Saturday, June 11, 2011


Bibou, the tiny French BYO hiding a few blocks south of South Street, has been building quite an impressive resume, from James Beard nominations to its current "Best of Philly" Philadelphia Magazine ranking (#3 ... behind Italian powerhouse Vetri and another restaurant that isn't even in Philadelphia). With seats to fit a mere 20 or so people, Bibou serves what is probably best described as French "peasant-style" food. Personally, I'm not a fan of the phrase ("peasant" doesn't exactly encourage my appetite), but it does stress that the dishes are a departure from fancy-shmancy French-inspired fare (e.g. Le Bec-Fin). At Bibou, there are no "artistic" scrapes of sauce, no precarious pyramids of veggies, and, as far as I can tell, no foams or liquid nitrogen. Instead, the husband-wife team (Pierre and Charlotte Calmels) puts out rustic dishes that evoke feelings of comfort and coziness. When I see the dishes, I sometimes think to myself, "yeah -- I could do a dish like that" -- but right after I take a bite, I know full well that I couldn't ... but more on that later.

I've been to Bibou on a few occasions in the past, and, having had good experiences, decided it was time to really put it to the test and bring some of my food-savvy friends (I was looking for any excuse to go). I booked a party of 5 for a Saturday night (nearly 2 months in advance for such a "large" party) and eagerly counted down the days. The wine guru of the party wanted a heads-up on the menu so that he could plan to bring some appropriate pairings. I emailed Charlotte, only to have her reply that unfortunately even she doesn't know what's going to be on a week's menu until the first day of the week (Wednesdays). While I can't tell if this is due to indecisiveness or "hyper-seasonality", there are some dishes that are always on the menu -- probably because removing them might cause grown men to weep, beg, and cry (the escargots, the boeuf, the pig's feet). So if you're planning on bringing a bottle, you may be able to anticipate a few of the courses ... or ... you could be like our wine guru and bring one of everything, and open up whatever strikes your fancy at the time.

For atmosphere, the most accurate word for Bibou is "tiny." Charlotte's not keeping the number of diners at 20-something for exclusivity's sake; if there were space for even one more table, then I'm sure she'd add one. Additionally, the decor is minimal. Take note -- it's not some kind of chic minimalist decor - the decor is literally at a minimum. Beyond the tables and chairs, there are a few hanging pictures, plainly-painted walls, some lamps suspended from the ceiling, and that's about it. It's as if someone decided to stick a restaurant in the bottom floor of a rowhouse. Consequently, taking a first date or visiting family there might leave a lackluster first impression -- it doesn't look "nice." Wait -- that doesn't sound right -- allow me to re-phrase: there are no loud colors, no strobe lights, no soaring ceilings, no fancy spigots in the bathrooms, etc. But that's the point. This is not some sort of themed Steven Starr or Jose Garces joint. The theme is simple: focus on our food.

We were shown our seats and invited to peruse our menus. It was very similar if not identical to the menu listed on their website, with only a handful of options available for appetizer and entree. There was an add-on special appetizer (a salad featuring shaved melon), but it really didn't do much to sway us from the ones on the menu (it's hard to make "melon salad" sound sexy). Similarly, there were two add-on entrees (one of which was a soft-shell crab) -- but those, too, didn't really matter; we had a lot of first-timers at the table, so they were going for the basics (pig's feet and steak).

We began the meal with a glass of Lillet -- a French aperitif wine which was completely new to me, but apparently not to anyone else at our table. Actually, upon our arrival, even Charlotte commented "Oh, I love Lillet" or something to that effect, when she saw the bottle. Even though we didn't have a bit of orange to garnish it with, the Lillet was quite captivating, with a light citrus and sweetness and a super-smooth finish that's dangerous in a 17% EtOH wine. It was a fun accompaniment to their well-done bread and butter (I'm always distressed when restaurants serve crappy bread).

