"I know a lot of people look at my quenelles and say, 'What is that?' "
Pierre Calmels was clearly reading my mind. Because that was exactly the phrase that popped into my mind when his quenelles arrived at our table at Le Chéri.
I'd witnessed several plates of unequivocal beauty over the course of my meals at this rambling new restaurant that he and wife, Charlotte Calmels, recently opened in the Philadelphia Art Alliance.
There was the jewellike mound of diced cobia tartare brightened with blood orange and wrapped in a band of shaved cucumber. There were exquisite, pyramid-shaped ravioli stuffed with striped bass in saffron-lobster sauce. And then there was the adorable little quail served in a steel cocotte sealed with pastry that, when cracked by our server tableside, released a heady steam scented with foie gras, bird, and mushroom.
Calmels' quenelles, however, were the epitome of bistro ugly.
The artful oval spoon-scoops of fish mousse glazed in rosy seafood cream I'd aspired to at cooking school in France were nowhere to be seen. This long, singular quenelle looked more like a well-broiled sponge, bobbing in a gratin dish of rust-brown cream that still bubbled and hissed from the salamander's heat.
But when I sliced off a morsel and took a bite - the sensation was a wonder. It evaporated in my mouth like a cloud. The richness of ground pike, whipped carefully with tempered eggs, butter, flour, and cream, hand-rolled and poached just enough to set, then broiled ("Lyon bistro style"), simply melted from my fork into an ethereal seafood memory. Must. Eat. More. Now. The bisquey sauce, intensified from the heat and with a faint cayenne spark, was the essence of lobster luxury. I wanted to lick the crock.
Bistro ugly is the new beautiful.
Not that Calmels really cares: "It's what I grew up with in Lyon. And I love these classics."
Of course, almost no one cooks this way anymore, in part because doing classics the right way is labor-intensive and elusively intuitive to master. The food he's cooking at Le Chéri is so unfashionable, dishes like blood pudding (subtle with cinnamon and allspice, and reminiscent of a moist chocolate cake) and rabbit ballotine (carefully deboned, then restuffed into a cylinder wrapped by its skin, poached, roasted, and served over chestnut spaetzle) have more in common with Escoffier than with the haute-cuisine polish he applied to tasting menus at Le Bec-Fin and Restaurant Daniel.
It shares the same heartbeat, of course, with Bibou, the tiny South Philadelphia BYOB where he and Charlotte, patrolling the dining room with take-no-prisoners charm and a reservation book to lock down regulars, created what is now one of Philly's most coveted reservations.
As Bibou drifted over the years into more rarefied four-bell status, though, the classic bistro spirit that was its initial impetus inevitably evolved into more refined ingredients and presentations.
Longtime chef de cuisine Ron Fougeray continues to run that ship, with constant input from Pierre on menus and specials. But Pierre has clearly reconnected with his love of bistro food off Rittenhouse Square in the Art Alliance's Italianate mansion, a necklace of three small rooms with 60-plus seats (including the bar) ringing a secluded garden that can be glorious in fair weather.
Many contenders have fizzled here. But Le Chéri is its best chance to date.
The space has its own Old Philly elegance. And while it is pleasant enough, it still needs some warming (and sound-proofing) tweaks - a big Oriental rug in the main room, maybe, with a central piece of furniture for bread and wine service?
Someday, perhaps. But Charlotte, having mastered the efficiency of a 35-seat BYO, is already reveling in the gravy of a liquor license, only modestly marking up her 100-label French wine list less than twice her cost for each bottle (versus the triple markups more common in town). All the more encouragement to explore some uncommon finds, like a lovely mid-weight Rolly pinot noir unexpectedly from Alsace ($53) or a bright La Pierre Savagnin from Côtes du Jura ($49), or to splurge on a serious white Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Vieux Telegraphe ($124).
But the biggest benefit here is the added capacity for seats, more than double Bibou, with 14 at the cozy bar reserved nightly for walk-ins.
The audience to date appears to be of a silver-haired generation that connects more easily with such classic fare. But younger eaters and cooks, many of whom were steeped in a decade when French cuisine was no longer king, owe it to themselves to learn what it tastes like from a master's hand.
