Last week, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan shook up the Philly landscape by releasing a new set of his famous Bell reviews (he went back to a staggering 13 restaurants for the project), ultimately changing the restaurant game for 2012. There were three newcomers to the 4-bell category, and a couple fine dining stalwarts were knocked from their pristine pedestals.
The new best-of-the-best club included two BYOBs which had a few restaurant folks crying foul, even though LaBan had previously named Django (also a BYOB) in the 4-bell category before it shuttered. We chatted up LaBan about the BYOB backlash, how long this project was in development, and what the future holds for him.
This whole Super Bell Sunday seemed to come out of left field. Was it planned for awhile, or just a last-minute thing for page turns?
It's been about a year in coming. The original idea was discussed in early 2011. So, it's been a long process from inception to print. It gave me a chance to step back and show the whole picture. Talk about the chefs who were improving and forever evolving. I got to look back at the book I wrote and visit some of those places again to see where they are now.
You named Bibou and Talula's Table as members of the 4-Bell club. People are freaking out about the inclusion of BYOBs on the list. What are your thoughts on the blowback?
I thought we were over that. And, look where the complaints are coming from mostly. Restaurant insiders and owners. People try to equate the bells with Michelin stars. It doesn't work like that. The rating system is about the dining experience in Philadelphia. The pleasure of dining. Being a BYOB isn't just about bringing your own wine. It's about the financial assistance it provides small couples or business owners that couldn't open in a city like New York. It's what makes Philly so unique. We need to embrace that. Those folks who keep bringing up the New York Times or Michelin ratings are missing the essence of what we are.
Your criticism of the fall of Le Bec-Fin was the centerpiece of the Super Bell Sunday. What happened over there?
Le Bec-Fin is one of the all-time great restaurants in America. In 2006, LBF was still haute cuisine and a magical experience. When it opened, it made a blue-collar town like Philly feel special, and we were part of a culinary renaissance. This time around though, and I went four times, it was just a ghost of what it once was. The servers felt more like suited food runners who were confused and lost. You know about the cheese cart. I wrote about the sloppy crab cake, which used to be this beautiful presentation of a tall column of crabmeat, and just perfect. It was a glob this time. I asked them what happened, and chef Nick Elmi told me they’re using a shorter ring mold than the ones they used to use, so they no longer hold their shape the same way. I mean come on, buy the right molds, you're Le Bec-Fin!
Georges still cares deeply, and has fierce pride. He created something legendary. I love and cherish what it once was.
Georges Perrier said your criticism of the restaurant was unfair and a personal attack. What are your thoughts on his comments?
My reviews are never personal attacks because I don't have personal relationships with the people I cover. This is all about the performance of a once great institution that's lost its way. I have the utmost respect for chef Perrier and all he has achieved. And the numerous four-bell reviews I've written of his restaurant over the past 14 years are certainly proof that I've acknowledged that. Le Bec-Fin put Philly on the culinary map and remained the class of the city for an amazing four decades. But, that time has clearly passed, and my recent review, based entirely on the facts and impressions drawn from four visits, didn't attempt to sugar-coat that. It is a shame that someone who embraced the accolades with the gusto that Perrier did cannot accept the criticism when it is merited. And in this case, it was.
One of your criticisms of Jose Garces was that he wasn't in his kitchens and wasn't getting that fourth bell, even though he was so close when you first visited Amada years ago. Did he make the right choice by expanding nationwide?
If we look at his career as an active work in progress, I think he made the right choice in terms of the grand plan he talks about – and there is some residual benefit for us. He's a rare and special talent. He's a great ambassador for Philly. Having Jose be ours really helped our inferiority complex with the other big food cities. As for his empire here, I think it depends on what we expect from him. I know he has the talent to take his Philly dining experiences to another level. Is Amada a great restaurant? Yes. But, it's not 4-bells without his magic. His lieutenants can't bring that kind of dining experience.
Talula's Table got 4-bells on the strength of Aimee Olexy, and she isn't a chef. How did that happen?
For those who call Aimee "The Cheese Lady" just don't know her. She says she's not a control freak, but she is. Every menu is hers. While she might not be cooking, it's all hers. She chooses all of the ingredients, sources them herself. It's her poetry, her wit, and her concept that makes it all work. It helps that she has a stellar eye for great chefs to collaborate with and realize that vision. She's like an Alice Waters-type character. The dining experience at Talula's Table is just spectacular. And that's thanks to Aimee.
We were excited to see Zahav get four bells after you didn't review it the first time around (Rick Nichols did the piece) because of a conflict of interest. But, people are complaining that Zahav isn't fine dining and didn't deserve the rating you gave it.
Again, this is about Philly, not some standard set somewhere else. Mike Solomonov's food is amazing, inspired, and truly personal. He has an absolute jewel in Zahav. Who cares if there aren't any tablecloths, or the servers aren't wearing shirts and ties? It's his passion and we can see that in every dish.
What about Lacroix? We know you love Matt Levin (former executive chef), and was it his departure that caused the loss of a bell?
No, I thought Jason Cichonski also kept it at a 4-bell level. Jon Cichon is a talented chef, but just like writers need editors, he needs something like that, too. The brunch is legendary and has something like 50 items on it, which takes a lot of intense detail work. The quality control has just gone down. It's that simple.
So, we wondered if you doing this whole new bell landscape was an inkling that maybe you were moving onto something else, or maybe there was another stop in your career coming up. What's your plan?
Absolutely not, I love working at The Inquirer. It's the best job in the world and a privilege. Dining in Philly is great, never more than now. And I love living here. Maybe I'll work on another book. But, I'm not going anywhere.