Bibou, Philadelphia.

November 2013.

What a find! This city generally is lovely and of an accessible size, distinct from New York and Chicago. The taxis are cheap and you can get from the center to anywhere downtown for about $10. There is a strange liquor authority reminiscent of home resulting in a lot of BYOB restaurants which presumably had to opt not to get liquor licenses, which presumably is permitted.

This is one of them. It’s located on an obscure residential intersection and is a small room with I think about 40 seats, a bar accommodating two. Walking in you are immediately comforted. It’s a green-walled small room with linen-covered tables and light chairs, all set with cutlery and glasses strongly suggesting met needs. The clientele is intense, well-dressed and well-behaved, and actively talking but not making the same kind of crazy noise you can’t avoid in a place like The Girl and the Goat in Chicago.  We settle in happily.

Waiter is a delightful kid who knows what he’s talking about, and is quite happy to volunteer his enthusiasm for certain dishes distinct from others. He takes the wine in its paper bags and asks, “What are we drinking tonight?”, examining the bottles with interest and taking them away. He describes the specials in detail and gives his opinions.

The bread is fresh and the butter wrapped in foil is a special French product full of dairy flavor and plenty of salt. The first course arrives. Robin’s tuna tartare is flavored with herbs, sat beside a sour wilted spinach, and completely tender and lovely. Mine is roasted tripe in a one-person terrine, gooey and flavorful, cooked in a tomato liquid with crispy breadcrumbs on top. Possibly I would have preferred, balancing the tomato, a little more of the mellow meat mouth sensation, but I had to search for that quibble.

Mains are a pan-fried walleye, and roasted pig’s foot containing foie gras and afloat in Puy lentils with a few carrots. Walleye is the East Coast and interior fish comparable to my favorite, Alaska black cod, oily and packed with flavor. It  is perfectly cooked and delicious, somehow imbued with garlic and other substance beyond the orderly white fish flakes. The pig’s foot definitely reminds me of the tripe, a lovely perfectly-seasoned combination of crisp and gooey, full of pork flavor if not obviously packed with any foie gras taste as well.

There is a little pear tart that is a huge come-down from for example Olivier Lebeau. But you can’t do everything and Olivier certainly couldn’t have put on a perfect high-class French bistro show the way our host did. He appeared at the table, happily spoke French with us, and described his origins in Lyon as well as plans to expand his restaurant soon.

Philadelphia is lucky to have this guy and in a certain way he is lucky to be here too. But I don’t know how he survives. This dinner cost almost exactly $100 pre-tip, not counting the $65 worth of retail wine we picked up (a French rousanne and a 2007 barolo, both quite delightful and connecting with the above dishes very nicely). It’s ridiculous based on our experience to pay that little for such a dinner. We really were delighted even though this was bistro-level French cooking, with no pretension to haute cuisine. One of the best experiences of this two-week food-oriented holiday in American cities.

Ambience 8.8, food 8.7, service 8.7, value 9.6.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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