Not to say "we told you so," but we did: Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan revealed his new list of 4-Bell restaurants, which included: Zahav, Bibou, and Talula's Table. He praised all of them for their hard work and keeping a committment to the food culture that in earlier reviews showed promise but needed a little polish. We guessed wrong on one of Chip Roman's places getting a bump, and were disappointed that Osteria didn't get that fourth bell, as well.
We guessed right (sadly) on most of our bloodbath predictions of who would lose a bell, as Lacroix and Le Bec-Fin went down in score, but LaBan kept The Fountain at four bells, which we guessed would be the most safe to retain the lofty rating.
While the rest of the industry is whining about the new four-bell class, though, what should be focused on is how Le Bec-Fin's drop from four bells to (barely) two is the equivalent of a catastrophic earthquake for the old guard, and what the future holds for aspiring restaurateurs. It's a new world out there.
"I can only imagine the surprise on my editors' faces when, at the end of their meals (having visited after my reports), they watched the cheese-cart lid go up and release a fruit fly, giddy from feasting on shriveled grapes."
That's the quote from LaBan's review that's getting all of the attention, but in reality, this is the one you should care about:
"But the formidable challenge of evolving an institution rooted in the precision and lavish details of haute French gastronomy has proven, in this case, impossible. No empty threats of closure, no gourmet burgers or renovation of the downstairs bar can save it."
It's over. Le Bec-Fin is dead. After 40 years of ruling the fine dining scene on the East Coast (yes, Perrier and Le Bec-Fin influenced more famous frog NYC chefs than anyone), LaBan just tossed a dynamite stick on the dog-pile that's been there for the last few years. This is the equivalent of Daniel Boulud getting a two-star New York Times review. This isn't about four bells, it's about the death of a culinary legend and landmark.
While it won't affect Georges too much financially, we feel for all the cooks who work the line and all of the servers who were beaming with pride to have Le Bec on their service resume. It is now no more than a smudge, since LaBan hasn't been there for years since his last review. More than anyone, we feel for executive chef Nick Elmi, who while LaBan praised his nouveau-chic talents, said the guy couldn't put together a simple crab cake. By the way, Elmi is a partner in the restaurant, not just the chef. There's no parachute for Perrier or chef Elmi in this lose-lose proposition.
While we applaud LaBan's guts to bump some "controversial" spots that didn't fall into the old category of a four-bell experience, this review of Le Bec-Fin is arguably the most significant piece of criticism in the history of Philly's food scene, no matter where you fall in the love him/hate him camp. Without exaggeration, it's that important.
Restaurateurs: No longer is there a Le Bec-Fin checklist that assures your success. We will be chatting up Craig LaBan later this week on the fallout of his New World Order. Stay tuned.