A Tale of Two Restaurants : Le Bec-Fin and Striped Bass
Being stuck in Philadelphia this week, I was able to dine at Striped Bass and at Le Bec-Fin, and their contrast startled me. The restaurants are located within a block of each other, but miles apart in their haute philosophies. (I also dined at Morimoto, at Dimics, and at Pat's, but that is a tale for another occasion).
The contrast between Le Bec-Fin and Striped Bass suggests something of the changes in American haute cuisine over the past 35 years - changes that are not entirely salutary.
In passing I note that my girlfriend (now wife) and I used to frequent La Panetière when Georges Perrier was the head chef in the late 60s and we were undergraduates at Penn. (There is a moral about giving one's collegiate offspring much too much spending money - but we chose the right aphrodisiac in selecting chanterelles over psilocybes). We followed Perrier to Le Bec-Fin when he opened his establishment on Spruce Street in 1970. La Panetière and Le Bec-Fin constituted the mainstays of Philadelphia dining until the Philadelphia restaurant revolution of the early years of the 1980s.
And what miracles they were! Georges Perrier captured my palate with the seduction of taste. He was unafraid to use powerful tastes, but his dishes were never showy. He was no hot dog. And at its best this was how dining could be imagined. I confess that I never had any grand desire to meet Georges Perrier, just to sup at his table forever.
Contrast this with our celebrity chefs today. If Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Grant Achetz, Mark Miller, Paul Prudhomme (and these are some of my favorites) do not stop to chat somehow dinner is not complete. The food - even when spectacular - is but an expression of the vision of the chef/auteur.
Along with this culture of culinary celebrity is the sense that a meal must be a form of spectacle. And so we have vertical food, technocuisine, or the 31-flavors of fusion. If a dish doesn't have a dozen feuding ingredients (each identified by the helpful server), it is a dusty relic.
Blessedly Georges Perrier (and some others in the backwater haute cuisine temples of yesterday) will have none of it. The meal that I ate at Le Bec-Fin was as clean, as strong, and as confident as any dinner that I have eaten since, say, I last ate at Le Bec-Fin in the early 1970s (if this is a slight exaggeration, I hope no one will catch me).
I began with a cassolette of snails in a champagne and hazelnut garlic butter sauce (Cassolette d'escargots aux noisettes en hommage à Monsieur Cleuvenot [a lucky man was M. Cleuvenot]). Snails in butter is, of course, cliche, but not here. It was the touch of hazelnut and champagne that created transcendence from the mundane. With the snails and the nuts, I was presented with two earthy elements made ethereal through champagne and (oh yes!) the butter. The hazelnut oil combined with the butter in such as way as to make the snails seem newly fashioned, a more complex escargot but with neither chef nor diner forgetting that the dish was about the snail.
I selected black bass as my fish course: black sea bass barigoule, fresh herb and artichoke fricassee (Loup en barigoule avec son émulsion à l'huile d'olive, fricassée d'artichauts et ses herbes fraiches). Chilean sea bass has become rather common these days, but loup is somewhat rarer. I find that it has a slightly stronger, more assertive taste. It is a fish that can dance with a flavorful olive oil. Artichokes are not a garnish that goes with everything, but it certainly did with the olive oil and herbs. As with so many of chef Perrier's dishes this was a dish that appeared simpler on the plate than in the mouth.
The meat course was Pennsylvania rack of lamb, lupini beans and bell pepper fricassee, garlic confit, lamb jus and chorizo emulsion (the geographical descriptor is perhaps to placate local boosters - would it have mattered if the lambkins had swum across the Delaware River? And did those lupinis have their green card?). (Carré d'agneau de Pennsylvanie servi avec sa Basquaise, purée de lupins et ail confit, jus d'agneau et émulsion de chorizo). I admit that I didn't notice the chorizo and just as well.
The lamb was perfectly prepared. I couldn't imagine it needing a millisecond of more or less heat (and couldn't understand some fellow diners who insisted it their way. This ain't Sizzler). A noble lamb rack doesn't need much except itself and a whiff of garlic. The lupini and bell peppers (one mild, the other forceful) nicely set off the purity of the lamb. This is dining without artificial lights and fireworks. No need for a highwire when one stands on clouds.
