both times years ago (1996, 1998). The first time, it was just the two of us and we ordered the smaller tasting menu without the wine pairing. The meal was sublime, with service to match. The second time, we were a party of six; four of us had the smaller tasting menu, while two had the vegetarian. No wine pairings - we selected a couple of bottles on our own for the table. All these years later, I can't remember a single detail of the meal, just that it was incredibly good - not a single misstep throughout.

    Do you suppose they've just gotten a bit tired or over-confident? I'd still love to give it one more try one day, just to see.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Deenso

      I'm not sure when we will have a chance to try this again. Frankly at the price of this restaurant there are too many places that get it right on the first try.

    2. I've never found that a tasting menu represents the best a restaurant has to offer (and I stopped ordering them), but there's no excuse for this many failures. I hope you'll send a copy of your review to LBF; if I remember correctly, part of the reason the restaurant once lost a Michelin star was that a couple of waiters were arguing within earshot of the reviewer.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Elaine

        I have already sent it- I generally don't post reviews of this nature without dropping a copy in the mail.

      2. Le bec fin *never* had any michelin stars.
        Michelin doesnt review philadelphia restaurants.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Chowtalk

          Indeed- it has 5 diamonds from AAA and 5 stars from Mobil.

          1. WOW!! Ten courses all with wine??? Did you really have ten glasses of wine?? And ,by the way, it is obviously not important to you, but to me it is: How much did this baby cost you????

            1 Reply
            1. re: OlderPhiladelphian

              I'm bypassing the cost question as you can call the restaurant and find that out yourself. In regards to the wine question, I'm going to guess you haven't done a long tasting menu before and give you the quick rundown. Basically when you have anything over 5 or so courses and you do pairings, you aren't getting 6 ounce pours- you are getting 3-4 oz pours. The idea being that you should maybe feel the wine at the end of the meal, but you shouldn't be trashed. I'd say in some of the courses with cheaper wines it was noticable that the pourer had a heavier hand. As the meal went on since it was a late seating they also seemed to have a slightly heavier hand.

              By the way, it was 8 glasses of wine (courses 6 and 9 are not paired). All in all it would have been about the same as each of us drinking a bottle or so plus a touch more.

              For the price there are other places to go if the price is crucial to you.

            2. We gave up on LBF years ago. Never understood all the fuss. Perhaps things have changed but we resented having to pay those prices while practically sitting on top of the person next to us and being served by someone with a "better than you attitude" with a fake french accent. Guess that was a run on but you get the idea. The lowlight was being told that they couldn't prepare a sauce without flour for my allergic sig. When I offered to go into the kitchen to prepare a reduction sauce they snorted and walked away.

              Admittedly that was quite a few years ago. Perhaps things are better now but it doesn't sound like it.

              2 Replies
              1. re: joluvscards

                Read the last Le Bec-Fin thread. There are still quite a few people (including me) that have really good things to say about it.

                1. re: G Goo

                  I read all the reviews and accolades before I went, and we went with an open mind and heart, though I wish I had some of the experiences you had.

              2. I went to LBF on Saturday night and couldn't disagree more with the poster above.

                My birthday dinner at Le Bec Fin was an incredible dining experience. I knew the food would be outstanding, but I did not expect to have so much fun. Fancy restaurants tend to be snooty and intimidating, but that was not the case at Le Bec Fin. The service was impeccable and the waiters were amazingly down to earth and helpful; I was at ease from the moment I stepped into the restaurant.

                Read the full report with pictures at my blog: http://gastronomy.wordpress.com

                3 Replies
                1. re: tuffygal

                  Yes, and I only wish we had the same experiences. I didn't find the service to be intimidating or snooty, perhaps a bit over the top, but certainly not impeccable. I even heard the conversation from the servers that it was someone at the next table's birthday. I know because it went on for about 3 minutes over my left shoulder.

                  I only wish we had your experience.

                  To me, the biggest measure of fine dining is that they are able to repeat themselves time and time again. Unfortunately it doesn't appear that they were able to repeat previous good performances, as the one you got, for our table.

                  1. re: tuffygal

                    What a joy to read your wonderful report! Are you a professional writer?
                    Le Bec Fin should paper their walls - or the newspapers - with that glowing description. You've brightened my day, and put LBF on my list for our next celebration. Probably we'll do lunch rather than dinner, but we've done that before - enjoyed the elegance and wonderful food at a lower price.
                    Thank you.

                    1. re: sylviag

                      I'm glad you liked my write up! Not a pro, just a gal who likes to write and eat. I hope you have a wonderful time at LBF.

