Happy Valentine’s Day, friends! We typically skip the crowds at restaurants on Valentine’s Day itself in favor of cooking dinner at home, and just finished stuffing ourselves with homemade macaroni and cheese and French Silk Pie. We did, however, go out to a celebratory dinner at Bibou, a French BYOB in the Bella Vista area over the weekend. It has been the subject of quite a bit of buzz since its opening a little over two years ago but we were able to snag a reservation thanks to Chester’s dedicated stalking of Open Table). Good thing we did, since Craig LaBan recently gave it a glowing review and upgraded it from three to four bells in his Inquirer column. So, it’s bound to get more difficult to book a one of the 30 seats in the place.
Bibou is run by a husband and wife team. The chef, Pierre Calmels, came out of the kitchen at various times throughout the evening to chat with customers at every table. His wife, Charlotte, acts as the hostess and frequently was toting a laptop around the dining room to help diners make their next reservations. We had to wait a bit for a table to become available when we arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation; it seemed like people were so comfortable that they didn’t want to leave and the staff wasn’t rushing them out. It’s no wonder that Bibou has built up quite a contingent of regulars.
The décor is pretty simple—white linen curtains, cheerful yellow walls and rustic wooden furniture. There is a small bar at the back of the restaurant from which you can peek into the kitchen to see the chefs hard at work. The menu is small, but it provides a nice mix between traditional dishes, such as grilled fish and steak and more exotic specialties like pig’s feet and bone marrow.
For a first course, I had the tender escargot which were served out of their shells, in a hearty tarragon and mushroom sauce. This was a bit of a departure from the typical butter/garlic sauce that I remember eating in France. Chester’s steak tartare appetizer was also tasty, and prepared with a high quality cut of beef. However, we both agreed that these dishes were pretty average.
Both of the entrees we selected were outstanding, however. I didn’t get to sample coq au vin while we were in France last summer, so I immediately decided to order that. The extremely generous portion of rooster, served in a hearty red wine, bacon and mushroom sauce over light pappardelle pasta, was so tender that it came apart easily with a fork. Chester chose the venison, which was on of the specials for the evening. It was prepared two ways—leg, ground with foie gras and wrapped in a puff pastry and a simple tenderloin. In the first presentation, the fatty foie gras kept the meat a moist, but the flavor was a bit overpowering. Chester much preferred the latter, which he described as “like butter.” The only real drawback of the dish was that the portions were on the small side. We felt like they could have done away with the puff pastry version and just served a larger portion of the tenderloin for a few dollars more.
Desserts were a nice, light finish after the substantial main courses. Chester had the thyme and lavender crème brulee. It was a little heavy on the herbs for me, but a nice change of pace from the plain version. I really liked my floating island—a meringue pyramid, set on top of goat’s milk/vanilla custard and topped with crunchy pralines. All of the elements had a bit of sweetness to them, but they came together well without making the dish too sugary.
If you decide to go, keep in mind that reservations are a must (and you may have difficulty getting prime times) and that the restaurant is cash only. Overall, the food was delicious, but I think that Bibou’s attention to detail and superior customer service give it an edge over some other places out there right now. The personable owners coupled with the warm, inviting atmosphere contributed to the feeling that we were eating in a friend’s home. This definitely sets Bibou apart from other restaurants I’ve visited recently, but I still don’t know if its four bell worthy in terms of the food (Craig LaBan and I didn’t see eye to eye on a.kitchen, either. But, he’s been doing this for much longer than I have so I’m sure he knows his stuff!). Still, we were among the diners who made their next reservations before paying the bill, since we really think my mom and aunt will enjoy celebrating their birthdays there in March. Calmels told us that they rotate the menu on a weekly basis, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next month.