Taste: Reviews: Vive La France

A former Le Bec-Fin chef masters the BYOB.

There was a time when the thought of another mom-and-pop BYOB was enough to make me lose my appetite. And now, with the recent onslaught of French bistros, the overwrought tones of Edith Piaf actually put me to sleep. So when I heard about Bibou — a new restaurant that would combine the two most oversaturated restaurant categories in Philly — I initially wondered how it could possibly stand out. But I should never have underestimated the power of Perrier.

[sidebar]Bibou’s chef, the lanky and handsome 37-year-old Pierre Calmels, worked (some would say slaved) for Georges Perrier at Le Bec-Fin for eight long years, ultimately becoming executive chef. Yes, Calmels apprenticed in his native France and cooked with other great chefs, including Daniel Boulud, but it was in the house that Perrier built that he perfected his techniques, the butchery and sauce-making, emulsifying and sautéing, that he now can do as easily as the rest of us tie our shoes. When he left Le Bec-Fin last year to open his own restaurant, he took one of his longtime sous-chefs, Ron Fougeray, with him, and the practiced pair is cranking out food that’s far superior to most other BYOBs’.  

Watching the two of them in Bibou’s 70-square-foot kitchen is a glimpse into a culinary ballet. They work methodically, exchanging the occasional quiet French phrase, as a constant stream of tasting spoons is passed and dishes are sampled. Theirs is the choreography of cooperation, a oneness of movement shared by those who have worked side by side for a long time. At Le Bec-Fin, Calmels had 10 cooks working on the line. Here, he and Fougeray handle everything, from the house-made bread to the blueberry pie.

The menu, a short list based on the cooking of Calmels’s native Lyon, is stocked with dishes you’ve probably had before. What sets this food apart is top-notch execution and bold authenticity. There are no obvious concessions to the American palate. If you order the pig’s foot — a whole pig’s foot that has been deboned, reassembled, and stuffed with bits of foie gras — the front-of-the-house manager and co-owner, Calmels’s wife Charlotte, will ask if you’ve had the dish before. If you haven’t, she’ll caution you against it because of its gelatinous texture. Calmels cooks it because it’s true to the region, and because he likes working with the whole hog. This fare is the country cousin to the citified cuisine of Le Bec. It’s more rustic, without fussy embellishments or unnecessary elements, but just as genuine, and made with the same skill, the same obsessive attention to detail.

Calmels’s sweetbreads, served with medallions of veal, are the milkiest version I’ve ever tasted, with a perfect soft texture and mild, earthy flavor. The chef uses only the best pieces of the organ and soaks them overnight in ice water. Then, for another 24 hours, they’re pressed to remove excess liquid and ensure the ideal texture. After this two-day preparation, the ingredient is finally ready to cook: The sweetbreads are lightly dusted with Wondra flour and seared to a brown crisp. Bibou’s escargots may look like any other plate of snails, but one bite reveals an unusually tender texture achieved by slow-poaching and allowing the snails to cool gradually in the highly flavored broth they were cooked in. Tossed with butter, beef stock, garlic and fresh garbanzo beans, these snails are a revelation to those who don’t like escargots. Freshness is another fetish of the chef; a recent plate of mahimahi was “swimming this morning,” according to my waiter. The fish tasted so delicate and clean, his claim wasn’t hard to believe. Seared day-boat scallops, buttery and brown on the outside and bursting with a saline sweetness within, were just as recently afloat.

It’s obvious at Bibou that the focus is on the food. The 30-seat dining room, polished up from its days as Pif, is nevertheless cramped and inelegant, nothing like the grand theater of Le Bec-Fin. And South 8th Street, dotted with Vietnamese sandwich shops and immigrant-geared travel agencies, could hardly be more different from Walnut Street. The typical Bibou crowd (which might include toddlers sophisticated enough to chomp escargots, and octogenarians with walkers) is piled on top of each other in a way that’s either claustrophobic or convivial, depending on your state of mind. But diners don’t come to places like this to eat under chandeliers with three waiters at their beck and call. They come for well-executed French fare at reasonable prices, for a taste of Le Bec-Fin at a fraction of the cost. Bibou has no PR firm, no gimmicks, no grabs for attention. Pierre Calmels is simply pursuing every French chef’s dream: to make the food he loves best for those who appreciate it.