What landed before me at Bibou was so stunning, I did a double take. A miniature hot-air balloon, fashioned from a squash blossom inflated with steamed arctic char mousse and jewels of trout roe, looked so light as it hovered over a misty cloud of sea urchin cream that I held my fork at the ready to keep it from flying away.
It did not last long. Like so many of the lovely creations coming from the prolific imagination of Pierre Calmels, they exist only for a moment on his ever-changing weekly tasting menus before disappearing, rarely to return.
I understand the frustration of longtime Bibou fans who didn't like losing the option of a predictable à la carte menu. And for a long time, that is exactly what Bibou was — an intimate French BYOB where wine collectors brought their liquid treasures to accompany a well-loved repertoire of bistro hits in their highest form, from a swirly plate of escargots to a marrow bone stuffed with chanterelles and foie gras in its myriad charms.
But with a larger, second restaurant with a liquor license now on Rittenhouse Square in Le Chéri to serve Calmels' polished classics (quenelles, choucroute, beef tartare), Bibou has been liberated to evolve into something more refined. And, in many ways, more special.
The already tiny South Philly space has shrunk its capacity from 32 to 20 seats, which are now cushier and better lighted. The service, now run mostly by general manager Jeffrey Gillespie (while Charlotte oversees Le Chéri), is still engaged and polished. It's open only four nights, and (smartly) did away with its cash-only policy to now accept credit for the $115 eight-course menu. But that also means Calmels is always in the kitchen with one of his longtime sous chefs. And if there's a kitchen that's earned my trust to cook what they want, this is one.
From the inventive little amuse-bouches that jump-started our appetites (truffled cream cheese tartlets, gougères stuffed with chicken liver mousse and figs, saffron-skate rillettes), I was wowed by the subtle refinements of Calmels' evolving haute cuisine. A chilled mussel consommé turned liquid ruby with beets was poured over a pinwheel cannelloni filled with silky scallop mousse. The mildness of steamed cod was sparked by a piquant thread of anchovy pulled through its flesh.
Leg of lamb with fiddlehead ferns took on an exotic, earthy sweetness from a gluten-free sauce thickened with pureed red rice. The familiar luxury of filet mignon became more interesting alongside a pithivier pastry dome stuffed with soulful braised oxtail.
When dessert came and a warm crème anglaise made from tangy goat's milk was poured tableside into an apricot soufflé, it literally did rise from its dish for a moment. Spoon at the ready, and my admiration for Bibou as true as ever, I quickly made it disappear.