Before I’d even laid eyes on le new Le Bec Fin, gold-plated bastion of manners and class, I made an egregious faux pas. No, I didn’t wear a white jacket after Labor Day. Worse: I called and asked for Nic.
Nic is Nicolas Fanucci, former French Laundry capo, current Le Bec Fin owner and emcee. (That’s Nicolas with a silent S, thank you very much). When I asked for “Nic” — the way his name’s been printed here and there in the local media since his arrival in March — the woman on the other end of the line rebuffed me like a soccer mom whose daughter Kirsten had just been called “Kristen”: “His name is Nicola. Nic. Uh. Lah.”
I imaged Fanucci, chef Walter Abrams (another Laundry import) and the staff of Le Bec Fin 2.0 gathered around immersion circulators in the freshly upgraded kitchen, getting instructed like a counterterrorism unit on a name-correction campaign. If the image seems silly, rest assured that it seemed silly to me, too — especially at choice moments during my eight-course, $150 meal at this star-seeker. When sea grit gave the scallop course an unwelcome crunch, for example, or when a stowaway bone announced itself in rabbit merguez. Clearly, there are more pressing issues than how Mr. Fanucci should be addressed.
With Le Bec’s team-service approach, every single dining-room staffer should know every single item on each plate; they don’t. More than once, kitchen chatter overwhelmed dining-room music, and courses came at too quick a clip, especially once we’d segued from savory to cheese and dessert and the staff began clearing candles and flowers and changing the linens. As the evening’s last reservation, I felt myself being scooted along like a kid late for school. I downed a $19 glass of honeyed muscat like SunnyD, crammed some lovely cassis macarons in my mug like a handful of Chex, and left. Arrival to departure: two hours. To me, that seems about an hour short of where an eight-course meal at a restaurant of this caliber should be.
In today’s era of warp-speed on-demand dining, three-hour meals are nearly extinct. So it’s the rare establishment like Le Bec Fin that’s tasked with the twofold challenge of lavishing us with what so few of us have, time, and providing food that captivates. In my experience, the restaurant failed on the first part of that challenge and performed better, but far from perfectly, on the second.
The sand and bone were careless mistakes, but didn’t smack so hard as the brazenly boring middle courses in my tasting, each consisting of a beautifully cooked piece of protein (lamb loin, poularde) with pretty veggies — something we can get at [insert any of the better BYOBs here]. They were delicious, sure, but from a kitchen seeking to excel at the level of America’s finest (French Laundry, Per Se, Le Bernardin, Daniel), delicious is not enough. Where was the creativity, the razzle-dazzle? Certainly not in the chicken with celery-root pureé.
Impeccable sourcing always makes a case for audacious simplicity — boutique growers drop their crops at Le Bec’s back door daily — but I found the exquisite products best cast in Abrams’ early little thrillers: voluptuous ripples of fatty swordfish belly, a citrus-zest cure cutting its toro-like richness; plump snails reclining on curried cauliflower crisps inspired by Vietnamese shrimp crackers and born, ingeniously, of Abrams’ crustacean allergy.
Abrams opened and closed strong, a starting pitcher and reliever in one, with fun, interesting plates like briny wild mussels nested into chitarra pasta and smooth corn velouté furnished with cornbread ice cream and furikake, a nutty Japanese spice blend made here with wild-foraged Nova Scotia seaweed. A dish of uni, a truffled omelet and vinegary leaves of gem lettuce was a clinic in balanced richness. Watercolor-pink, yellow and pastel green melons and cucumbers framed smoky, scored and sautéed sepia in a froth of bonito emulsion — a postcard from summer. Golden raspberries, nectarines and old-school zucchini bread echoed that spirit in the lush foie terrine that followed.
Jennifer Smith, pastry chef and Abrams’ fiancé, deserves partial credit for that awesome foie composition; the zucchini bread is hers, not to mention the intricate desserts that rescued my meal from middling mains. Think fun dark-fruit “Newtons” paired with Camembert, or a violet scoop of gorgeous Jupiter grape sorbet over sticky, crunchy candied cashew butter. Or a pistachio panna cotta, cream-cheese mousse and brittle brick pastry that formed a Napoleon no thicker than a cigarette, a restyling of baklava flavors served with cinnamon-bark ice cream and confit orange segments.
After dessert came the spread of precious mignardises: salted cashew-caramel tartlets, berry pâtes-de-fruit and the macarons I hurried through. And here I should clarify about the level of service at Le Bec: When they’re waiting on you, the waiters are wonderful, warm and friendly, without so much as a pinbone of pretentiousness. The same adjectives describe Philippe Sauriat, the restaurant’s esteemed sommelier, an Alain Ducasse vet who applied my modest budget ($60 or less) to the 850-label list and unearthed a sleeper 2005 white Burgundy from the region’s most storied producer — for $45.
Name drama notwithstanding, Fanucci leads the staff by infallible example. The debonaire 40-year-old reads his clients well, and as one of maybe six people under the age of the 40 in the 62-seat, chandelier-lit dining room, I appreciated his easygoing demeanor. He’s what I remember most about my dinner. Well, him and the foie gras. The old Le Bec, even in its most casual iterations, was a jewel-encrusted straightjacket. Fanucci’s is not, and that is perhaps the new Le Bec’s biggest accomplishment
LE BEC FIN | 1523 Walnut St., 215-567-1000, lebecfin.com. Lunch served Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat., 6-10 p.m. Lunch tasting menu, $55; dinner tasting menu, $150.
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