As our first courses hit the table, inviting aromas danced in the air. Our table featured at least one of each of the following: "terrine," "gravlax," "escargots" and "foie gras." I hadn't thought I was at all hungry until my foie touched down and I found myself drooling upon the smell -- a nondescript yet powerful meat-and-sweet aroma. My mouth waters as I write this. You should know that I'm not a huge fan of foie -- and it has nothing to do with the ethics of the meat, rather, the texture/flavor; a lot of foie tastes like a peculiar combination of tofu, butter, and cheese (pardon my unrefined palate).

Nevertheless, I was told that this was the best in the city - so I was obligated to try it, right? Smells aside, I must confess that the dish didn't look particularly pleasing to the eyes -- probably more like a Chinese stir-fry of chicken (without the veggies) than anything carrying the upper-class, white collar appeal of foie -- so perhaps it's better than I didn't take a picture of it. I shouldered on, as the scent was so paradoxically inviting. How'd it taste? Two words. Holy crap. The foie had a deep sear and was served in a duck sauce (so the dish was primarily brown in color) and accompanied by a cooked apricot (dark orange - nearly brown) and a piece of what tasted like gingerbread (more brown). The foie's texture had some initial bite to it (firmer than a tofu) that gave way to a palate-coating creaminess that, when mixed with the duck sauce, sent me straight to a rich, decadent heaven. I used the apricot to cut through the richness and reset my palate, just so I could start all over again with another piece of foie. I actually didn't happen upon to the gingerbread until most of the foie had been consumed, but it coupled so nicely with the sauce that I now wonder if a gingerbread stuffing would go well with duck in the future. All in all, the dish was absolutely amazing. I only wish that I had poured a heartier wine than an Alsatian Riesling (think fresh, zippy fruit and palate-cleansing minerality) for this course, but I was spending so much time focusing on the food that I would have neglected the drink, anyhow.

A dinnermate had the escargots -- a past favorite of mine. They appeared to have been prepared as before (fava beans, mousseron mushroom, tarragon) and were identical to the picture on their website. I did get a chance to sample the perfectly cook escargot (just the right balance of spring and give) and a fava bean. It wasn't as garlicky as I remember -- but flawlessly executed nonetheless. My tablemates also had a terrine (guinea hen ballotine, stuffed with foie) accompanied by a tiny cornbread waffle (it was so cute!) and a sauce which is written online to be port and raisin reduction. I did taste some of the terrine and found it to be surprisingly light in flavor, which could be good or bad depending on how you look at it. I didn't taste any of the waffle but wondered if terrine+waffle is a good combo or not. My wife ordered The gravlax (featuring cured trout with jicama, alvendar, mango vinaigrette). She reports that the trout was surprisingly not fishy and had a rich flavor that stood up to the tropical flavors surrounding it. In her words, "it was delish!"

So, on to the main course. I had no choice but to get the pig's feet. But banish any misconceptions you have about pig's feet because this is a smidge fancier than you'll find in Chinatown. Actually - you can see how he makes it here. It didn't really look like much. Actually, it kind of resembled a large, oblong chicken McNugget atop a pile of lentils.

First off: the lentils. These French lentils are not your namby-pamby-oh-I'm-a-vegetarian-in-need-of-protein lentils ... these are leather-skull-cap-wearing-motorcycle-riding-with-a-skull-and-crossbones-tattoo lentils. The texture was right-on (not mushy, but cooked through) and they're cooked in what I can imagine is pork fat from the pig leg (although I could be wrong). There are scattered carrots and pieces of meat throughout, which contribute to a flavor that is deep and downright hearty. If you didn't know any better, you'd wonder if this was some sort of lovechild between a hoofed animal and a lentil.

And now that pig's leg that I blasphemously described as a relative of the McDonald's menu item. If you like bacon or pork belly (which I do), then this is the dish for you. If you prefer pork tenderloin or pork chop, then keep moving on, as the fat:meat ratio in this is much higher and probably close to 1:1. Add on the foie gras stuffing, and what you have is a succulently fatty item with a firm, crispy crust and chewy texture. It's actually so fatty that it's sweet-tasting. This is where most readers will divide. Some will be salivating, while others will think this is horrendously gross (i.e. they can't handle it ... wusses). I loved it. It is no surprise that my pig's feet loving friend (he's Chinese -- pig's feet is ordinary to him) claims that this is the best he's ever had. Shazam. The only real drawback to this dish is that it is SO hot when they serve it that you're torn between wanting to consume it immediately and not wanting to burn your mouth -- so proceed with caution!

