Monday, April 5, 2010

Madison Time Out: Philadelphia's Bibou

Photography by Cydney Alexis

One of my favorite things about traveling to Philadelphia to visit my friend David is that he generally plans the whole weekend in advance, which not only reflects research and planning but is really quite touching. He sends me a proposed itinerary a couple of weeks before with suggestions for where we'll eat, drink, and listen to music. This time, I let him fully run the show, and I'm most grateful for his having introduced me to Philadelphia's restaurant Bibou.

If you are ever in Philadelphia, it is worth planning your trip around this restaurant that is up for the James Beard Best New Restaurant award and that is run by French-born and trained Pierre Calmels (also a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic) and his wife, Charlotte.

Bibou is utterly charming, from its modest size to its simple decor to the way that Charlotte Calmels' graceful and elegant presence in the front of the house makes you feel that you are invited into something special. Chef Calmels also takes the time to greet all tables during their meal--we used our time  to ask him about his preparation of a show-stopping bone marrow dish we ate as a middle course.

Part of what makes Philly dining different than Madison and many cities is the BYOB culture that has been imposed due to the difficulty of procuring a liquor license. This enabled us (by which I mean David and Matt) to bring four bottles of quite wonderful reds (without a corking fee) and really experience traditional French cuisine the way it was intended.

Bibou purposefully keeps its menu intimate, like the restaurant. For the first course, I was torn between the fish bisque and escargots. We were nervous that the escargots prep would be traditional and, hence, signify butter more than anything else (not a bad thing, but we all saw this as a chance to step out of our usual culinary zone), but Matt took the dive and ended up with what was my favorite first course.

The escargot are cooked with mushrooms and tarragon and, hence, still retain a slightly meaty flavor from the former and a lightness from the latter that I've never associated with escargot. The bisque was not my favorite until the addition of the provided cream, which added a tang to the bisque that complemented the fish well.

As a middle course, we went with a bone marrow stuffing (marrow cooked with seasonal mushrooms and butter) that was out of this world and a foie gras that reminded me how so often it is the complexity of texture, even more than flavor, that makes a dish. The foie gras was served with a special bread and braised peaches, and, eaten together, the effect was remarkable. This foie was the most tender I've experienced it, and when it hit the tongue, it popped gently like roe. The flavors of this dish unfolded slowly, leaving the strongest suggestion of foie at the very end.

I made a mistake with my entree and did not order the halibut with cherry tomato and blood orange emulsion, a strange choice for me, since I usually order by my favorite ingredients (tomatoes and fruity fish sauces, in this case). Instead, I ordered a hangar steak with some of the most well-cut and cooked asparagus I've eaten--they left a hint of bitterness and crunch that worked well against the beef's tenderness.

David and Matt loved the pigs' feet cooked over lentils, and Kandace loved her sea bass with sage emulsion.

I had told my dining companions that the one French dessert I truly cannot resist is chocolate mousse, and so I easily caved in to dessert after our cheese course and ordered the mousse that was coincidentally on the menu. It was divine, a little more firm and dark than many mousses, a departure I enjoyed.

What made this night truly special were my dining companions, three close friends, food-lovers, and great conversationalists. We all reveled in the dinner knowing that we were there to savor each dish and moment of the meal. It is always a blessing to eat in that company (even though poor Kandace was still keeping kosher for Passover and had to pass over some of the best parts of the meal).

One gets the sense at Bibou, though, that we experienced a dinner just as the Calmels intended it: close, studied, and enjoyed.

And, as you'll see if you look at Bibou's seasonal menu (though the pigs' feet and boeuf tend to be staples, as Charlotte informed us), the prices are reasonable for food this remarkable.

Stay tuned for Madison Time Out, part two. The nature of Bibou demanded a post of its own.

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