Restaurant Review: Paris Bistro
By the time Gary Cattley maneuvered his tuba into Paris Bistro’s basement, Drew Nugent & the Midnight Society had been ragging Tin Pan Alley curios for an hour already. The bar was full, and every table was taken. At the tip of the arrowhead-shaped room, wearing a brown double-breasted suit, Nugent faced a vintage 1935 Shure microphone lashed to a Walmart towel ring with springs and a bootlace, warbling into a miniature teakettle through a trumpet mouthpiece jammed in its spout.
Cattley, who’d concocted the microphone getup, smiled. Snaking past servers bearing crocks of French onion soup and parfait glasses of chocolate mousse, he squeezed onto the postage-stamp bandstand to join the unlikeliest recent development in Philadelphia nightlife: the Prohibition-era vocal jazz scene in far Chestnut Hill.
And while it might be limited to a single basement on Germantown Avenue, that doesn’t make Robert and Benjamin Bynum’s latest venture any less remarkable. After a decade marked by the seemingly ineluctable decline of jazz in Center City, the brothers are betting on the city’s suburban fringe to support an enterprise that the likes of the beloved Ortlieb’s and their own Zanzibar Blue haven’t been able to sustain further downtown. And the venue they’ve chosen? The corner property next to the Chestnut Hill Hotel, vacant for the five years since the Melting Pot closed.
To make it work, the Bynums are once again casting their lot with chef Al Paris, who has managed to keep their nearby BYO Heirloom going for almost three years now despite its half-hidden strip-mall location. For Paris, who lives in the neighborhood, the eponymous bistro represents familiar turf in more ways than one. He ran Old City’s long-gone Oberon bistro back in the late 1990s, and also cooked at Zanzibar Blue.
That may explain the smooth efficiency that, with one unfortunate exception, emerged as one of Paris Bistro’s distinguishing characteristics during a pair of late-summer meals. It was particularly notable in the downstairs jazz bar, where (even though no one rushed me out at the end of the set) I appreciated it most.
Among the merits of a simple tomato salad (peeled plum tomatoes, a lip-smacking reduced-balsamic vinaigrette, yellow cherry tomatoes and a hint of rosemary riding along with the basil and capers) was the speed of its arrival. Ditto for a daily special crepe entrée. That was stuffed with smoked mussels (delectably moist from a subsequent poaching in their own liquor) and duck confit—plus the overkill of lamb chorizo, which halfway negated the countervailing lightness supplied by pebbles of Israeli couscous. No one will want for a bigger portion at Paris Bistro. Or, for that matter, more salt.
With two courses down and a decent balance remaining on the band’s first set, I wondered if the kitchen could fire another entrée before Nugent’s first break. And presto! Two crispy-skinned trout fillets beat the tuba to the stage, the former doused in finely balanced lemon browned butter that seeped underneath a side of green beans almondine.
Beneath the pressed-tin ceiling upstairs, a similar efficiency rules. A superb egg custard gussied up with roasted cauliflower and Comté cheese, run-of-the-mill (which is to say, butter-drenched) escargots, and mignonette-brightened oysters arrived a blink after our drinks. And not long after that, a flatiron steak with frites: amply seasoned, accurately cooked, and pricked with a cutesy toothpick flying les trois couleurs.
Occasionally, swiftness trumped depth. Or seasonality. A weekly bouillabaisse special brimmed with monkfish, shrimp, mussels, scallops and crab—but the ocean was muted in its broth. I yearned for a little more unctuousness in my short-rib beef bourguignon—and wasn’t quite ready, in summer, to revel in the butternut-squash ravioli that crowned it.
On the flip side, Paris’s rabbit fricassee, with its mustardy tang bumped up a notch with white balsamic vinegar, was as soulful as Al Green’s falsetto. And I can see why he kept cassoulet on the menu through summer: to placate customers who can’t get enough of the homemade Toulouse-style garlic sausage that elevates it.
I do wish the bistro’s efficiency hadn’t gone missing when it came to delivering a bottle from sommelier Wendy Wolf’s fairly priced all-French wine list. The white burgundy I chose took entirely too long to “chill” given that it arrived lukewarm.
Yet that mishap (and my few minor quibbles with the kitchen) wouldn’t keep me away from Paris Bistro’s intimate basement. Nor, even, would the Bynums’ constricting insistence on vocalists—at least, not when they’re supported by the likes of Orrin Evans, the best Philadelphia jazz pianist of his generation, who was on the scene another night in August. For city jazz fans who know there’s no guarantee the show must go on, its partial revival in Chestnut Hill, with a side of commendable French cooking, is welcome news.
2.5 Stars out of 4 – Good to Excellent
Paris Bistro & Jazz Café [Foobooz]