After a cassis sorbet, we reached the fine cheese tray and then a dessert tray that again reached for the transcendence of simplicity: pineapple in a ginger jus, a tart that was the essence of lemon, and a definitive Philadelphia cheesecake (I insist that classic under-sweetened New York cheesecake has no equal).
Georges Perrier is a chef from the days that a chef was a worker, from the days that craftsmanship mattered, and from a day in which simplicity rather than elaboration - taste not decoration - mattered. Even the setting was the traditional Parisian salon (I prefer my architecture modernist, but, no matter, nostalgia has its virtues).
Contrast this to Striped Bass, the reopening of beloved Philadelphia seafood restaurant, part of the Stephen Starr family of restaurants in the lobby of an old brokerage house, from when investing in the market conveyed something about social class. Starr brought in Alfred Portole (of New York's Gotham Grill) as consulting chef and hired Christopher Lee his working chef. At this point Portole provides advice (although his touch, delightful and sometimes malign is evident). Lee, we were told with pride, received the James Beard Foundation's annual award (for Rising Star Chef of the Year). Ahhh, a celebrity chef on the march.
This little essay is not the account of a grand restaurant and a poor one. Striped Bass is a restaurant to which I would happily return if Le Bec-Fin were closed or if Pat's ran out of provolone (no Whiz, please). Striped Bass can be a superior restaurant, although at times too clever for its own good. Portole and now Lee seem to believe in a cuisine of excess. If five ingredients are good, fifteen must be yummy. Maybe.
We ordered the seasonal five course tasting menu. It began well with a yellowfin tuna tartare with English cucumber, shiso leaf, sweet miso, and Asian ginger dressing. It did not equal the sashimi at Morimoto (and why call it tartare), but the fish was fresh and not overly encumbered by cucumber, shiso, miso, or ginger. The plate was perhaps a little busy, but the tastes harmonized.
The second course was, well, a mess. Seared Diver Sea Scallops with barley grains, baby white asparagus, sun trout roe, lemon pepper sauce, and (ulp) microgreens. I am unsure how I feel about the licensing of handguns; however I wish someone would licence microgreens. But perhaps one of the NRAs would have use their considerable muscle to prevent what seems to me to be a most modest proposal. It was not that the dish was poorly executed, piece by piece, but less is more, and more is less. When each bite is a separate dish, something is wrong. And when the purity of the scallop is walloped by a lemon pepper sauce we can only sigh.
The third course - Organic Scottish Salmon with Artichoke Ravioli, Green Lentils, Smoked Yellow Tomato, and Warm Horseradish Vinaigrette - had some of the challenges of its predecessors, except for a better combination of tastes. Fortunately the artichoke ravioli - the essence of pureed artichokes - was at some distance from its neighbors and could be enjoyed on its own. Unlike Scallops, Salmon is able to stand up to rough justice, and the lentils were a fine complement.
Course four was christened "Philadelphia ‘Cheeseskate'." Trouble. Braised short rib surrounded by skate in a protein-laden hockey puck, Hen of the Woods mushrooms, caramelized onions, Parmesan cream and hot sauce (?). The braised short rib was delicious, although the skate was added just for a laugh. The skate, like the scallop, couldn't stand up to all the fanfare. Had the skate gone missing, the dish would have been superb, an inspired take on a definitive cheesesteak.
Desserts were anchored by an excellent (and simple) chocolate pot de creme, raspberry yogurt with mint ice cream, and a white grasshopper mousse. All were exemplary.
The problem of Striped Bass (and of Chefs Portole and Lee) is that they don't trust their ingredients and, perhaps, the attention of their diners. We do not all have gustatory ADD. They fear that we might not notice their work if the dish was not gussied up, bundled, and masqueraded. Chef Perrier trusts us, and knows that he need not strive for Disneyland or for the Time-Warner Center, just for Escoffier as lighted by Twenty-first Century preferences. Here we see the difference between the Enchantment of the Raucous Dish and the Enchantment of Taste.
1523 Walnut Street
1500 Walnut Street
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