Friday, February 12, 2016

The magical, marrow-shined luster that is Bibou

Flora and wine glasses on tables at Bibou. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Gallery Image Gallery: Bibou
Bibou Video: Bibou
About the restaurant
1009 S. Eighth St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Neighborhood: South Philadelphia Parking: Street and municipal lot parking only.
Handicap access: No
Hours: Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.
Reservations: Recommended
Open Table
Prices: $$$
Payment notes: Cash only. Entrees, $26-$30 (specials can be slightly higher); tasting menu, $70 for seven courses, plus $10 each additional course; Sunday prix-fixe, $45 for four courses.
Payment methods:
Accepts cash
Cuisine type: French
Meals Served: Dinner - Wed., Thu., Fri., Sat., Sun.
Style: There's a reason wine lovers clamor for reservations at this cozy South Philly BYOB: Pierre and Charlotte Calmels have created an intimate destination for personal service and soulful French bistro cooking from a master chef with haut-cuisine cred. Adventure eaters thrill to the game birds, stuffed marrow bones and bountiful foie gras, while more reserved diners will remember the braised meats and perfect fish. The Sunday $45 prix-fixe bargain is a perfect introduction to what is already one of the best four-bell values in town.
Specialties: (Menu changes often) Escargots; sweetbread terrine; crab salad with avocado remoulade; arctic char gravlax; stuffed marrow bone; foie gras-stuffed pig's foot; pig's ear terrine; black bass roulade sauce Joinville; skate wing; poached dorade with rosemary emulsion; seared foie gras with foie gras crème brulée; braised veal cheeks over turmeric spaetzle; lamb chop with lamb Pithiviers; roasted partridge; floating island pyramid with almond praline and goat's milk crème anglaise.
Alcohol: BYOB. Think French, and bring the best your cellar has to offer.

Upgraded from 3 bells.

Recipe for a great Philadelphia BYOB: one hardworking chef in the kitchen, one charming wife running the 30-seat dining room, and legions of devoted regulars who toast their favorite gem with glasses of their own grand cru wine.

We've seen this ingredient list before. But rarely has it achieved the magical, marrow-shined luster that is Bibou. The chef, of course, is Pierre Calmels, the brilliantly talented expat from Le Bec-Fin (and Daniel), who left haute cuisine to plunge deep into the rustic soul of his native French bistro tradition, pig parts, game birds and all. His wife, Charlotte, meanwhile, takes the role of astute hostess to the next level, reciting guests' long tasting-menu histories at the same moment she reserves their next meals on a laptop beside their table.

And reserve they do, with more than half the room set aside every Wednesday and Thursday for standing commitments, most of them wine lovers who find Calmels' flawless French cooking the city's best match for their trophy Burgundies and Bordeaux.

More coverage
  • Bibou
  • At Philly's Bibou, echoes of Le Bec Fin
  • Calling Bibou merely a "bistro," though, can be misleading. Yes, the decor is simple, with gray wainscoting, white lace on the storefront windows, and an open view into the rear kitchen where you can see Calmels and his longtime sous, Ron Fougeray, roasting long marrowbones stuffed with chanterelles and Scottish partridge in Madeira sauce. But there's an extraordinary personal contact here between the Calmelses and their patrons that is rare and rewarding.

    Bibou always has excellent dishes for less adventurous eaters (hanger steak, trout, crab salad) on its small a la carte menu, as well as signatures such as the foie gras-stuffed pig's foot. But this kitchen's talents are most evident in the ever-changing seven-course $70 tasting.

    Calmels is the rare chef with the polish and feeling to make the oldies seem fresh and new. That could mean transforming a peasant staple - pig ears - into ethereal translucent noodles tucked inside a flaky phyllo rectangle. Or channeling Escoffier elegance with black bass rolled around tarragon fish mousse over a retro sauce Joinville blushing with lobster butter and black truffles.

    His turban-shaped Pithiviers filled with oregano-scented lamb and foie gras lent true pastry luxury to a perfect lamb chop. Silvery daurade dabbed with rosemary froth, meanwhile, evoked the Mediterranean.

    I still dream of the floating island he turned into a pyramid of meringue studded with almond nougatine, bobbing over goat's milk crème anglaise for dessert.

    I'll be intrigued to see what's next if Pierre and Charlotte finally receive their green cards this spring. The possibilities are grand: A larger second place with a liquor license, perhaps? Pierre knows this BYOB is sacred.

    "We'll always keep Bibou as our baby and my little garden of ideas," he promises. "But we'll at least be able to finally unpack our suitcase."

    Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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