Central Park, NYC, Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw in "Love Story" (1970)
LE BEC FIN
New York Corner
by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Clos des Mouches Sets a Gold Standard for Chardonnay
by John Mariani
LE BEC FIN
A Perfect Place to Celebrate the Holidays in Philadelphia
by Brian Freedman
seem a statement of the obvious to point out that Le
Bec Fin is now crafting one of the best foie gras
dishes in Philadelphia. After all, it’s the sort of
thing that a great French restaurant is supposed to
do: take a famously luxurious ingredient and
transform it into something even more decadent than
its inherent nature already accomplishes.
A dish as seemingly simple as an omelet is raised to the level of the miraculous. Eggs, somehow both light and dense at once, were rolled around Cabot’s clothbound cheddar and just enough truffle to perfume it all without overwhelming it. Braised Bibb lettuce draped atop served as a framing device for the deep savoriness of the perfect little packet. Alongside a glass of Champagne, you’d be forgiven for assuming that all was right with the world.
Mingling richness with an almost impossibly light touch is one of the great achievements of the kitchen here under the watch of Chef Walter Abrams (right), formerly Sous Chef at the French Laundry in Yountville, CA. Savory-sweet chestnut emulsion and ethereal sweetbreads worked in the service of a celery root agnolotti whose skin was breathtakingly delicate. A compact brick of beef, dry aged for 32 days and ringing with an almost Gorgonzola-like sweet-funkiness, sat regally alongside potato confit and a cylinder of Savoy cabbage studded with applewood-smoked bacon. Poularde featured three distinct layers, each more appealing than the last, each matched impeccably with the accompanying artichoke fondue: The caramel-toned skin, a millimeter-thin ring of fat that had just begun melting, and fantastically moist meat showing the deepest shade of pink.
The same philosophy of layered, well-developed flavors and a lighter touch underpins the menu du jardin, or vegetarian menu. In the sunchoke royale, the humble root was transformed into a kind of custard with a meatiness and depth that some actual cuts of beef never quite reach. Navel orange segments and sprigs of mint provided brightness and lift when least expected. Foraged mushrooms with Malabar spinach and beets, crowned with a perfectly poached egg, which is broken for a sauce, could easily go toe-to-toe with any meat-based counterpart.
It’s not all French classics here, and the riffs on non-traditionally-French dishes are just as successful. Nettle-ricotta pierogi was flavorful enough to make the most judgmental Eastern European grandmother proud, and, like the agnolotti, it was encased in a pasta that nearly melted when it hit the tongue. Portuguese sardines, their skin glistening like some kind of opal against the shimmering light of the dining room, arrived draped over a fluffy eggplant, olive, and swordfish mousse. The entirety of the plating, including marinated tomatoes and watercress, channeled the Mediterranean as succinctly and joyously as any dish I’ve had recently. Musque de Provence velouté--think of it as a kind of pumpkin soup; at first taste it seemed overwhelmed by its curry but eventually settled into a sense of exoticism and balance that made subsequent spoonfuls impossible to resist.
Not everything was perfect, of course, though any shortcomings were more a result of too delicate a hand rather than any real underlying problems. Flawlessly tender pork belly would have had greater impact with a more deeply rendered crust. This is an ingredient that does best on the lustier end of the spectrum. Autumn squash salad was a lovely gathering of impeccably delicate squash, crisp Asian pears, kale, and pumpkin seed butter, but no matter how many different combinations of components I tried, it never rose above the level of very good--difficult when your companions are tucking into the glorious foie gras course.
But those were mere hiccups in meal that was, from the amuses to the mignardises, truly excellent.
Now under Fanucci, former G-M of The French Laundry and of Perrier's Le Bec Fin, this is a new restaurant, its name notwithstanding. The cheese cart, for example, is no longer rolling around the dining room. Neither is the dessert trolly. Happily, neither of these changes has diminished the restaurant in any way: The plating and quality of the individual cheeses, for example, is gorgeous, including an herb-perfumed Fleur de Maquis with candied pecans and quince relish, and a Langres Chalancey (like Epoisses but less aggressive) with Concord grape, black walnuts, and a joyous banana-like paw paw bread that stuck to the teeth with each bite.
Desserts embodied entire operas of flavor, and Pastry Chef Jennifer Smith (below) is clearly a serious talent; Philadelphia’s collective sweet tooth is sure to grow more intense once word of her work gets out further. Creations like a Seckel pear bavarois with local lait cru from Lancaster, PA, and gianduja assumed the flavors of the autumn with laser-like precision. Spiced pumpkin cheesecake singlehandedly made me no longer miss summer fruit season: who needs a peach when you can have a gourd like this one? A procession of banana génoise, salted caramel mousse, vanilla ice cream and hazelnuts marched across another plate like impeccably dressed soldiers on parade-display for the general.
As for the wine list, first-time guests will be pleasantly surprised by the range of options. While you can certainly tuck into a mortgage-payment bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux, or, say, a miraculous 2001 Château d’Yquem--one of the single greatest wines you’re ever likely to taste--there are also plenty of gems at far lower prices as well. At my table, for example, we loved a Georges Lignier Gevrey-Chambertin 1997, which, at $95, embodied all the high-toned acidity, red cherries and mushroom-y funk of Pinot Noir from Burgundy that usually sets you back far more money than that.
And speaking of money, Fanucci just recently announced the arrival of a new pricing structure for dining here: The 8-course, $150 dinner menus will remain, but now they are joined by a 4-course, $85 option as well. Lunch, which until now had been limited to a 4-course, $55 experience, now also includes a 3-course, $39 choice. Combine that with personalized iPad menus and user-friendly wine lists and a staff as elegant, confident, and beautifully choreographed as any in the city, and you have a restaurant poised for great things.
In the end, the new Le Bec Fin is a deeply personal restaurant, with heart and a sense of soul that only promise to grow. Nicolas Fannucci works the room with warmth and charm to spare. His love of the restaurant and what it means to the city in particular and fine French dining in America in general is ringingly clear.
When Chef Perrier announced his retirement, and before it was clear that Fannucci and his team would be taking over the grand old restaurant and re-working it in a new image, fine-dining lovers in Philadelphia were justifiably concerned. But with this new incarnation of Le Bec Fin, and under the expert guidance of Fannucci, Chef Abrams, and the rest of their team, the jewel of Walnut Street represents not just a new era for the restaurant itself, but also for Philadelphia dining as a whole.
It’s good to have Le Bec Fin back, and it’s great to see it through this new lens.
NEW YORK CORNER
Potter, whose travel
newsletter is linked here each week, and his
wife Gayle occasionally dine with my wife and me, and
recently we returned to a restaurant not far from us,
in Pelham, NY, that reminded me again that Westchester
County grows annually in the number of solid dining
experiences that make this NYC suburb a highly
desirable place to live and eat.
So I consider myself fortunate to live just four miles from Bistro Rollin. If you're in my neck of the woods, drop by and be delighted by this unexpected little gem.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Clos des Mouches Sets a Gold Standard for Chardonnay
by John Mariani
Calling a white Burgundy like Clos de Mouches a first-rate chardonnay is like saying a Maserati is a fine piston-engine car. Indeed, it says nothing. Chardonnay is, with cabernet sauvignon, the most widely recognized grape varietal in the world (with more than 400,000 acres planted, with the largest acreage in California), but it is actually a grape whose basic flavor is pretty dull.
Primarily it is the soil of a region that gives chardonnay its distinctive flavor. Add to that different styles of vinification and enormous variance in the amount of time the wine sleeps in an oak barrel (the actual origin of the oak, age and size of the barrel matters, too), and you find that a chardonnay from New Zealand tastes little like a chardonnay from South Africa or Moldavia.
Winemakers can easily obtain a high yield from the varietal, and the wine can develop a fairly high degree of alcohol for a white wine. And therein lies the problem with modern chardonnay: far too many examples are mass produced, overripe, high in alcohol, and taste like caramelized wood, absorbed from barrels whose staves (below) that have been “toasted” with fire.
While ever mindful of new technology, Burgundian wine producers also trust hundreds of years of experience in determining which vineyards and what moment in autumn will yield the best grapes and, after further assessment, just how much time their wines should spend in barrel.
I shall never forget the great lesson I learned long ago walking with a Burgundian winemaker up a section of what is called Cote d’Or (golden slope, above), tasting grapes as we ascended. At the edge of the slope—it’s barely a hillside—the grapes were tangy and acidic, but as we walked mere yards upwards, where the angle of the sun provided more heat and light, the grapes grew sweeter. The grapes higher up would provide more fruitiness, more sugar, more body, and higher alcohol.
Back at the winery I tasted the wine from three or four barrels of the illustrious white Burgundy called Corton-Charlemagne. All the wines were from the same vineyard and harvest, yet each barrel’s wine tasted different—all distinctly Burgundian in flavor but different enough so that blending later on would be necessary to achieve a balance. Even then, with bottle aging, the wine might taste different bottle to bottle. Getting a producer’s style consistent is the job of the winemaker, who in Burgundy is often overseen by the negociants (merchants) who may or may not own parts of the same vineyard.
For this reason, then, Burgundy lovers either search endlessly for wines that please their palates most, or, what is much easier, come to depend on certain producers with longstanding reputations for consistent excellence. Names like Bouchard Père & Fils, Louis Jadot, Domaine Leroy, and Joseph Drouhin (left) are also readily available in the global market and produce a wide range of good wines, from the most illustrious and expensive.
A tasting of a bottle of Drouhin’s Clos de Mouches 2010 ($120) with steamed lobster and drawn butter reminded me all over again of that stroll up the Côte d’Or. Here was chardonnay at its highest expression in a wine that exemplifies the Burgundy winemaking tradition at its finest.
The summer weather for the 2010 vintage was rainy and cool, resulting in small grape berries and a reduced crop, but the berries ripened fully in September, concentrating the sugars and juices. According to Fredéric Drouhin, CEO of the company founded in 1880, “Because the vintage has less alcohol than the 2009, the wines are more refined, offer great purity and freshness.”
This coalescence of factors has made for a white Burgundy whose fruit is impeccably balanced with just enough acid to keep it bright and with only a rounded hint of oak in the finish. Burgundy fans might argue that a few more years in the bottle will only improve wines of this caliber, but drinking it that night gave me such supreme joy in rediscovering the true personality and essence of the chardonnay grape in Burgundy, that I plan to drink Drouhin’s Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot ($114) and Puligny-Montrachet Folatiéres ($102) within the next few months.
Chardonnays in the rest of the world may try to imitate the grand Burgundy style, though terroir and that sunlight on the slopes are key to its uniqueness. If the best white Burgundies—and there are a lot of insipid ones—are the gold standard and are priced accordingly, I think it better for the rest of the world to make chardonnay in their own styles and try to make it better and better. As I said, a Maserati is a great deal more than a piston-engine car, and a great white Burgundy transcends chardonnay’s proliferation elsewhere.
John Mariani's wine column
appears in Bloomberg
Muse News, from which this story was adapted.
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