Reader: What do the Garces joints lack to keep away a 4th bell?
C.L: Quite simply, they are lacking a personal presence from Garces himself. Garces' ambitions and energies seem to be directed toward empire expansion at the moment, and while I think those restaurants are still fantastic for high-volume venues, they lack the kind of spark of evolution and personal connection. He tells me a little boutique-style 20-seater is in the works where he plans to take it to the next level - perhaps for 2013.
Reader: In your review of Le Bec-Fin, you pointed out things many have been speaking about for years regarding service, food, and the overall experience. Many would agree that LBF is beyond repair, but will Georges Perrier ever bow out gracefully?
C.L: Le Bec is no doubt struggling to evolve to that next phase in the tall shadow of its former glory. I was most shocked simply at how far - and how quickly - it had crumbled since my last review . . . .
Reader: Do you think your review of Le Bec-Fin will prompt positive changes? Or will Le Bec-Fin be closed by this time next year?
C.L.: It's just impossible to tell what's going to happen. A lack of common-sense vision has been a great part of its downfall. Nick Elmi is a talented chef. But trying to paddle that vintage boat in two or three directions at once with half the crew seems like an impossible challenge.
How can restaurants that only are focusing on food make it into 4-bell category? Food, wine, and service all should be part of the review don't you think?
C.L.: I find it amazing that in 2012 we are still talking about whether BYOBs should be considered among our best restaurants. What city do you live in? This rating scale has always been intended to reflect what Philadelphia is about. And BYOBs - one of our greatest strengths - have long ago insinuated themselves into the fabric of what's so wonderful about eating here. Many are providing some of the most ambitious dining experiences we have.
Reader: Working for the industry as I do, I often hear about Craig LaBan spottings, and the ensuing panic and excitement it can cause. After releasing the elite list, and being critical of others like Le Bec, do you feel that your anonymity is ever in danger of being purposely outed as it was with a L.A. Times critic?
C.L.: My best guess is that most - if not all - the places I wrote about knew I was in the dining room (I took all the normal precautions, others made reservations, etc.). It didn't help some (Le Bec, Barclay) one bit. This level of dining is impossible to fake for one guest. It was interesting for me to revisit, rather than go to new openings where they are prepared for critics (and not just me). Many seemed to have fallen into an autopilot that I did not expect.
Reader: Could you comment on your decision to elevate Zahav to 4 bells? I love the restaurant and the price point but, I feel many restaurants produce food on the same level in terms of quality and don't think the service or setting of Zahav make it an elite place. Could you elaborate?
C.L.: I disagree. Very few restaurants are serving food on par with Zahav. Plus, it is a complete experience.
Reader: I don't usually spend more than $100 per person on a meal. I've been to many restaurants here and not paid nearly this much. For my first wedding anniversary I made reservations at Vetri. My husband is skeptical it will be worth the $300 bill. Should I allay his fears or go for another four-bell?
C.L.: There's no way around it, a meal at Vetri is very expensive. You should plan about $500 for two people with wine. If you have this disposable income, I think it's worth it. If not, the other four-bell restaurants (Bibou, Zahav, even Fountain, with its $85 tasting menu option) can wow you for less. (Talula's as well, but there's a little reservation problem there . . . .)
Reader: The definition of 4 bells states "sets fine dining standards." How do you rank Zahav at 4 bells, as it can't really be considered fine dining?
C.L.: Welcome to 2012. Fine dining has changed!
To read the Four-Bell story, go to www.philly.com/4bell.