Great restaurateurs will come and go, often despite their virtues. But special restaurant spaces, it seems, can have an almost magical ability to survive.
How else to explain the second lightning strike that has landed yet another French star - the new Bibou - for the tiny corner room at Kimball and South Eighth Streets?
The first strike here occurred in 2001, of course, when David Ansill and his French-born wife, Catherine Gilbert-Ansill, opened Pif, the adventurous bistro that was one of the early gems of our BYOB revolution. It was a sad day when it closed two years ago. But it was simply as if this cozy room - so content to be used with such bold and personal culinary ambition - had taken out a want ad in the restaurant cosmos seeking a worthy replacement:
Charming shoebox BYO in Italian Market with good Gallic vibes seeks talented couple, preferably French, to serve stuffed pig's feet and bone marrow to region's best wine collectors.
The chances of such a match were slim. But this unpretentious 32-seater hit the voilà! jackpot when Pierre Calmels and his wife, Charlotte, walked through the door. Calmels, you see, is one of the region's finest French cooks, fresh off eight years in Le Bec-Fin's kitchen, the last five as its executive chef.
But there would be no polished silver bells or tuxedoed servers for this unpretentious little room. And neither would Calmels, 37, have behind him the brigades of sous-chefs, bakers, and pastry artisans that are the minions of haute cuisine. That rare gastronomic air has been his world since leaving his Loire hometown for culinary palaces such as Les Crayères in Reims and Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan.
No, this cozy space, with its mustard-and-gray walls, bentwood chairs, and crisp white curtains, is a true bistro by birthright. So Calmels and his longtime Le Bec sous, Ron Fougeray, produce it all, down to the flour-dusted loaves of crispy baguette they bake each day and serve with little foil-wrapped packs of Échiré butter. And Charlotte, a Brasserie Perrier and Bistro St. Tropez alum, runs the dining room with a personal charm and well-trained grace. Her frequent glances from the table back toward "my husband," who's framed through the kitchen window in cool but constant cooking motion, are a sweet reminder that Bibou is a genuine throwback - not just to the Ansills and Philly's myriad other BYO couples, but to the long tradition of mom-and-pop bistros of France.
All that hands-on attention, though, really pays off when the food arrives. A spiral-grooved dish brings a swirl of tender escargot in garlicky Bordelaise gravy that snaps with the freshness of tender green favas and earthy wild mushrooms. Perfectly seared day-boat scallops crackle beside a lemony froth of pureed tomatillos, avocado, and shaved fennel ribbons. And for adventure eaters, there are platters bearing long bones that have been sliced in half lengthwise and stuffed like dugout canoes with chunks of veal marrow, garlicky breadcrumbs, and woodsy chanterelles.
The bone-marrow entree is caveman cuisine at its most decadent, and so primally good, it's like eating Satan's stuffing. It's almost as if Pif - known for Ansill's spare-parts cookery - never really quite left.
Judging by all the chummy tables lined with BYO trophy wines (labels conspicuously turned out to show legendary grand cru names of '82 Bordeaux and subscription-list Napa cult houses), Bibou has clearly inherited the devoted wine groups that made Pif their vinous playpen. Bibou, at least, has a better collection of fine stemware.
There's a reason wine-lovers enjoy Calmels' food. It isn't fussy or overcomplicated. But compared with the numerous wannabe French bistros that have recently cropped up, the flavors here are in pitch-perfect register, with such polished confidence in the execution, ingredient pairings, and sauces that at times it seems effortlessly good.
When Calmels gets hold of great ingredients such as true French chanterelles, he lets them be the star, not a garnish sideshow. Sauteed to an earthy snap, they're served simply in a saddle-shaped bowl, glazed in a tawny cream touched with Madeira and chive that is completely addictive. A gorgeous sirloin of lamb had an expertly seared crust around its vividly red center, atop tiny southern French white coco beans and broccoli rabe.
There were a handful of mild disappointments. The terrine of quail mousse was a bit of a bore, considering the laborious "confit" preparations that went into emulsifying it into pâté silk. I was lightly disappointed to learn that the rose of folded salmon atop the multicolor beets hadn't been house-smoked. And Calmels could pay closer attention to seasonal ingredients. (Clementines and spiced pumpkin bread in August?)
I also wish there had been a more obvious presence of foie gras inside the roulade of stuffed pig's foot. It was otherwise the ultimate country dish - slow-stewed, deboned, and rolled into a crisped tube of jellied pig flesh over wonderful lentils. Not for everyone, even if the liver hadn't been rendered invisible.
For a more straightforward and satisfying take, though, Bibou's seared foie gras over spiced pumpkin corn bread and honeyed melon was one of the best preparations I've had.
Though Bibou's tight quarters and bustling din are a world away from the posh luxury of Le Bec-Fin, the chef hasn't lost his magic touch for the multicourse tasting. A four-course prix-fixe that is Sunday's only option is well worth the $45. The seven-course $70 tasting available during the week, however, is one of the city's most intriguing gastro-splurges - especially when taken at the two-seat rear bar with a close-up view of the kitchen.
Our meal soared from an ethereally light but vivid chilled asparagus soup to a velvety-tender slice of poached veal tongue with sauce gribiche (a decadent throwback mayo with capers, cornichons, minced hard-cooked egg, and tarragon.) There were wonderfully crisped scallops with lime emulsion, sea beans and shaved cucumber noodles, another bowl of Madeira-sauced chanterelles (which I gratefully devoured), seared foie gras, and an intensely beefy hanger steak in a light green peppercorn sauce alongside snappy plumes of black trumpet mushrooms that glistened with a butter shine.
If there is one slight downside to this two-cook operation, it's most obvious in the modest finale. And yet, while there is no cheese trolley or multitiered pastry cart to lavish diners with one final decadence, the homey array of well-cooked fruit crumbles, fig-and-goat-cheese tarts, and cherry clafouti had the desired effect.
An elegant couple beside us rose from their table, personally thanked Charlotte for the splendid meal, and then put their names down for the same table the following Friday night - "our usual," said the gent.
I could almost feel the building smile.