On a rude March evening, with snow clinging stubbornly to the curb edges on South Eighth Street, the smallest dining room in town glowed like a sodium-vapor streetlamp in some nostalgic novel. Inside it was warm and yellow, and heavy coats hung on almost every chair. Forks clinked, voices rose and fell. A waiter shimmied past the two-seat bar, wended his roundabout way across the crowded room, and presented a table in the corner with two lowball glasses holding plain ice cubes—and a thought sprung involuntarily to my mind: Just like all Americans in Paris.
The Paris of South Philadelphia, I guess you’d have to say. But Bibou, Pierre and Charlotte Calmels’ BYOB has always felt like a bona fide French colony to the loyalists who bring their best Burgundies to drink with dinner here.
Bibou’s dining room may not officially be this city’s smallest, but for the last five years it’s felt that way, and in the best possible manner. No other Philadelphia restaurant has held diners in so intimate an embrace with its proprietors, who have a knack for making a meal feel like an open invitation.
My favorite dinner here was one in the company of a childhood friend I hadn’t seen for close to 15 years, who had lately moved to Mount Airy after marrying a small-town pharmacist from France. Her husband was adrift: struggling to find work, greater ease with English, and a sense of community that had eluded him so far in the city. He practically gripped our table at Bibou like a life raft. From the trademark adorning the knives at our place settings to the creamy texture of the ris de veau he ordered, it was like he’d found a home away from home.
And the thing was, he actually had. Pierre lingered with us an extra few minutes when he made his rounds of the dining room, and Charlotte pressed her phone number into my new friend’s hand at the evening’s end. In the week that followed, she connected him with a number of French expats doing different things in Philadelphia. His prospects suddenly brightened, and his spirits rose with them.
Now that the Calmelses have a second restaurant (the winning Le Cheri, where they are spending the bulk of their time), I was curious about how their first one was faring without them.
Bibou’s kitchen is now in the hands of Ron Fougeray, who’s been there since the beginning. Working with Pierre’s slightly more distant input, he cooked exactly the kind of meal I’ve come to expect in this soulful space, where menus signed by Paul Bocuse and Gerard Boyer share wall space with brightly colored artwork by the Calmelses’ young daughters.
The seared foie still comes with crispy spiced pumpkin bread, a combination that was improved further on this night by a firm Fuyu persimmon whose restrained sweetness flattered each of its partners. I liked Fougeray’s bone marrow preparation, which tempered the richness by melding it with breadcrumbs roasted to a crisp, better than the higher-intensity version I recall having eaten a few years back. And if there are prettier greens than the slightly peppery baby Chinese purple mustard that cleansed the palate between bites (until the last few fronds began to wilt in the warm marrow that gradually dripped over the edges of the veal bone), I want to know where to find them.
A meaty cobia filet exemplified the inventiveness Bibou has long brought to seafood. The fish was poached in olive oil and tweaked with ingredients that foiled its richness: firm heart-of-palm slices dyed orange with aromatic saffron; a foamy and pleasantly bitter blood-orange sauce that exuded an even headier perfume; and a few halved cherry tomatoes whose fruity acidity was bright with the promise of spring.
Our old European waiter also brought a delicate crab and tomato bisque that was rich, but not at all thick, with butter. And I loved the frozen hazelnut “soufflé”—a Frangelico-enriched semifreddo that lived up to its playful name by dint of its surprisingly light texture.
The only thing I wouldn’t recommend was a blunt, brownie-like chocolate cake. It mainly reminded me, by contrast, of the ethereal pastry-style desserts that are one of the many things distinguishing Le Cheri across town.
Which put me in mind, of course, of the other thing distinguishing Le Cheri: the fact that Pierre—and perhaps even more importantly, Charlotte—have decamped to it, for the time being at least. Fougeray is aces in the kitchen. He makes a point of coming out of it, too, to mingle for a few moments in the dining room, just as Pierre always has. But the thing I always loved most about Bibou was the natural ease with which Charlotte infused it with her genuine hospitality.
The tone she set still reverberates in Bibou—which is no small thing, and indeed a real testament to the familial warmth she has cultivated among its longtime staff. But if I were taking another new French arrival out to dinner now, I’d have a harder time deciding where to go.
Which, when you think about it, is proof of how much the Calmelses have given Philadelphia. For five years they have nurtured a restaurant with very few equals here, and now they are presiding over two.