YOU HAVE TO FIGURE that any ingredient is fair game in a menu section labeled “Bizarre.” But Pierre Calmels sure pulled a fast one on me at Le Chéri (which replaced the Rittenhouse Tavern after Nick Elmi left to open Laurel on East Passyunk). The only dish I didn’t like at the Bibou chef’s classically French makeover of the Philadelphia Art Alliance space was his lamb offal pot-au-feu, whose gutty broth occupied that uncanny valley that separates the authentic from the macabre. But oh, the “pistachio fries” floating in it! What culinary jewels, those mild and tender ovals bearing mosaics of crunchy nuts!
Only later did I discover the source of my captivation. “Ah, pistachio fries!” Calmels chuckled over the phone. “This is a way of saying ‘testicles.’”
Culinary jewels indeed.
Le Chéri is the last place you’d expect to be thrown so deliciously off-balance by a bit of slantwise English, considering how proudly its menu wears its French. With Charlotte’s genuine warmth suffusing the bar and dining rooms, the Calmels have given the Wetherill mansion a restaurant that feels right: a dressed-up bistro for diners who know their barigoule sauce from their baumanière.
Indeed, if you luck into a table served by Delroy Oliver, whose debonair candor buoyed Le Bec-Fin’s dining room for 25 years, you might find yourself thinking that the finer part of that late restaurant’s spirit has finally found its resting place.
Calmels’s cooking is less ambitious here than at Bibou—but nowhere else in town are traditional French entrées (not to mention sides) so exquisitely crafted. Skate grenobloise came with a rosemary panisse that channeled a candy-like sweetness from the herb. Calmels plated rabbit ballotine with a soul-soothing chestnut spaetzle and his mother’s lip-smacking, apple-brightened lightly pickled cabbage. The pillowy pike quenelle, swimming in an almost excessively rich (and a tad oversalted) lobster sauce, came with a delectably crispy wild rice pilaf that restored a sense of healthfulness—though I wish there’d been twice as much of it.
Calmels cuts his boudin noir—another “Bizarre” selection—with extra flour, pushing the sometimes-crumbly texture of that blood sausage into the realm of dense chocolate cake. Best I’ve ever had.
And if there’s ravioli on the menu, get it—even if it sounds boring, like the delicate cream cheese ones whose tangy fillings turned out to be infused with truffle peelings one night.
The same goes for the deeply caramelized tarte tatin. Take it with a sip of calvados. Charlotte’s compact but curiosity-strewn wine list features some of the fairest markups in Philly, so you can treat yourself. Because Le Chéri gives you more than one way to have a ball.