In a city whose taste for French cuisine was nurtured for decades by the gastronomic gleam of Le Bec-Fin, where the flash of silver domes illuminated gravity-defying crab galettes and a dream trolley of haute desserts, there’s an innate sense that French dining is primarily a luxury pursuit.
But perhaps it is finally time to embrace a classic café, the kind of neighborhood spot one can visit weekly for a French 75 and slice of country pâté, where the food is simple but honest and not much more expensive than a diner. A hearty steamer pot of tender mussels and leeks tumbled in wine and cream for $17? A croque monsieur ham and cheese layered with rich béchamel for $12? That’s what’s happening now behind the glowing neon and gauzy white curtains at the new Gabi on North Broad Street. And oui, I’m there for it — despite its frites problem.
So, too, are some members of the local French community who’ve become regulars at this latest venture from the team behind Bistrot La Minette. Look! There’s actor and comedian Wanda Sykes nibbling whole trout and tartly dressed salade Lyonnaise with her French wife, Alex Niedbalski, who’s friends with La Minette’s Peggy Baud-Woolsey. Another night, I can’t elude Charlotte Calmels, the doyenne of Bibou, who swoops by with sound advice.
“Get the beef tartare,” she whispers confidentially. “It’s the best in the city.”
I’ll be sure not to mention that to her husband, Pierre Calmels, the Lyonnais master of Bibou, whose elegant tartare at the now-closed Le Chéri used to be my favorite. For $13, though, I couldn’t name a better-quality tartare value than the one at Gabi, where coarsely diced grass-fed rib eye is sparked with minced capers, cornichons, and tiny bits of lemon, then lusciously glossed with seasoned raw egg yolk. Pile a spoonful atop a crisp of house baguette with a swipe of Dijon, and I dare you not to eat another.
Much has changed since Le Bec finally closed in 2013. And one could argue Philly’s Gallic restaurant roster is more diverse than ever, from the tasting-menu heights of contemporary Laurel and classic Bibou, to the tableside game birds of June BYOB, the charcuterie masters of Royal Boucherie and a.kitchen, the modern flights of Forsythia, and the cozy Sunday raclette and natural wines of Good King Tavern and Le Caveau. And, of course, there’s the sprawling brasserie glamour of Parc, where the sidewalk rattan seats and grand seafood plateaus are the epitome of Rittenhouse chic. But few to date have approximated the humble-but-honorable cafe spirit quite as closely as Gabi.
This appealing 100-seater from La Minette’s Peter Woolsey and his partners, chef Kenneth Bush and general manager Brad Histand, has captured a vintage look with the help of Stokes Architecture, from the art deco chandeliers to the pattern-tiled floors, zinc bar, and red banquettes rimmed with fluted glass. A moody photo montage across the back wall is made from black-and-white images shot by Peggy, who was inspired by the work of Man Ray, the Philly-born Dadaist who made his name in Paris. The friendly servers, clad in black vests and crisp white aprons, stride through the room with a little extra starch.
But the food at Gabi — the nickname of Peggy’s oldest sister, Delphine — is deliberately served with utilitarian style and value in mind, with almost all of the entrees at $21 or less. There are no polished cloches or silver snail pots here but rather steel boats filled with clouds of pommes puree or a hearty stew of boeuf bourguignon.
No matter. The vivid green splatter of fragrant herb butter bubbling up from little divots is all the fanfare escargots require. The wild Burgundian darlings are gently steeped in broth before they’re cloaked in butter and roasted to finish. The extra sweetness of roast garlic makes their earthy juices all the more irresistible to sop up with hunks of house baguette. And at $9 for a half dozen, run — don’t crawl — for a platter of these snails.
There is no froufrou fussery for the duck confit, either, a crispy leg sprouting unadorned, like a brown handle, from a simple white plate rimmed with blue. But the airy crackle of its fat-roasted skin and the rich savor of its tender flesh, cured with salt and herbs, was a soulful nod to French home cooking. The satisfying $21 meal is complete with a cruet of orange sauce for sweet-tart contrast, a side boat of mashed potatoes, and green beans flecked with shallots.
This determined affordability is smart for a restaurant in a new building that’s filling a once-vacant lot on North Broad Street. The strip’s finally bubbling with revival, with the new Met drawing evening business. Diners still unused to grabbing dinner north of City Hall can be coaxed into new habits with bistro fare priced right, along with Italian options at Osteria and Cicala (at the freshly rehabbed Divine Lorraine), plus South, Santucci’s, and healthy-minded Green Soul.
I would have loved to have a go-to crock of French onion soup across the street from my former office in the old Inquirer building just across Broad. I also certainly would have grumbled plenty at some of Gabi’s shortcomings as it makes compromises to hit its price point.
And my primary complaint — the lackluster fries — is significant considering an entire section of the menu called “Frites” is anchored by heaps of the pale skin-on spuds. Cooked from frozen (with telltale mealy centers), they lacked an essential finishing crisp.
Bush and Woolsey anguished over whether to make theirs fresh, a seemingly obvious choice for a place that bothers to make its own baguettes. But that would require prep space for this volume that Gabi’s small kitchen doesn’t have: “Thomas Keller uses frozen fries at Bouchon!” says Woolsey, noting the legendary Napa chef.
Perhaps. But these bland impostors aren’t even close. I’ve had better from cheesesteak takeout windows. The frustration is that these flabby frites detract from the starring centerpieces they accompany. The mussels have the added bonus of that creamy, herb-blasted seafood broth to bolster the flavor. The tawny half of roast chicken, whose firm flesh was moist and flavorful thanks to a brine, was a fair deal for $17 alongside its rich jus infused with rosemary.
The two steak options — a half-pound bistro steak (culotte) for $25 and l’entrecôte (rib eye) for $29 — were also solid for the price, especially the grilled rib eye, which gets an extra gloss with garlic-thyme butter to finish. Gabi’s “tartiflette” burger, which also comes topped with optional frites, is also a worthy red-meat option with caramelized onions and smoky nuggets of lardon bacon. It would have been even better had its brawny Reblochon garnish not been reduced to a diluted drizzle rather an actual slice of the legendary mountain cheese.
The crispy-skinned salmon with lemon-caper butter was also a bit of a shrug due to its generic, farm-raised mildness. Fish lovers should opt instead for raw salmon, diced into a zesty tartare with lemon, olive oil, and shallots. Or even better, try the excellent $20 whole trout, whose white flesh was moist and flaky beneath the delicate snap of its pan-crisped skin, and whose potatoes arrived in the comfort of buttery mash.
If you’re hoping for French bistro cooking that hits all the subtle details — a truly paper-thin chicken paillard, a beef stew with gravy that isn’t sticky with roux, or a French onion soup with a more generous edge-to-edge lid of broiled Comté — you may realize how spoiled we’ve become by Parc’s high-level mastery of the canon. A meal there, however, will set you back considerably more than it will at Gabi.
Gabi’s virtues rise on more quotidian pleasures. Like the very drinkable list of vins de table for $10 a glass. Or a foie gras terrine so smooth with its backbeat of Madeira, it spreads like butter over brioche with a sweet dab of fig compote (actually, the terrine mostly is butter). Or Woolsey’s coveted crème brûlée, whose sheer caramel crust shatters at the tap of a fork to reveal a deep scoop of silky vanilla custard.
When such luxuries are the affordable daily norm on North Broad Street, you know we’ve come a long way from the special-occasion fuss of our Le Bec-Fin roots — and that’s the kind of progress everyone can savor.