Pros: fine traditional fare, vibrant atmosphere
Cons: none, except for popularity potential, which might make it hard to get a table
“A cute name,” my friend remarked about a tiny new bistro just off the Canal St. Martin: PHILOU, in bold black on its red awning. Likely it’s an affectionate diminutive of the first name of the owner, Philippe Damas, formerly of the popular Le Square Trousseau. The personal touch is apt. This cozy, convivial place could only have been created from the sensibilities of an established, experienced restaurateur with an earnest desire to please.
Inside, a circular bar and a suspended deco-chandelier of paper and light by Ingo Maurer take center stage. The blackboard-lined walls are white-chalked with the food and wine menu – in that trendy sort of way – interrupted only by an original poster of the 1940s film Les Enfants du Paradis by Marcel Carné. Mirrors at the back create the effect of a dining room twice the size without sacrificing intimacy. A minimalist-vibrant-poetic-chic atmosphere.
What luck to get a table for four (though we were only three) by the window on a Friday evening, having booked at the last minute. A second seating, sure, but well worth the wait. And while waiting, as proof of the solicitous service, the friendly but slow-to-arrive waitress brought us three glasses of delicate dry white wine on the house.
Unanimously, our trio opted for the three-course menu at €30, though there was the possibility of a two-course meal at €25. No question of timorously dipping into each other’s dishes: brazenly rotating plates, we ended up sampling nine consistently über-enjoyable plates of seasonal, fresh foods each, all at a reasonable price (although there were supplements for several items on the fixed-price menu, defeating the purpose of having one). To accompany our meal, we chose a bottle of velvety, earthy, Marcel Lapierre Morgon from an extensive list of natural, biodynamic wines.
The fare was not complex or particularly avant-garde, but plump-full of simple, traditional harmonies. For starters, marinated sardine fillets with horseradish mayonnaise and sprinkles of neon-green pesto; a slab of tasty, textured terrine de campagne served up with a jar of pickles; and the star item, sautéed cuisses de grenouilles (frog’s legs) so lusciously tender that the meat fell off the bone, stewed with oyster mushrooms that proved a perfect woodsy counterpoint.
I can confidently say we were plenty enamored before the main courses arrived. Pavé de maigre (Atlantic shadefish) was my personal choice though, even as a fish lover, I couldn’t categorize it – halfway between cod and seabass? It rested caramelized atop a savory patty that resembled something like polenta, but turned out to be a potato and mushroom cake. Dare I pass it on? I did and was anything but offended by the pigs’ cheek in a pool of Chinon sauce. The scallops, while pleasing and copious enough, with a purée de celeriac acting as the corail, came in third place.
Dessert didn’t turn up any masterpieces, though I probably should’ve ordered the acclaimed baba au rhum instead of the apple tart with vanilla ice cream. The gelée de clementines layered in rice pudding made a tasty twist on English trifle.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” was written on one of the slips of paper hanging from the chandelier. With time, the loveliness only increases. Get in now while you can.
Philou: 12, ave Richerand, 75010. Métro: République or Goncourt. Tel.: 01 42 38 00 13. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner.
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