Le Bec Fin

1523 Walnut Street
(215) 567-1000

The golden manila envelope reads FIRST CLASS MAIL-PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL. The name of my accountant blares out at the top left corner. My own name is handwritten near the middle and seems to droop. It's an omen.

A cover letter is enclosed. "Federal Form 1040, to be signed by you (and your wife if a joint return), and mailed on or before Apr. 14, 1985 to: Internal Revenue Service Center, Philadelphia, PA 19255-2222. Enclose a check payable to 'The Internal Revenue Service' in the amount of... "WHAT!"

I hate to cry at my desk. Salty drops on letters to opposing counsel usually signify weakness. But there was little doubt that I'd been stabbed in the back by a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

My quick but accurate calculations, after checking my previous net worth and after deducting the payments for taxes and estimated future taxes due the IRS, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the City of Philadelphia (Net Profits and Business Privilege), left me $21.

At tax time, there's only one place for a hungry lawyer-on-the-rebound to go for lunch with $21 in his pocket -- Le Bec Fin.

"Hello, Le Bec Fin," a young voice answers.

"Hi, is Mr. Perrier about?"

"He's probably in the kitchen, I'll get him; who's calling?

"Just tell him it's Fatty." My mind's eye can visualize the dessert cart laden with double-chocolate cake, strawberry cheesecake, fluffy white chocolate mousse, and silver tureens of floating island creaminess.

"Bon jour, Max."

"Ah, George, I need your help. I've just paid my taxes, I'm sobbing with tristesse, I may not live through petit dejeuner, unless you're still serving $21 prix fixe lunch."

"Max, let me stup you. Ze $21 prix fixe lunch is no longer available." My heart stopped. The last chance for emotional taste-bud recovery from poverty was culminating a la Jean Valjean.

"Then I shall practice law in the sewers of Paris until I can scrape up the price of your regular menu," I pouted.

"Max, let me stup you. Ze prix fixe lunch ees now $17!"

Involuntarily, I had begun singing the French National Anthem in counterpoint with "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire."

"George, I'll have an extra four dollars."

"Max, let me stup you. With zat much money, when you leave ze tip, tell zem you're ze Count de Monte Cristo."

One enters the new Le Bec Fin by way of a small vestibule where coats are taken. A hallway appears through which one reaches the main dining room straight ahead, or the cozy bar through a doorway at the left. The bar seats six at most, but couches and comfortable chairs abound. One looks up at marble busts and gold-framed portraits, one of Louis XVI. Further skyward, on the ceiling, is a fresco of flying parrots: a perfectly ingenious and pompous parody on chateau sitting rooms.

The main dining room is clothed in silken wallpaper colored either salmon, peach or mauve depending upon the shadows cast by the interplay of three huge Strauss crystal chandeliers against the lights of six symmetrically-placed sconces. Gilded chair rails and ceiling-high moulding are distinctive enough to draw one's attention from the equidistantly spaced mirrors and central marble fireplace inhabited by a rubber plant.

Stairs at the far end of the main room lead first left, then cut right toward a plush green "party" room which seats 20 to 25.

Once is seated in an oval-backed armchair superbly cushioned on bottom and arms by the same Cherbourg tapestry used to cover the most expensive French luggage. On starched-shirt pink tablecloths rest grand heavy silverware, a heart-shaped crystal ashtray, quail salt and pepper shakers and an unglazed chard filled with varieties of orchids and wildflowers.

The new "spring favor" menu, as George Perrier bespeaks spring fever, is charmingly lighthearted and brilliantly economical at $17 for appetizer, entree, coffee and dessert. Moreover, tuxedoed hosts sense your every desire, cautiously pleasant, precisely cordial. Female hostesses, also dressed in black and white, are less formally attired, but are equally tasked, helpful and delightful.

Begin with soup or salad. The soup of the day on my day is mushroom. Honey-colored broth is as clear as a belle epoque in which swirling morsels and Shitake mushrooms carouse. The teeniest of round scallion slivers are strewn about, afloat upon the surface. As one brings a soupspoonful to mouth, the aroma of the fungi tickles the nose until a sneeze is possible. One swallows before the urge becomes a certainty. The soup is clean and hot. Dampness engorges the upper palate while a sensible tongue splashes in happiness. Tastes of the earthiness of far-away wood predominate.

The salad is the shape of a huge lobster. Avocado strips form outer body -- cherry tomatoes and marinated shrimp are the head; smoked salmon slivers upon dark, light and radiccio lettuces for the tail. Consummately healthy fare.

Most luncheon entrees shall feature grilled fish seasoned in herbs. Avocado, passion fruit, basis, sherberts and special souffles will be presented as their ingredients become most available and fresh. Attention is being placed upon the finest ingredients at their peak.

If possible, also seek out roast beef or veal en croute. The roast is maroon upon dark sauce as if embarrassed that the latter covers nothing of the former. The meat is rich and succulent, almost quivering when pierced by the prongs of one's fork.

The veal en croute is two hearts of half-inch thick veal tenders surrounded by a collage of breading and herbs. No knife is needed to make the veal bite sized. The side of a fork pressed to slightly into the pinkest portion causes supple separation.

The surrounding crust follows suit. A mild gush of velvet passes through lips to stomach before one's esophagus can grasp for air. The veal sauce is still and solid, intense and full-bodies.

The plate's contents are complemented by a baked vegetable casserole, scalloped potatoes, crunchy sauteed baby carrots and a vegetable mousse of celery and shredded zucchini.

I'm almost ready to sign my tax return. But after dessert.

Chocolate Cake Le Bec Fin is a double-chocolate with mocha, 14 inches high and topped with rich deep chocolate flakes. A raspberry tart is low, eight inches wide, glazed to sparkle. California long-stem strawberries surround white chocolate mousse. The fluff is speckled with chunks which melt in milliseconds.

Coffee is by demitasse with sugar "balls" and cream.

There is no finer business lunch in the city. Spring has arrived. I pay the bill, leave a $4 tip. Pennilessly, I place all the tax returns on the bar which I have reentered. In each spot where by accountant has made an "X," I place the only signature worthy of my repast:

"Edmund Dantes."

(This article was written in 1985.)

Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back