The power of suggestion is great when you hang a nuzzly pig on a sign over the awning-trimmed facade of a French bistro called Cochon.
So chef Gene Giuffi shouldn't be too surprised that it's tough to sell the roasted quail special at Cochon (which essentially says "oink!" in French), his three-month-old successor to Cafe Sud at the corner of Catharine Street and Passyunk Avenue.
"I can't seem to sell poultry at this restaurant," he groused.
That my quail was delightful, stuffed with wild boar sausage and roasted to a juicy crisp beside tiny pickled turnips and baby mustard greens, is a nice bonus. It's also a good sign for a BYOB with aspirations to explore all the major food groups of the Gallic tradition.
But in this recent wave of rebounding interest in the French bistro, where the house-braised pork belly is an expected flourish from any worthy chef, Giuffi had better put up when it comes to the pig. And he does just that.
The cochon cameos are frequent and effective on this small, appealing menu. Among the most memorable were the sublimely tender 12-hour roasted pork shoulder. Those bay-scented morsels of garlicky meat came scattered atop a soulful bowl of roasted brussels sprouts and bacon-braised Puy lentils topped with a white balloon of soft-poached egg.
The poached egg as sauce was shamelessly trendy. But I like Giuffi's penchant for bold flavors, which enliven even a simple grilled pork chop with an earthy celery-root hash ginned up with a splash of juniper oil. For true pig geeks, the homemade head cheese is a must, a mosaic of tenderly stewed pink meats (feet, tongue, cheek, and crunchy shreds of ear) encased in medallions of aspic flavored with exotic pickling spice that rings with nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. It's served alongside a mini-mason jar of mustard and cornichons, so just think of it as chunky pâté.
This gusto for spare-part cooking is bound to elicit comparisons to the now-closed Pif, the cozy and ambitious French BYO that launched David Ansill's star in the nearby Italian Market. Giuffi, a Brooklyn native who worked at Sonoma, Davio's, ¡Pasion!, and La Boheme, says that replacing Pif as South Philly's go-to French spot was not necessarily his inspiration. But Cochon's rustic cooking has a simplicity and focus that reminds me very much of Pif's early days.
The oddly angled space, which Giuffi and his wife, Amy, converted with the help of designer Adam Zangrilli, exudes a classic bistro romance. The weathered mosaic of old subway tile floors and pressed tin walls, uncovered from beneath Sheetrock during construction, is deftly updated with a shiny open kitchen and modern earth tones.
All those hard surfaces, of course, stoke an ear-numbing din. This is true even though many of Cochon's patrons are on the senior side, like those silver-haired wine collectors who arrive brandishing bottles of grand cru Bordeaux worth more than this entire menu of $23 entrees put together.
Cochon's blue-shirted servers - no doubt one of the few BYO staffs anywhere to sport a semblance of a uniform - have just the right note of formality (without too much starch) to present the menu with a tone of sophistication. The glassware is also quite good, having been purchased from ¡Pasion's! going-out-of-business sale.
And yet, there were a number of details and small disappointments to remind that Cochon is still working out some early kinks.
The French onion soup, one of those deceptively difficult dishes (it takes hours of patience to caramelize those onions, great broth, and real cheese), was pale and weak of flavor. A puny crouton topped with low-grade Swiss sank to an insipidly soggy ooze, where the tang of a good Gruyere and a raft of crusty bread might have saved it. The snails were unexpectedly bland, lost in a dark morass of mushrooms and butter that tasted too meekly of the advertised Pernod.
A couple of dishes were halfway great, like the scallops with caper brown butter that would have been wonderful had the squishy bottom sides been seared as well as the tops. The wild striped bass was also a magnificent piece of fish - beautifully crisped, meaty and moist. Unfortunately, its saffron risotto had a thin texture and an overly acidic tang that did the fish no justice.
Cochon also expends next to no creative effort on its desserts. It falls back instead on mundane renditions of old chef-cooked chestnuts like crème brulée (good one time, underwhelming the next), molten chocolate cake (center oozed one time, second night it didn't), and brought-in cheesecakes from Darling's (always good).
There were plenty of other successes, though, to make Cochon a keeper. And some of them were memorably quirky, like the hearty (and sneakily spicy) cauliflower and cabbage soup that came with a special treat of house-pickled duck gizzards (the ultimate dark meat). Or the appetizer of perfectly crisped chicken livers with raisins and walnuts that came glazed with sweet-and-sour balsamic, a variation on a cherry-pine-nut-liver dish that Giuffi learned at Davio's.
For more traditional eaters, Cochon also serves up an admirable steak-frites, a nice hunk of char-grilled garlic sausage over white beans (though the sausage isn't homemade yet), and a perfectly braised lamb shank paired with a winter medley of tiny fingerlings, rutabagas and whole mushrooms.
Cochon's best entree, though, may in fact have been the duck breast. Its skin was seared to a cracker-crisp edge around rosy moons of tender meat, which came fanned over mahogany gravy next to a ragout of white beans. Of course, those beans are larded with nubs of pork and bacon, which not only amped the flavor, but drove home a recurring theme: Even when the poultry plates fly high, pig rules the heart of dinner at Cochon.