                  2. I couldn't agree more. I'm an "insider" and I have to add that a bad experience at restaurant of that supposed caliber is unforgivable. This is what they do for a living every night. Their patrons come on the most special of occasions, for the most part. They have a responsibility to nail it perfect EVERY time. Would the public be so forgiving of flaws if this were a Broadway show, or a concert? You can forgive flaws to a degree, but this is regarded as a top restaurant. I thought I was paying for perfection.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: howund09

                      I would assume even the best restaurants have had bad days. I'll give most places the benefit of the doubt. If 98% of the reviews are glowing I'm sure that's what you are going to get.....perfection 98% of the time.....even at the top restaurants. If you tell me there are restaurants that are perfect 100% of the time in all aspects....service, food, ambiance.....I find that hard to believe.

                      Even Michael Jordan had bad shooting nights.

                      1. re: howund09

                        I agree, though to be fair, once I receive a response (if I receive a response) from Chef Perrier then I will gladly post it. Though I am not an insider, I am very slightly on the outside looking in, just as a matter of practice should he offer to bring us back in for a meal on the house as a matter of principle we will refuse. (wait for it, this is coming back to your post). I don't ever want to be known as a special diner nor do I ever wish to be treated as one- I wish to be treated as every other diner in the restaurant and coming in for a free meal gives them too much opportunity to fawn over me to get a better follow up. The answer is not to do it right just once, but to do it right every single time.

                      2. Just my two cents... I planned my honeymoon around a trip to LBF. It was to be the tasting menu on new years eve. The rolls were stale. The wait staff made us feel foolish for not using the right utensils, literally glaring. They didn't offer THE dessert cart (no warning). It made me sad. And, for the price, there are many other glorious restaurants on the planet that we would rather try, instead of going back to give them another chance.

                        1. Was great in the late 80's, 90's. That's the thing though; if I pay hundreds of dollars for dinner for two, I would like to be satisfied at least, and delighted and wowed at best. Handling the 2% of situations where an excellent dining experience is not had with professionalism, or better yet having the maitre d' come by and ask how things are going to fix those 2% of cases, would be the sign of a great restaurant. The OP didn't indicate that "the entree was cold so we weren't happy, that was it", there were many issues that point to the caliber/training/customer service of key personnel at the restaurant. Personally I am unhappy if a $10 entree joint changes my food without at least telling me, let alone "oops, we forgot sweetbreads" like they forgot the parsley on top.

                          Restaurants are a YMMV thing, but one does feel abused when the entire evening seems like a waste. I think the best thing is to send the report to the restaurant, with as many details as possible. At least they can learn from their mistakes (hopefully) or ignore them and keep things going based on their reputation. What happens when 2% unhappy customers becomes 5%, then 10%, etc.?

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: rakh

                            Right....understood....but if you look at the existing Le Bec-Fin threads it's apparent that most of the responses here (a foodie forum) are positive. Many, including myself, were wowed. When I read things like "WAS great in the 80's and 90's" I have to chuckle because I had a fantastic experience there just last month! Take that for what it's worth.....I may be, gastronomically speaking, right off the turnip truck, for all you know. But that's what I'm doing in reading the negative posts......weighing them against the overwhemingly positive posts.

                            I tend to think that this post is an example of a really bad night at a really great restaurant. I also think it would be wise for the originator to pass their complaints directly to the management. I'd like our great destination restaurants to stay great.

                            1. re: G Goo

                              Please note that I did send this on via USPS attention to the Chef who I assume will pass it along to whomever it needs to go to (I didn't have a name for the rest of the management, so I figured he was the best one to send it to). I also noted that should they wish to reply that I'll gladly post their response if they will allow so.

                          2. Well, 12 days later and still no response. Honestly I would have expected a response either by phone or e-mail or letter by now. Disheartening indeed.

                            1. Whew..., well I have to tell you, you made me feel "not crazy". My husband and I ate at LBF about a year ago for my 40th birthday. Your experience sounds like ours. I was exceptionally disappointed and I should have written a letter but didn't. Not only have we eaten in many restaurants of supposed "similar quality"all over the world we have paid less for far more exceptional meals. I felt as if my dinner bill at $600 was outrageous. I am a self taught gourment and I worked as a server about 15 years ago (which makes me wince at service like you described and I too experienced) in the ONLY 5 star restaurant in Maine (The White Barn Inn)- believe me when I tell you, service should be exceptional in a restaurant such as this and the food should be even better. I worked for a chef originally from Lyon France who was an absolute loveable and uncompromising BEAST, but he took his kitchen and the feedback on his food, and the service it was served, with very personally. I learned working in that restaurant and for that chef that standards of excellence are not a bad thing when what you represent as exceptional is supposed to be. I work currently as a real estate agent and the word among my colleagues is "save your money". It was disappointing to say the least. I could add the high points to make chef feel a bit better, but a restaurant such as LBF should be exceptional and without question on any level.