A Hamburger Today
Philadelphia: A Perfect French Bistro Meal at Bibou with Foie Gras, Bone Marrow, and More
Sometimes I think I'm over French bistro food, and then I eat at a place like this that reminds me what all the fuss is about.
Bibou is a teeny French BYO tucked into a corner of South Philly just a block over from the Italian Market. Its owners, Charlotte and Pierre Calmels, who took over the old Pif space two and half years ago, run a cozy, charming mom-and-pop operation. The front of the house is hers, the back is his, and they communicate with one another through the picture window cut out behind the two-seater bar, where I sat with my dad last week.
The menu is small (five apps, five entrées) and smart: a classic French foundation subtly overlaid with gutsy, imaginative tweaks that set this bistro apart from most others. And everything—right down to the amount of dressing on the salad greens—is perfectly executed.
We started with small teardrop-shaped bowls of the celariac soup ($9 for the regular portion): a satiny, clean-tasting purée of the gnarly root vegetable enriched with earthy chestnut. A gracious nod to fall without feeling like a heavy cold-weather soup.
Of course, there was foie gras. That night, the rotating preparation was a twofer ($18): on one side of the rectangular platter, thick slabs of gorgeously seared liver perched on a lavender-scented, deeply caramelized Seckel pear; on the other, a foie "crème brûlée," that was as light as it was rich.
Our other appetizer, the arctic char gravlax ($13), turned out to be the perfect counterpoint to the decadent foie. Pared into a perfect brunoise with tart apple and cucumber, the cured fish was dabbed with rosemary and Meyer lemon, wrapped in a translucent cucumber slab, and crowned with green-tipped apple batons and delicately dressed greens. Alongside, a cluster of deep orange roe (all their red dots meticulously pointed face up) and a rolled spoonful of glossy white lentil purée—one of my favorite bites of the meal.
Pierre often runs a bone marrow special, which we gluttonously ordered as a third "appetizer." (It was only the night before Thanksgiving. Not like we'd be eating heavily the next day or anything.) For anyone who's a bit squeamish about ordering a sawed-in-half bone and relishing its insides like Leopold Bloom, this is a friendlier—and, to me, more palatable—preparation. Rather than roasting the split bones so that the gelatinous marrow softens enough to smear on toast, Calmels works it into a breadcrumb stuffing that he spoons back into the bones and broils until crispy. Nevermind versions with oysters and sausage and chestnuts. This is hands-down the richest (but surprisingly light) stuffing you'll ever eat, and that's before you tear into the accompanying fried potatoes.
My seared duck breast entrée ($28) might have been the best of its kind I've ever had. Over a sauté of chopped yu choy and springy chanterelles, and under a handful of house-fried purple potato chips, the meat was perfectly medium-rare leaking just a bit of fresh juice into the pool of red wine duck jus. A gorgeous old-school meets new-school mashup of classic bistro fare.
By chance, we had an "intermezzo" course. Just because they like to share new and interesting bites with their guests, Charlotte and Pierre brought out an oval-shaped, kumquat-sized item, placed it on the dessert menu in front of me, and told us to guess what it was. Two tries later, I correctly identified a finger lime (I'd recently tasted one for the first time, and loved it). She split open the thick skin and squeezed out the tiny beads, which pop like caviar and taste a bit like lemongrass. It cleaned up our palates before we dug into our shared dessert: a no-frills quince crumble, plus pairs of gratis coconut macaroons and snow-white meringues.
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.