My dinnermates also enjoyed the pig's feet (one of them couldn't get over the lentils). And others enjoyed the hanger steak dish (accented with a peppercorn sauce, asparagus, and potatoes), claiming it was perfectly cooked and up there among the best steaks they've ever had. That said, a criticism is that it didn't really surprise them (like the lentils had) -- it was a superbly cooked steak and accompaniments, but didn't re-define steaks forever. But that's not so bad.

By this time, we had dipped into some "bordeaux"/Bordeaux blends (a Quintessa -- a California "bordeaux" blend featuring, unsurprisingly, some of the most vivid/smooth/refined fruit I've ever had, and an '03 St. Emilion which had a nose/flavor of barnyard/leather in addition to fruit that were quite pleasant ... two takes on similar grapes), so we were quite happy.

Next course was a cheese plate. Featured were an herb-coated goat cheese, a semi-soft cheese washed in cognac, and a stinky blue. We switched to Champagne (except for me -- I don't like bubbles) and the party continued. On one hand, the cheeses were pretty tasty, but I personally felt that the accompaniments (or lack thereof) left me wanting. Of course, maybe French peasants (or cheese purists) don't muck around with compotes, dried fruits, and nuts to go along with their cheese, but I, being the ignorant American that I am, appreciate those additions, no matter how heretical that may be. Of course, we did have wine, which was a perfect accompaniment, so not a bit of cheese survived our wrath.

We finished with a variety of desserts, including a creme caramel, a slice of blueberry pie, and a trio of chocolate (mousse, ice cream, cake). Ahhh, dessert. I'm a sweets kind of guy. Let me first say that each of the desserts was well executed and tasted precisely as it appeared. So, in short, they were a delicious pie, flan-like substance, and trio of chocolate. But here I felt that something was missing. The appetizer and entree that I received both appeared a certain way (homely) and then blew me away upon first taste. For dessert, they taste exactly how they appear, which, while very good, is not quite mind-blowing. As a result, my fondest memories of Bibou are attached to the appetizer and main course. In my mind, the desserts are Bibou's weakness -- if you can really call "having obviously delicious desserts" a weakness. However, had they had the desserts of Talula's Table or Zahav, then maybe, just maybe, I'd never be able to eat anywhere else ever again.

And finally, I'll mention service. The service at Bibou is absolutely top-notch. The servers are nice and very refined. The staff knows how to serve food, how to clear tables, and [importantly] how to properly serve wine. Yes, they do call you "monsieur" and "madame"/"madamoiselle", but it's not done in a snooty manner, rather, one of respect for a dining patron. Furthermore, Charlotte's presence in the front of house and a visit from Pierre near the end of the meal are truly excellent touches that make you feel like family ... or maybe at least "a distant relative."

In the end, Bibou has maintained its vice-like grip on my heart. It serves my kind of food. The food makes you feel at home -- which is odd because you will never find foie gras or pig's feet in my home. I imagine that others have had similar experiences, as reservations are usually difficult to come by, and I hear that there are quite a few standing reservations taking up slots as well. Just don't expect TFL or Per Se, or innovation like WD50 and Alinea, as it's a tiny south-of-South BYO (n.b. cash-only). If anything, in true Philly style, Bibou is the understated, homely dressed restaurant that'll surprise the hell out of you if you give it a shot. They do have a Sunday tasting at $45 which is quite a deal. True, they're probably trying to clear out the pantry before their days off, but trust me, the food is every bit as good on Sunday as it is on Saturday.

1009 South 8th St
Philadelphia PA 19147

1 comment:

  1. Wait... you went to Bibou and all you got were pictures of the desserts?!!!!! NOOOOOO!!!!!!



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