By LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media/Columnist
Following Georges Perrier in the restaurant that for 43 years was Le Bec Fin, a palace of gastronomy, would be like being the centerfielders who replaced Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays when they retired. How do you possibly follow a legend who practically created haute cuisine in Philadelphia and put this city on the national culinary map?
That is the assignment that Roxborough native Justin Bogle has accepted at Avance, which opened Dec. 13 at 1523 Walnut St., formerly home to Le Bec Fin, the cynosure of elevated culinary experiences for a generation of foodies. Also to others celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other dates that were bound to become chapters in the memory bank of customers investing their money, time and emotions in those time machine moments.
Avance is a totally new incarnation of the storied space on Walnut Street. Perrier closed Le Bec Fin in March 3, 2012 (I remember the exact date because we had a birthday celebration dinner there the night before it closed), which was reopened three months later by Nicolas Fanucci, one of Perrier’s former managers, and master chef Walter Abrams, previously of the world-famous French Laundry.
It retained the name and décor of Perrier’s child as well as the lofty prices and ethereal elements of refined French traditions, but it only lasted for one year, and the building was then vacant from June until December of 2013. Avance is a whole new kettle of escargots, however. Even the entrance is much more dark and industrial-looking.
The dining room is also dark and completely redone. The signature Le Bec Fin chandeliers are gone, as are many other traces of opulence. In their place is a much more contemporary look and feel with lots of hardwood, gray walls, gray furniture and gray banquettes, a bookshelf and modern paintings on the walls. Instead of the chandeliers, there are lots of recessed, pinpointed lights and hanging, dim bulbs. What was Baroque, even rococo, is now earthy.
Executive chef Justin Bogle is a Molotov cocktail of talent and innovation. At Gilt restaurant in the Palace Hotel in New York, Bogle became the youngest chef in the country (at age 28) to ever be awarded two Michelin stars. He has won honors from other sparkling lights in the restaurant firmament such as the Zagat Guide, Restaurant Hospitality and Star Chefs. You might say he is the toque of the town.
According to Avance partner Chris Scarduzio, who was also once a partner of Perrier, “What I love about Justin is that he is totally unpretentious. He’s a great chef; he’s more talented than I am, but he has this great respect for food.”
I can honestly say that we have never experienced anything quite like some of Bogle’s contemporary American dishes, although I am equally sure that his food is not for everybody, especially at the prices charged at Avance, although reviewers so far have been mostly rhapsodic. Bogle is a gutsy guy because it’s the pioneers who take all the arrows.
An example of Bogle’s fugue of creative ideas was the cauliflower chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard mixture normally flavored with soy sauce), a creamy, soupy alchemy with supple scallops, lemon zest and trout roe redolent of sake. We had never tasted anything quite like it, and the combination of flavors and textures was absolutely ethereal.
Several amuse bouches, mini-examples of the chef’s exceptional skills and daring, are served before the dishes that you order. I have never had so many in any restaurant. Another celestial performance was a ceramic egg carton with two egg shells that had been hollowed out and then filled with a marriage of egg foam, caviar and bacon tapioca. A languid stroll of crème fraiche brought this remarkable concept together with uncommon richness. Another authentic echo of haute cuisine and Bogle’s wizardry was the pickled mussels with blood orange and fennel reclining in edible shells that were created from squid ink pasta dough. This was another harmonic composition of the chef’s exotica that haunts one’s senses for days. And the aesthetic presentations of the dishes are of art museum quality.
One negative was the prime strip of beef, which was ordered medium rare but came out rare, chewy and fatty. Decaf cappuccino was very rich-tasting but served lukewarm, not hot. A chocolate and beet dessert was not memorable.
In the case of one amuse bouche, a server brought out two miniscule complimentary glasses of homemade lemon soda. Unfortunately, the server inadvertently knocked over one of the glasses, and all the liquid fell into my wife’s hair and on her jacket. Lots of apologies followed as well as patting down the jacket with a cloth, but the liquid seeped through to my wife’s blouse and made her hair sticky. It seemed like an episode of “Candid Camera.” We did not see the server again.
At Avance you have an option of five courses for $85, eight courses for $135 or a la carte. A wine pairing for the five-course dinner is $61. The wine list is a virtual encyclopedia, with many of the offerings at astronomical prices. There may not be much to recommend Avance beyond Bogle’s innovative, exquisite cooking, but that’s like saying there’s not much to a hurricane except for the wind and the rain.
One big plus at Avance is that the tables are spaced far apart; there is soft music in the background, and we could not hear one word anyone was saying at nearby tables, unlike almost every other restaurant you can name. The absence of noise was a revelation.
Call (215) 405-0700 or check www.avancerestaurant.com and click on “Food” or “Drink” for the menus. Then right click on the “Dining and Bar Food Menu” or the “Coffee & Dessert Menu” to open a Pdf with the menus.