Philadelphia is by no means a small town, but exploring its constantly changing dining scene can sometimes make it feel like one. It’s not at all uncommon to go to check out a new spot – or to revisit an old standby – only to find that you know seemingly half the other people in the place. I like to think it’s less a sign of provincialism, more an indication that Philly is evolving into a great restaurant town and, as a direct result, is developing a hardcore set of food explorers, always on the lookout for the newest flavor in town. The phenomenon seems particularly tied to the BYOB scene – something for which Philly is justly renowned. People, it seems, aren’t just in search of the newest, freshest flavor but also for great value and the freedom to create their own wine list.
If there’s a downside to this whole scenario, it’s that some places open to such positive acclaim that the demand for reservations can quickly surpass availability. Witness Bibou. Such was the buzz on the street prior to Bibou’s start just two months ago that the house was full, I’m told, on opening night. While securing a reservation for one of the restaurant’s 36 or so seats hasn’t yet become a near impossibility, something tells me that day’s not far off.
The bar at Bibou serves both as seating for tasting menu customers and as a resting place for co-owner Charlotte Calmels and the wine(s) customers often send her way. During our visit it seemed like someone at every table knew someone at at least one other table, if not more. Charlotte graciously shuttled glasses of wine from one table to the next, including the very fine taste of 1983 Château Pichon Longueville that one group of fellow diners sent our way.
Bibou is also the newest in Philadelphia’s cadre of husband/wife restaurant ventures. Le Bec Fin and Daniel alum Pierre Calmels leads in the kitchen while his wife Charlotte, formerly of Patrice Rames’ Patou and Bistro St. Tropez, oversees the front of the house. Their menu of classic French bistro dishes is scaled to the size of their space – manageable and focused – with just five entrées (in the French sense of the term), five main plates and a handful of desserts on offer Wednesday through Saturday nights. Like at an increasing number of Philadelphia BYOBs, Sunday is prix fixe night, with three courses plus amuse bouche priced at $45 per person, sans tax and tip. Not the cheapest deal in town but a solid value given the quality of what my friends and I encountered on a recent Sunday evening.
Pictured at top, every basket of house baked bread (which is very good, by the way) comes with its own parcel of French butter from the cooperative dairy, Échiré. Cantaloupe soup and escargots, below.
An early season amuse of chilled cantaloupe soup made for a great taste bud teaser, sparked with strips of savory duck prosciutto and a generous twist of black pepper. As at Pif, the former denizen of Bibou’s space in the Italian Market area of Bella Vista, escargots seems poised to be the signature appetizer. On our visit, though, it was the only somewhat disappointing dish of the evening, the richness of a mushroom demi-glace and slightly heavy-handed seasoning obscuring the flavor of the snails themselves. I found no such issues with our other starters. The decadence of seared foie gras was balanced by the sweet and sour tang of plum chutney and the tannic earthiness of toasted walnuts, while a terrine of quail mousse set aside a simply dressed salad and pickled red cabbage provided rustic satisfaction.
Our waiter, who it turns out is from Stuttgart, was first startled and then happily surprised to see a Franken bocksbeutel emerge from my wine caddy. Rufolf Fürst's 2006 Riesling trocken "pur mineral" was rustic, energetic, full-flavored and right on with our first courses. The food at Bibou is very well suited to "classic" wines. Henri Germain's 2005 Bourgogne Rouge was sweet-fruited and delicate enough to work with the fish yet had the depth to match with duck confit. The 1999 Margaux from cru artisan estate Château les Barraillots was still young but showing very well; a solid match with the beef of the day.
The manageable scope of the menu helps Bibou escape the pitfall of far too many restaurants, where small plates all too often outshine the main courses. Here, the plats principaux are the stars, with Chef Calmels displaying a deft hand with proteins and bringing out the best in the innate flavors of market fresh vegetables. Hanger steak, the boeuf course on our visit, was spot-on medium rare, spiked by an assertive yet delicious green peppercorn sauce. Meltingly tender duck confit sat atop a warming, soulful tousle of linguine – slightly overcooked in the French fashion – sauced with duck jus and a fricassee of artichokes and sweet cherry tomatoes. As good as were the meat dishes, the flétan may just have been the star of the night, a perfectly seared medallion of halibut set atop a bed of lemon-poached cauliflower couscous played very well with the pungent sweetness of curried butternut squash and raisins.
Aside from the sorbet and ice creams, which are sourced from nearby Anthony’s in the 9th Street Market, desserts are made in-house. Both chocolate cake, based on a recipe from Charlotte’s grandmother, and peach pie were well executed and made for a comforting, unostentatious finale to our meal.
1009 South 8th Street
(between Carpenter and Washington)
Philadelphia, PA 19147