The Gist: http://www.biboubyob.com/
The Why: Considered by many to be the best restaurant in Philadelphia and receiving raves from many palates I trust for both the food and the hospitality I’d tried to visit Pierre Calmels’ cozy French bistro on my previous trip to Philadelphia only to find it closed for summer break; a bummer to be sure but perhaps a bit of serendipity as I’d have been flying solo on that trip while for this visit I was to be joined by two of my favorite people driving in from New York.
The Reservation: Mandatory, regardless of the time or the day of the week. A small, cash only BYOB with limited hours and dining times as long as three hours rest assured that there is rarely an open seat and plan in advance – they start taking reservations 30 days in advance and are often booked up within hours.
The setting: Topping out at perhaps two-dozen white clothed tables packed into a space no bigger than many living rooms the feel at Bibou is every bit as cozy as any Parisian bistro and although the quarters are tight the space does not feel ‘cramped’ – each diner has space to move, though you can certainly hear your neighbors (particularly as the wine flows freely.) Sparsely decorated with various photos and children’s drawings while old but sturdy blonde wood chairs match the beige and brown décor it is very clear that Bibou is about the food, not the fuss.
The service: In a word, superlative. From Pierre’s wife Charlotte handling the phones for reservations and monitoring the room throughout the evening to our primary server to Pierre himself stopping by each table to offer his thanks during the course of the evening none at our table (or any other) were ever for want of anything.
The Food and Drink: Two bottles of wine (2007 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone and 2010 Neige Apple Ice Wine,) complimentary bread and butter, three courses each, and complimentary mignardises.
Warm Baguette with Eschire Butter: If there is a better baguette in Philadelphia than the one being baked for each table at bibou I’d be shocked; crunchy crust and a delicate crumb paired with imported butter lightly tinged with salt…it was like a morning in Paris and disappearing quickly a second service appeared without question and proved equally wonderful.
Escargots – Snail Ragout, Fava Beans, mushroom mousserons flavored with tarragon: Perhaps Pierre’s most famous dish and a staple on the ever-changing menu I cannot say I’ve ever been wowed by escargots and although this preparation was certainly the best I’ve tasted the fact remains that I simply find snails to be ‘okay’ in terms of both taste and texture while the accoutrements, particularly the tender mushrooms, far outshined the dish’s featured ingredient. Earthy and aromatic, briny but balanced, and overall quite nice I simply can’t help but assume the dish would have been better served (for me) with a different protein.
Foie Gras Duo – green fig and rabbit confit / ravioli with duck gastrique: Ordered by both of my companions and thus affording me more than a small taste this was one of those dishes that couldn’t fail given the quality of the product and the chef…and the ice wine from my trip to Montreal a month earlier didn’t hurt either. Starting first with a thick slice of liver, caramelized on the exterior with a brilliant balance of sweet and saline added by the fig and confit and then moving to the tender noodle stuffed with nearly liquid mousse and bathed in a bright aromatic jus this was a pairing that touched every part of the palate, each bite as good as the last and as interesting as the first.
Pied de Porc – Braised pig foot stuffed with Foie Gras and French Lentils De Puy: Along with the escargot this is bibou’s second menu staple and although not the plethoric portion of that at Au Pied du Cochon I’d be lying if I said this was any less impressive; a full sized trotter braised to crispy perfection and nearly bursting with creamy foie gras. Gluttonous, sure, but nicely conceptualized with the nutty lentils serving to balance the fatty pork while also sopping up braising liquid this is certainly not a dish for the weak of heart or those on a diet but for anyone else I’d consider it one of Philadelphia’s best dishes.
Bone Marrow with Bread Crumbs, Garlic, and Greens: One of the nightly specials this was another dish where execution was everything and unlike traditional preparations the dish presented was more like stuffing or bread pudding than marrow simply topped with crispy crumbs. Large in portion and immense in flavor with a light salad at one side and crispy garlic potatoes at the other there was more than enough of this dish to be shared and given its richness the sweet spiciness of the Cotes du Rhone proved a great pairing.
Rack of lamb with new potatoes, artichokes, vegetable and lamb jus: Another nightly special served in substantial portion this medium rare rack was presented just as rustic as one might expect and with each of the vegetables tender and flavorful the balance of flavors was excellent while the rosemary and thyme accented jus proved every bit worth sopping up with what was left of the second baguette.
Sorbet from Anthony’s: Not wowed by the sweets menu in the same way as we were by the savories one of my friends opted for Italian Ice brought in from Anthony’s Italian Coffee House and although I did not try either the Strawberry or the Lemon selections both seemed to be well received along with a bottle of Orangina.
Floating Island with Homemade almond pralines, goat milk crème Anglaise: Selected by my second dining companion and served in an elegant glass atop a paper doily this light meringue pyramid arrived floating in a warm broth at the same time sweet and slightly savory along with a sprinkling of crispy almonds. Small in size, texturally pleasant and mild in flavor this was a nice dessert after such heavy savories.
Apricot Meringue Pie: My selection for dessert and in my opinion the best of the group by a significant margin this seasonal selection presented a dense buttery crust filled with candied apricot puree beneath lightly bruleed meringue alongside fresh blueberries, caramel drizzle, and a dollop of hand-whipped cream. Sucrose sweet but mellowed nicely by the butter and cream this would not have been my first choice on the majority of dessert menus but after the pre-dinner bites at Barbuzzo and something as heavy as the Pied de Porc this fit the bill nicely.
Coconut Macaroon and Vanilla Meringue: A final send off, delivered by Charlotte with the check, the meringue was largely forgettable but the warm macaroon most certainly was not – a creamy coconut pudding in a buttery shell that would have made a great dessert all on its own.
The Verdict: A great meal with wonderful friends in a warm space where each guest is treated like the most important person in the room it would be hard to claim that Charlotte and Pierre’s little space on 8th is anything less than a gem in an era where exquisite French cuisine often carries a price tag nearly double or triple what was spent at bibou that evening and although the dessert menu could perhaps use some work for those of us with a more substantial sweet tooth that small quibble is more than quashed by the BYO policy and exquisite bread service…next visit to Philadelphia it shall be the tasting menu without question.