By going prix-fixe, Bibou has been liberated to evolve into something more refined

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Pierre and Charlotte Calmels of Bibou.

What landed before me at Bibou was so stunning, I did a double take.

A miniature hot-air balloon, fashioned from a squash blossom inflated with steamed arctic char mousse and jewels of trout roe, looked so light as it hovered over a misty cloud of sea urchin cream that I held my fork at the ready to keep it from flying away.

It did not last long.

Like so many of the lovely creations coming from the prolific imagination of Pierre Calmels, they exist only for a moment on his ever-changing weekly tasting menus before disappearing, rarely to return.

I understand the frustration of longtime Bibou fans who didn’t like losing the option of a predictable à la carte menu.

And for a long time, that is exactly what Bibou was — an intimate French BYOB where wine collectors brought their liquid treasures to accompany a well-loved repertoire of bistro hits in their highest form, from a swirly plate of escargots to a marrow bone stuffed with chanterelles and foie gras in its myriad charms.

But with a larger, second restaurant with a liquor license now on Rittenhouse Square in Le Chéri to serve Calmels’ polished classics (quenelles, choucroute, beef tartare), seven-year-old Bibou has been liberated to evolve into something more refined.

And, in many ways, more special.

The already tiny South Philly space has shrunk its capacity from 32 to 20 seats, which are now cushier and better lighted. The service, now run mostly by general manager Jeffrey Gillespie (while Charlotte oversees Le Chéri), is still engaged and polished.

It’s open only four nights, and (annoyingly) takes only cash for the $100 eight-course menu.

But that means Calmels is always in the kitchen with sous Andrew Fox. And if there’s a kitchen that’s earned my trust to cook what they want, this is one.

From the inventive little amuse-bouches that jump-started our appetites (truffled cream cheese tartlets, gougéres stuffed with chicken liver mousse and figs, saffron-skate rillettes), I was wowed by the subtle refinements of Calmels’ evolving haute cuisine. A chilled mussel consommé turned liquid ruby with beets was poured over a pinwheel cannelloni filled with silky scallop mousse. The mildness of steamed cod was sparked by a piquant thread of anchovy pulled through its flesh. Leg of lamb with fiddlehead ferns took on an exotic, earthy sweetness from a gluten-free sauce thickened with pureed red rice. The familiar luxury of filet mignon became more interesting alongside a pithivier pastry dome stuffed with soulful braised oxtail.

When dessert came and a warm créme anglaise made from tangy goat’s milk was poured tableside into an apricot soufflé, it literally did rise for a moment from its dish.

Spoon at the ready, and my admiration for Bibou as true as ever, I quickly made it disappear.


Bibou

1009 S. Eighth St., Philadelphia; 215-965-8290, www.biboubyob.com.

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 haute-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.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

(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.

DRINKS

BYOB. Think French, and bring the best your cellar has to offer.

IF YOU GO

Wednesday through Saturday; seatings begin at 5:30 p.m.

Cash only and fixed price for 7 courses: $100 per person, plus tax, tip, and wines.

Reservations recommended.

Street and municipal lot parking only.