Last week, Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan tweeted that he would be announcing a fifth member to the exclusive 4-Bell restaurant club. He also announced he was re-reviewing more than a dozen restaurants, and we're assuming that means some restaurants might be docked a bell when the dust settles. Eater has crunched the numbers, and has come up with our predictions for who loses bells, gains bells, and what the final 4-Bell club will look like on Sunday, February 5.
We feel a sea change is coming, and LaBan will reset the landscape this weekend. It's a good thing for Philly, and about time. We've made more than a few edgy picks, but remember, this isn't about people living up to the old Philadelphia LaBan standards, but a new direction.
Le Bec-Fin - currently 4 Bells: This one is almost a gimme, as Chef Georges Perrier himself has been losing bells over the last few years. He is the grandfather of the culinary landscape in Philadelphia, and is the reason fine dining exists here at all. But, it's just about time to hang it up before Le Bec loses it altogether.
Le Bec-Fin has a dining room renovation in the works, and recently launched Tryst, their weirdo redux of downstairs bar Le Bar Lyonnais, which now looks like a villain's lair in a Miami Vice episode. The food is still top-notch, but the breathless reverence is all but gone. The big loser in all of this is Executive Chef Nicholas Elmi, who got stuck in the fallout. He's a top-tier talent, and will shine once Perrier lets the restaurant evolve. Whether that ever happens is another question altogether. The Broncos will always be John Elway's team, after all.
Prediction: 3 Bells
Lacroix - currently 4 Bells: LaBan's love for Matt Levin is well-documented, and his affections should never be counted out when there's belling to be done. Lacroix got three bells, Levin got it the fourth. Jason Cichonski did a great job once Levin hit the bricks, when the country was flush with money and expense accounts were all the rage. The world is a different place now.
Executive Chef Jon Cichon is the intangible here, and he can cook his ass off. But, we see LaBan knocking off a bell because Philly is finally embracing smaller and sophisticated chef-owned joints, and Lacroix is anything but. Also, no Matt. Sorry, guys.
Prediction: 3 Bells
The Fountain at The Four Seasons - currently 4 Bells: We think The Fountain gets the chop, too. While it's Philly's most beautiful dining room, and LaBan loves a white tablecloth and bread service, he also likes updated food. The menu at The Fountain hasn't changed much since 1983 when it opened. The food they do serve is nearly flawless, but it's safe. Of all the 'maybe' losing-a-bell joints on this list, The Fountain has the best chance of keeping their fourth bell, though.
Prediction: 3 Bells
No Change in Ranking:
Vetri - currently 4 Bells: We think Vetri is the only member of the current 4-Bell club that definitely keeps the pristine ranking. Vetri's service is the standard by which all other restaurants are compared, and Chef Marc is peerless at grooming talent through his farm system, which has produced Beard Award Winner Jeff Michaud of Osteria, and Brad Spence of Amis. It's expensive, sure, but it's the best tasting menu in town. Keep on keepin' on, Marc.
Prediction: 4 Bells
Bibou - currently 3 Bells: They hit a ridiculously solid three bells the first time around, to be sure, but a recent declaration by world-renowned wine critic Robert Parker that Bibou was the "best French bistro in the U.S.," and a tightening in the service department can't hurt. Chef Calmels menu is full of classic French peasant food that he gives a soft, sophisticated touch, unlike anything else in town. They are the soul of the new BYOB in Philadelphia, and we think LaBan likes the cut of their jib.
Prediction: 4 Bells
Blackfish or Mica - Currently 3 Bells: I know it's odd to name both, but these two restaurants are a lot like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Different movies in name, but the spirit is all the same. LaBan has always wanted us to love Chip Roman like he does, and this will solve that problem. Craig found Blackfish to be almost flawless, and truly loved Mica, even though it was pricey, and had yet to grab a liquor license. Mica has solved that problem, so you can pay for your liquor when you're there. So, if we're throwing at a dart board, we say Blackfish.
Prediction: 4 Bells for Blackfish
Zahav - Currently 3 Bells: This is a controversial pick. We all remember that a "conflict of interest" kept LaBan from reviewing the restaurant the first time around, and Inky cohort Rick Nichols rang out three bells in his absence. We're going to take a leap that LaBan has sorted those issues out, and give Zahav that fourth bell. There's no restaurant with more inventive cooking, top-notch execution, and attentive service with such a labor-intensive menu in the city. The wine list is thoughtful and unique, and the cocktails are damn good. Chef Mike Solomonov is the present, and the future of Philly food, and LaBan will recognize that here.
Prediction: 4 Bells for Zahav
The next two places are in a toss-up to join the 4-Bell club.
Talula's Table - Currently No Bells: A bit of a longshot, but not really. Craig LaBan had his favorite meal of 2007 at Talula's Table, and couldn't write a full review, as he hadn't visited enough times. But, it's been five years, so, he's probably due for an opinon. He loves Aimee Olexy, and Talula's Table is an extension of who she is, and her passion. The food and service are always impeccable, efficient, and friendly all at the same time. People whine that they only do one table a night for 12 people, but, who cares? It's a great restaurant.
Predicition: 4 Bells for Talula's Table (by a nose)
Osteria - Currently 3 Bells: This is the wildcard, but a solid choice. It's a Vetri-level service joint, plating amazing peasant food done with style and untouchable execution, on a menu that's constantly evolving. One of the city's best chefs in Jeff Michaud, a great wine list, and some of the most craveable dishes in Philly. Osteria, you're due for a fourth bell.
Prediction: 4 Bells for Osteria (longshot)
As you cry foul, remember that Craig LaBan is doing some re-reviewing and really taking into account what 2012 in Philly should look like, as opposed to what we were five years ago. It's a new landscape. We've got a lot of young talent around, and this changing of the guard is much-needed if we're going to keep evolving as a city.