Le Bec-Fin, Home of the Least-French Fries Ever
We've been accused of snobbery, elitism, egotism, pretension, pomposity, delusions of grandeur and arson. And that was before we started this site. On more than one occasion, a reader has complained that we only visit the most expensive high-end restaurants (which is not true) and not the local burger joints people so often love. In order to show you, dear reader, that we are of the people, and that there is nowhere we won't mock, we set out to slum it at a tiny little restaurant where we've heard literally nothing good about its burger.
Le Bec-Fin is a Philadelphia institution, an internationally recognized bistro and arguably the finest dining experience in the city (although I'd place my money on Vetri). It is known for its exquisite French cuisine, classy decor and for (formerly) being one of the only five-star restaurants in the country. What it is not known for is its burger, which we only discovered when checking out their 40th anniversary promotion, and which likely has been ordered zero times in those 40 years.
Walking into the downstairs bar is like stepping into a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, complete with sepia filter and a bug-eyed Dominique Pinon sitting in the corner mumbling creepily to himself. The bar oozes French style, from the marble tabletop to the art nouveau wall sconces to the casual indifference the bartender greeted us with when we took our seats at the otherwise empty bar. With ragtime playing on the radio and the requisite impressionist paintings adorning the walls, Le Bar Lyonnais has an intimate, charming je ne se quoi (which is French for "I don't know what I'm talking about").
The Burger: Available both on the lunch and bar menus, the Redux Burger presents a sizable beef patty with caramelized onion purée, cherry tomato confiture and friseé. Pommes frites and ketchup are served on the side.
Kyle: To say I was excited for this would be an understatement. This is Le Bec-Fin, how could the burger be anything less than amazing? Pre-dining assumptions rated this burger as infinity out of 10. When the waitress suggested that executive chef Georges Perrier recommended the burger medium rare, I instantly deviated from my usual medium order. Even her warning that it is "really, really rare" couldn't deter me. If someone can successfully charge $185 for a meal, for several decades, you accept their recommendation.
It's fortunate I took the server's advice, as my burger came out brown as tree bark and nearly as dry. The slightest hint of salt was present, but otherwise the beef tasted unseasoned, which can either be excellent or awful depending on the quality of the meat. In this case, it was the latter of the two, and I was shocked with how bland and generic the patty tasted.
The rest of the sandwich itself was a different story. The roll had a buttery, egg-heavy flavor, similar to challah, and the caramelized onions crushed into a puree and spread on the roll was inspired touch that others should steal. What stood out the most to me, however, were the cherry tomatoes, prepared like jam and unbelievably sweet and tender. Unfortunately, spread over the tomatoes was a squirt of store-bought ketchup which completely undermined the flavor.
Le Bec-Fin's pommes frites are, how you say, not pommes frites. They aren't even french fries. These are all-American freedom fries, pulled from the dumpster behind the Walnut Street McDonald's and dumped in extra virgin olive oil. That isn't merely a snide comparison: these look and taste exactly like $0.99 fast food french fries. The best thing I can say about them is nothing.
Hamburgers and french fries are obviously not what you're supposed to order when you go to Le Bec-Fin, but if it's on the menu you still expect it will be taken seriously. It was at that point, looking over the menu disappointedly, that I realized why they put so little effort into the burger and fries: this is the kids' meal. It's the absolute last item on their menu, tucked away in an embarrassing corner so parents can order it for finicky children who don't want to try the scary French food. It's common for restaurants to have a "safe" option for unadventurous eaters, but you don't put it on the menu. You let the waiter recommend it to spoiled bratty kids and condescending prick food bloggers.
Le Bec-Fin is a beautiful restaurant, its cocktails delicious, its wine selection superb and its prix fixe menu exquisite. The Redux Burger, however, is on the blah side of average, and in the context of the restaurant and the price, well below what you'd expect. Rating: 5.
Laurence: The race is on to create a world-class burger. You take great bread, dark brown, soft and fresh, add the genius of pureed caramelized onions, top with sweet, ripe tomatoes and lettuce. You're close to the finish line and you can see victory. Then you twist your ankle, fall, and are trampled to death by everyone else in the race. You die slowly and painfully on the burning Philadelphia sidewalk which smells of garbage and corruption.
This is a true story about the burger at Le Bec-Fin, or as I like to call it, Le Burger Disappointing. It's hard not to have high expectations from a restaurant famed for making everything taste awesome. And they were close with this one. Everything aside for the patty was really good. But then the meat was overcooked (even though I ordered mine medium) and had less going on taste-wise than Philadelphia city planners do brain-wise. And so the burger falls short of the crown... very short.
I get it. There's a French chef in the back who spent 10 years being yelled at for peeling cucumbers “the wrong way” in Paris. He's graduated, makes a mean lamb shank and drinks wine that would make you weep. He cooks at the best restaurant in the country's 6th largest city where the food causes orgasms. He's delicately turning a scallop wrapped in bacon when the order comes across. “What?" he screams. "A fucking burger?!” He smashes a patty together and throws it on the grill. He continues to plate the succulent scallop, then smells burning meat, flips the burger and returns to carefully garnishing the lovely meal. He sends the scallop out, turns and sees the meal of shame still on the grill, and finishes cooking it, even though it is now well-well-done.
Then there are the fries. Yellow fries, reminiscent of a fast food joint, aren't what you'd expect from a fine French restaurant. And yet there they were, bright cartoon yellow, glowing on the plate. If I were the man responsible for these fries and were at a party and someone asked, “What's up with the fries?” the only thing I could do is excuse myself. I would pick up my hat and leave the party. I wouldn't even say goodbye. I'd walk to the center of the Ben Franklin bridge, salute the founding fathers and apologize for ruining their dreams for the country and I'd heave myself off the side with a bag of fries tied to my ankles to weigh me down to the murky bottom of the Delaware.
Partially my anger over the fries comes from an article I read which explained that the potatoes used were of a special variety with lower water content to make them more crispy. “Such thought,” I pondered to myself. “Such craft.” I salivated. Maybe the fries were made from the special potatoes. They surely were crispy I guess. The sogginess I tasted was probably due to my tears. Anyway, what's the point of flying in a $10,000 potato if you're going to make normal fries out of it anyway? I was hoping for something with flair.
It's hard in the end to rate this burger simply because the disappointment factor weighs so heavily on it. I think Kyle said it best, this was the kids' meal. It was meant not for us but for some snot nosed brat. To which I must think, instead of cater to children, ban them from the restaurant and make the burger better. Rating: 6/10.
Go for the prix fixe menu. Go for the $6 happy hour cocktails. Go for the dessert cart. Go before 2011. But do not go for the Redux Burger.