Sunday, November 29, 2015

At Philly's Bibou, echoes of Le Bec Fin

Gallery: At Philly's Bibou, echoes of Le Bec Fin

Slap, slap, slap, slap, SLAP!!

"Sorry," said Pierre Calmels, a chef out of Center City, tucked on South Eighth Street now (for just shy of a month), pounding the dickens out of a saddle of rabbit, flattening it paper-thin, readying it for the stuffing - creating a racket.

It has been a life-altering leap for Calmels and his wife Charlotte - he the impressive former dinner chef at Le Bec-Fin, she the former manager at Georges Perrier's restaurants, and once an instructor in the finer points of hospitality at the Restaurant School.

So it would not be incorrect to observe that this is terra incognita, a strange land far from their previous life which included (for him) a stop at the celebrated Daniel in New York; and (for him and her) a hotel in Switzerland, and the rarefied precincts of Restaurant Row on Walnut Street.

But it wouldn't be quite the whole truth. In fact, Calmels had guest-cooked before in this very kitchen - on this very Vulcan stove - when it was still the French bistro called Pif. That was when Perrier cohosted a collaborative dinner there (when Pif owner David Ansill was still on the scene). And furthermore, after Pierre and Charlotte were married (at Le Bec-Fin, where a grand luncheon was served), they had tasting dinners for out-of-town family at Pif.

Thus does a rationale attach to an otherwise illogical relocation. South Eighth just north of Washington Avenue is not exactly the French Quarter. A shuttered Italian candy-and-cigarettes corner store, the color of tobacco stain, lies to the north; a series of funky Vietnamese shops and eateries spill to the south, offering cilantro-scented "hoagies" and fatty roast pork hacked from hanging carcasses. (Calmels prides himself in using all the parts of whole animals, from fish to rabbit to pig. But you can stand at the door of the Vietnamese places, as well, and have to step aside for a man hauling in a massive, gutted hog.)

Another strand of logic becomes evident as you examine Calmels' culinary journey. He is the latest in a line of chefs who have come noggin-to-noggin with the reality that there is an impenetrable ceiling at Le Bec. Peter Gilmore left and opened the eponymous Gilmore's in West Chester. Daniel Stern left and opened Gayle in Queen Village. There is room for only one supreme being at Le Bec-Fin: Georges Perrier.

The legendary Perrier came to wish Calmels bonne chance when Bibou opened, complaining only that it was too small (at 34 seats) to showcase Calmels' talent. (It is a storefront, reminiscent of the first wave of Philadelphia's chef-driven cafes, the walls painted peach by the Calmelses, and edged in smoky gray, the windows offering South Philly vistas of a chiropractic clinic and the U.S.-Vietnam Express.)

So it only follows that Bibou's offerings are resonant of the modern French dishes Calmels cooked at Le Bec. I haven't encountered Le Bec-equivalent veal medallions tiered with sweetbreads over chestnuts and celery root here. But in Bibou's decidedly French larder, sensibility, and recourse to finishing butter, one can't miss the echoes: The veal medallions here, though, come with crushed potatoes and wilted mustard greens.

Already, National Escargot Day (May 24) has been celebrated with celeriac cream infused with Earl Grey tea, snail caviar (snail eggs turn out to look like beads of Israeli couscous and taste salty, earthy, almost mushroomy); smoked duck and snail brochette; sauteed trout fillet with snail-almond sauce, and so on.

Indeed, another recent menu included a starter of nutty-flavored snails and chewy mousseron (also called "fairy ring") mushrooms with fava beans in a swirled bowl. And as befits a French restaurant, foie gras appeared seared with roasted mango, and melted in the stuffing of the braised pig feet over French green lentils so "gently smoky and lip-smackingly good," as one guest raved, that the pig could have played hooky and not been missed. The sauteed halibut with wild ramps? Cooked brilliantly, moist inside, crisp on top.

One night last week, the rabbit was to be the special, the tiny rack served with the paddled saddle, stuffed with the liver and kidneys that Calmels was sauteeing in flaming brandy. The legs would go for pate-like rillettes; the bones, for the base of a sauce.

Voila! At Bibou, the whole rabbit is used!



1009 S. Eighth St.



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or Read his recent work at

Inquirer Food Columnist
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