I can't remember a better steak tartare than Le Chéri's finely diced filet, edgy with Dijon and glossed with raw yolk, mounded atop the crispy potato lattice of fresh gaufrette chips. The onion soup is deeply sweet from onions caramelized for hours, but balanced with wine and stock, then sealed beneath the nutty tang of molten Comte. Familiar steak-frites gets an upgrade with earthy bavette (flat sirloin) and shallots soaked in Marchand de Vin gravy. The potatoes "Darphin," crispy rails of shredded spuds in clarified butter, are the hash-brown sticks of my dreams. The choucroute is a classic crock of kraut beer-stewed to brown with bacon, foie gras fat, and house-made duck-pork sausage, then topped with a crispy blade of braised pork belly and mildly salted but flavorful duck confit.
I didn't love the escargots, a snail dish in parsley butter with cauliflower that lacked personality. And as much as I enjoyed the deep flavor of the boeuf bourguignon, our whole short rib (vs. the usual smaller morsels) was a little mushy.
Calmels' talent with foie gras, though, remains in full force with a new classic: an unpressed lobe that he poaches to a perfect creamy pink in port with Sichuan peppercorns. Foie gras also replaces the marrow in Bibou's legendary mushroom stuffing, which, instead of filling marrow bones, plumps the little quail in cocotte.
It was one of a couple of nightly specials served nightly au guéridon - at tableside. The other not to miss is the two-pound dorade for sharing, baked in a whimsically designed salt-pastry crust that looked something like a giant goldfish cracker until our quiet but professional server expertly removed the fillets. Set beside a bright lemon butter sauce with a tiny roasted eggplant and tomato stuffed with rice, the perfectly steamed fish was pristine.
The servers, somewhat sedate (and hard to hear) beside Charlotte's big personality, need to bring a notch more energy to these lively rooms - especially when she begins to divide her time more equally between the two restaurants.
I also hope they'll soon upgrade the quality of the cheese plate. But the desserts, from a moist pear Charlotte (pastry pun intended?) to a crème brulée infused with Chartreuse and a choux-pastry Paris-Brest ring filled with hazelnut praline cream, clearly hit the spot.
Because when Pierre walked into the back room at evening's end, his chef's coat lightly marked with the traces of quenelles and other labor-of-love classics, his guests broke into applause.
251 S. 18th St.,
Pierre and Charlotte Calmels embrace a true bistro spirit (and a liquor license!) in an elegant Art Alliance restaurant more than twice the size of their tiny Bibou. The food is a shade less expensive and refined than at its four-bell sibling, but Pierre resurrects French classics from quenelles to boudin noir with such passion, the icons of Larousse Gastronomique taste fresh again. The noisy space still feels unfinished, but a welcome sense of accessibility — both seats (first come, first served at the bar, plus garden seating) and low markups on the French wine list — means more can experience the Calmels’ special magic.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Steak tartare; French onion soup; cream cheese ravioli with truffles; salad Lyonnaise; poached foie gras; cobia gravlax; boudin noir; bavette steak-frites; fish ravioli; rabbit ballotine; arctic char; quenelles; choucroute; salt-crusted whole fish; foie gras-stuffed quail; gateau Paris-Brest; triple mousse au chocolate.
DRINK About 100 labels of French (and some Swiss) wines anchor a list representing most regions of France at extremely fair prices; markups average only 75 percent of the bottle cost. Explore some great values (Dufeu Bourgueil, $46; Rolly pinot noir d’Alsace, $53; Maby Lirac, $53; La Pierre Cotes du Jura, $49; Corsin St. Véran Vielles Vignes, $55) or splurge for P. Rion Chambolle-Musigny 2011 ($126) or Corton Grand Cru from Domaine Chandon de Briailles 2008 ($198). There’s also a French craft beer list worth exploring, and artfully balanced cocktails (Sazerac, Moulin Rouge) made with French spriits.
WEEKEND NOISE The front room, at 88 decibels, is slightly quieter than the 93-decibel back room. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 5-10:30 p.m.
All major cards.
Reservations required for dining rooms, but 14-seat bar is walk-in only.
Wheelchair accessible (with advance notice for portable ramp).
Street parking only.
Charlotte and Pierre Calmels discuss Le Chéri at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Farm & Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill.