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Philly and The Main Line
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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

Le Bec-Fin
1523 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
(215) 567-1000

If you're contemplating a "gastronomic getaway," you might consider a sojourn to the City of Brotherly Love. In the company of another food-loving couple, my wife and I recently spent an overnight in Philadelphia and dined at Le Bec-Fin (1523 Walnut Street, 215-567-1000). Many, my wife and I included, consider this temple of haute cuisine to be the finest in the United States. Whatever your feelings on that score, however, it is certainly the most celebrated French restaurant located outside the Napoleonic realm.

Chef/owner Georges Perrier is restless of nature and of temperament; he is constantly tinkering and experimenting, absolutely refusing to rest upon his laurels. And, unlike many of his contemporaries, who fancy themselves entrepreneurs, and spend more time with a pen than a knife in their hand, Mr. Perrier still works the line nightly in his own establishment. His culinary creations are beautifully presented, but are not, thankfully, victims of an overwrought "edifice complex." The magic is in the freshness of the ingredients, the wonderful interplay betwixt taste and texture, and the flavorful intensity of his ethereal sauces. They are positively transporting, yet the vast majority contain not a drop of cream.

You begin with the appetizer course. In my case, an incomparable seafood terrine gently caressed by a red pepper coulis. This was followed by the fish course, a perfectly prepared filet of sea bass presented in an incredible soy/sesame sauce adorned with oriental veggies. The salmon and halibut, enjoyed by our companions at table, were equally inspiring. For the meat course, I chose the saddle of rabbit accompanied by a delicious vegetable salsa. The veal dishes were so tender that a knife was entirely superfluous, and the rack of lamb was so marvelously rich and succulent that its taste defies description.

For the fourth course, you may have either a small green salad or your choice from the copious selection of cheeses. With one exception, all at our table opted for the latter. This is followed by homemade ice cream or sorbet... And then... And then it's time for the piece de resistance... pastry chef Robert Bennett's array of sumptuous desserts. Here you find three tiers of utterly delectable decadence--and you may indulge your sweet tooth to your heart's content. Indeed, your oral cavity is free to ingest whatever your alimentary canal can endure.

As I'm sure you've surmised, this is NOT an inexpensive evening. The cost is $118.00 per person--excluding all beverages, tax and gratuity--and alcoholic libations could very well prove to be your undoing. There is an award-winning wine list here, heavy on selections from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and tariffs are on the pricey side. Hankering for a 1966 Chateau Petrus? It's yours for a mere $1,500.00 per bottle. Get the idea? On the other hand, the cuisine is of such quality that it would be a shame to pair it with a dirt-cheap vintage that would significantly diminish rather than enhance the overall impact upon the palate.

There are, however, several very nice possibilities that will fill the bill without breaking the bank. For our white wine, we chose a Pouilly-Fume from Ladoucette, an extremely reliable producer in France's Loire Valley. Completely untouched by oak, and possessing a crisp, refreshing acidity, it was the perfect foil for the inventive sauces that characterized Mr. Perrier's appetizer and fish courses. Our red wine was a Panther Creek Pinot Noir Reserve from Oregon. Slightly Bordeaux-like in character, with a remarkably sturdy tannic backbone, it proved an excellent complement to the meat and cheese courses. Both wines were priced at $50.00 per. If you still consider this too rich for your blood, there are several perfectly acceptable wines available by the glass.

The bottom line, including coffees, tax, gratuity and the aforementioned wines, came to $320.00 per couple. Expensive, to be sure... Bear in mind, however, that you are not merely paying for the food--as superior as it is--but for the entirety of your culinary experience. The service, for example, is impeccable. It is both professional and personable, yet not the least bit snooty or condescending. And the ambiance is as elegant as the cuisine: Louis XIV furniture, crystal chandeliers, apricot silk wallpaper and gilt mirrors. It is difficult to believe that you are not dining in Paris.

Should you decide to put in an appearance for that special occasion (and this is, without doubt, the quintessential special occasion restaurant), keep in mind that reservations, especially for a Saturday evening, need to be made months in advance. If you can swing it, you will have less difficulty securing a table during the week or on a Friday evening. I would also suggest that you plan to stay the night. There are several excellent hotels within easy walking distance... but I would heartily recommend The Latham, a small, European-style hotel located at 17th and Walnut Streets.

Should you decide to spend the weekend, for your second evening's repast, you may wish to pay a call at Mr. Perrier's other establishment. Brasserie Perrier (1619 Walnut Street, 215-568-3000), is more casual and serves up a wonderful fusion of French, Italian and Asian flavors. And, good news for your pocketbook, it is infinitely less expensive: entrees begin at $18.00 and peak at $25.00.

Bon Appetit!

The Artful Diner
May 1998

The Artful Diner Diner is a freelance food writer who writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. His latest review can be seen on his nj.com weblog at http://blog.nj.com/artful_diner/. An archive of past reviews for nj.com as well as reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this Web site at http://www.artfuldiner.com/reviews .

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