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Dining: Star Struck

Jack Smith

Georges Perrier was dining at his landmark Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec-Fin one afternoon last spring when his mood turned liturgical. Customers are like church-goers, he observed. “To get zem to come to church every Sunday, zee pries’ mus’ stand outside and ring zee bell.” That, lamented Perrier, is what he had to do—in a figurative sense—to remind people that he was still there. Otherwise, “People forget verree queegly.”

Life was not fair. Who was it that put Philadelphia on the world culinary map, who had energized the city with a new sense of sophistication and elegance? Everyone from Palm Beach to Paris knew that it was Perrier. But the plaudits of his devotees now brought him scant comfort. Two years earlier, a dining room tiff between two staffers—with a pair of incognito Mobil Travel Guide inspectors looking on—cost Le Bec-Fin its five-star ranking.

That was not the only thing eating the chef. He was no longer the enfant terrible of the city’s restaurant scene, but rather its elder statesman. Since Perrier arrived in Philadelphia in 1967 while in his mid-20s, a new generation of restaurant patrons had come of age. In their quest for the new, the hot, the sensational, Le Bec-Fin came across as, well, the place where their parents dined. But that, declared Perrier, was about to change. The decor, the menu, the wines, everything would be new. But first there would be a new chef, an American. “I have had eet weeth French chefs,” he declaimed.


To say the least, the 32-year-old Daniel Stern would be a change of pace. A native of nearby Cherry Hill, N.J., Stern majored in Japanese language and Asian religious studies at Connecticut College and ran an after-school program for tots at a Manhattan YMCA before deciding on a culinary career. Nine years later, after stints at Daniel in Manhattan, Lespinasse in Washington, D.C., and the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay in northern California, Stern was back home when Perrier called. “He invited me to do a tasting for him at Le Mas Perrier [Perrier’s restaurant on the Philadelphia Main Line],” Stern recalls. “It was kind of improvised. I made a roasted lobster with lentils and lobster curry broth, rack of lamb with tomato compote, braised lettuce and horseradish foam, and a few other dishes.” Stern did not learn until lunch was over that the job he had just auditioned for—and had won—was executive chef at Le Bec-Fin. “Naturally, I was thrilled,” says Stern. “I’d never even eaten at Le Bec-Fin.”

As for Le Bec-Fin’s new look, which Perrier unveiled in September, it was more modern by a century, with the dining room’s former Louis XVI lushness giving way to the more urbane ambience of a 19th-century Parisian salon. The wine selections were expanded from some 200 to more than 700, including lesser known and less costly wines from the smaller vineyards of France. Meanwhile, Stern has gained acclaim for such dishes as sautéed foie gras with hazelnut and Roquefort-stuffed figs, and stuffed rabbit with porcini fingerling potatoes and lardons.

The Mobil Travel Guide was sufficiently impressed by the decor, the cuisine, and the wines to once again bestow upon Le Bec-Fin its five-star rating. Philadelphia’s young fashionables are no less captivated by the new, the hot, the sensational. But now, just as their parents before them, that is what they are finding at Le Bec-Fin.
 
Le Bec-Fin, 215.567.1000, www.lebecfin.com

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