Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bibou, Philadelphia

This Wednesday was supposed to be road-trip day, followed by date-night. Fortunately we had the awkward conversation that let us conclude mutually conclude that the road-trip idea was batshit crazy. Thus evening saw us capping a quiet day by dressing up a notch and navigating the historic streets of Center City PhilaPA to get down to the grubbier areas of South Philly.

Wherein lies one of Philadelphia's best restaurants, Bibou. Seriously - never heard of this place, but I found it by googling "Philadelphia's Best Restaurants". In my snobbery, I must admit that I was less excited by the fact that it's a bistro. You can visit some seriously excellent bistros in Tokyo, no lie. But most of the rest of that purported best-of was taken up by the garrisons of Stephen Starr and Marc Vetri, and honestly, who needs that?

I said as much to Charlotte, who laughed in her bewitching way before continuing to squeeze us for more information on our travel and domestic circumstances while we waited at the counter for our table (restaurants of America, tight bookings suck). Here's Pierre through the pass. He's a tall man.

A lot of the other staff was Latino, including our waiter. Just saying that makes me feel a little bad. I now come from a country (Japan) where racial diversity is nonexistent, so I admit to being a little surprised by how knowledgeable he was about the menu and how excellent his serving style was. It's probably because he has a Japanese wife (really). Funny how your perceptions can change so slowly and subtly. Sorry about that. I'm doing penance.

The first part of the excellent service was to drop off some pretty good bread and a whole round of Echire butter. Hello. There are restaurants in Tokyo that serve Echire butter. They charge $5-7 for it. Thanks Bibou!

Bibou's full name includes "BYOB", and their customers take it seriously. Really seriously. Since we weren't drinking, we had plenty of time and mental capacity to watch other tables. On average, they brought in one bottle of wine per person. Who's driving? The ability to BYO also seems to make people crazy in other ways. The guys at the table on the left had at least 4 bottles in their customized carrying cases, including a bottle of Chateau Margaux. Not Pavillion, the real thing. As I see it, there's little chance that was less than a $500 bottle. This is totally out of proportion to the food, which looks like this:

Chicken ballotine with waffle. Sorta like a chicken that's deboned and partially de-meated, rolled up around a chicken mousse with a misleadingly-small nubbin of foie gras in the middle (misleading because it was mentioned on the menu but almost MIA on the plate). A light, tasty dish, and entirely appropriate as a summer starter.

We got three starters, because they looked good and because we could. The portions were fine to support this. If you have an American-sized appetite, you could probably eat even more than we did. Note that we mostly skipped lunch, however.

Someone is newer to the bistro genre, and thus has yet to make it past the foie-and-confit stage. (Which I fully understand, having spent something like 5 years in it myself.) On the other hand, when a starter is two ravioli in a rich, meaty sauce, and each raviolo contains its own puck of pure, melty foie gras, why would you want to grow out of that stage?

I felt like I had to get the snails; they seem to be a signature item, arriving as they do in this snail-shaped plate. The fava beans are good for both taste and texture contrast, and the sauce was terrific. You could say the plate is gimmicky, but I think the dish would be just as good in a cup, and why not add some fun, you grump? The strength of Pierre's cooking seems to be when he takes a bistro standard (snails) and confounds your expectations (garlic butter) to produce something interesting while still as hearty and satisfying as the genre demands.

The fish cookery here (wild striped bass, per the menu) is good if not quite as transcendent as you might hope, but the rest of the plate will make you sit up. The morels under the fish were incredible - they beat the nuts off the morels we had at the world's 24th-best restaurant 10 days later. The little flan on the right is green peas and bacon, the latter ingredient not obvious until you eat the custard. Nice stuff, and I'm glad I ordered it.

On the other hand, I got to eat a lot of the soft-shell crabs too, because they turned out to be challenging for someone. I expected to dislike them and kept discouraging her order, but then I ended up not minding them. She loved the fruit-corn salsa hidden underneath though.

We skipped the chocolate trio dessert - they're like bungholes, every menu has one - in favor of something equally classic but with more potential to surprise and delight. And we were appropriately surprised and delighted by the quality of the fruit tart. Simple, done right, quality fruit garnish.

Even when simple and done right, madeleines are a frustrating thing - they're best right out of the pan, and go on a steady downhill after that. The macaroons were better - the coconut confection, not les macarons.

I can't help thinking that if this is best Philadelphia has to's a good bistro, a nifty genre twist, and the service stands out as excellent (I'd even like to say 'world class', which is excessive but well-meant). You should be happy if you get to go here. We walked out feeling very pleasant, and would happily go back about once a month.

I suppose getting wasted on Margaux adds some excitement to the experience too.
(215) 965-8290


  1. We are glad you are safely back to Japan. We were wondering what was wrong with the soft shell crab. (Some)one would have to get over the appearance (which we admit is daunting) and dig into it. It is one of the best foods there is. Welcome back. Wait that does not sound right.

  2. It seems the texture is disturbingly in-between. Someone loves nankotsu and soft things, but the crabs are strangely crunchy. Me, I didn't like the previously-frozen ones I'd had in the past, but fresh ones were good.