More than four years ago, Chef Pierre Calmels and his wife Charlotte lit up the South Philadelphia dining scene when they opened Bibou, a small and warm BYOB where French cuisine takes center stage. I’ve been there several times and on a brutally hot July day, Calmels arrived in my kitchen armed with a big fatty lobe of Hudson Valley foie gras. He taught me how to clean and prepare this classic ingredient.
When I read this talented pair was to open Le Chéri at the Art Alliance, my heart did pitter-patters. I adore classic French food, and Calmels promised to prepare hearty seasonal casual cuisine in the former Wetherill mansion.
Le Chéri is a term of endearment. Charlotte calls her husband Chéri, or “my dear one.”
Charlotte is the general manager and works front of the house, which she mastered so well at Bibou. She recognized us and showed us to a table for two in one of the dining rooms. We brought a white burgundy and a red burgundy because Le Chéri was still BYOB during our visit. The restaurant now sells wine and will offer harder spirits in the near future.
The Art Alliance is more than 100 years old and is fitted with beautiful dark wood. Little needed to be done since it housed Rittenhouse Tavern. Although Le Chéri is a white tablecloth restaurant, the prices are low for Center City.
Homemade bread and soft butter kept us happy before our starters arrived. You will not find better service anywhere. The wait staff is professional and keeps you to your conversation.
Pate en croute ($8) was a slice of seasoned pork terrine wrapped in savory pastry and served with cornichons. It has been so long since I enjoyed this French classic. The ratio of pork fat to pork was spot on.
From the “bizarre” list of appetizers, Edward ordered the lamb pot-au-feu ($11). Calmels braised lamb tongue, sweetbreads and shank in the stock, and served them in a soup bowl. The tasty combination of textures was evident in this dish. Tongue needs to braise a long time to become tender, which it was. The sweetbreads had a lusty, creamy interior that played off beautifully with the earthiness of the shank. A small dish of silky homemade mayonnaise came with the starter.
The entrees are classic bistro or brasserie fare. I could not decide between the rabbit and the duck cassoulet. Chestnuts are in season, so I went with the ballontine of rabbit ($26) because it featured chestnut spaetzle.
A ballontine is a boned piece of meat or fowl that is stuffed and rolled up. Calmels used foie gras in his preparation, and when my dinner arrived at our table, it looked like a pinwheel. The sauce was extraordinary, rich with wine and herbs.
Braised red cabbage can be tricky since vinegar is an important ingredient. This was perfection. And the spaetzle, as fine and light as my Austrian grandmother’s, were heady with rich chestnut flavor.
Edward’s arctic char ($27) was lightly seasoned and poached in olive oil until translucent. The flesh was light and moist, almost cool in the middle. It sat on a pool of beurre blanc and was served with delicate Brussels sprout leaves.
Desserts at Le Chéri shined just as well as every dish we sampled. Tart tatin ($9) is the classic upside down apple caramel tart, rich with flavor, enhanced by smooth creamy vanilla ice cream. I have not seen Paris Brest ($9) on a Philadelphia menu in many years. Choux pastry was formed into small balls, sliced open and filled with coffee mousse. Tiny chopped bits of chocolate espresso beans painted the lily in this marvelous sweet.
Le Chéri was busy on the night of our dinner. I watched the staff take care of its patrons, and thought it a mighty good idea if the hires went into the restaurant staff training business.
Calmels worked at Le Bec-Fin before he and Charlotte opened Bibou. I have missed the French classics like onion soup, steak frites, cassoulet and so on. Now I know where to find them.
Four tips of the toque to Le Chéri.
251 S. 18th St.
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