Back in July, our attempt to dine at Bistrot La Minette for our anniversary was thwarted by a Bastille Day party. We never did get a chance to make it out there for dinner, so we were pleasantly surprised when Lauren got an email a few weeks ago inviting us to have dinner there as guests of the restaurant. So that's how we found ourselves seated in the private salon at the Bistrot on one pleasant December evening, surrounded by local writers far more qualified than ourselves, ready to enjoy a traditional French family dinner.
We were greeted by John Woolsey, father of executive chef Peter Woolsey and part owner and business manager (not to mention the carpenter who built the salon's long dining table out of old joists found in the basement of the building). A native of Wisconsin, it was with a Midwestern reserved sense of pride that John told the group about his son's impressive culinary pedigree: working at the Waldorf-Astoria early in his career, studying pastry at Le Cordon Bleu and completing a stage at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in France before returning to Philadelphia and working at restaurants owned by Stephen Starr and Georges Perrier.
As the story continued over a glass or two of the house pinot noir, it became clear that the decision to open the restaurant was just the start of another journey. John's tale of secret municipal regulations, utilities foul-ups, and the challenges of dealing with centuries-old Philadelphia structures was enough to give any potential restaurateur pause. The flip side of this was the delight evident in the tales of planning the interior and acquiring all the right fixtures and décor to give the dining room an authentically French flair. (However, we were treated to the shocking revelation that some of the pieces are not French at all, but rather Belgian – at least we were assured that they came from the French-speaking part of the country.)
We then met the chef himself. Tall, bearded and bespectacled, Peter struck as us completely lacking in the ego and bombast one might expect from an experienced and successful chef. Perhaps his quiet confidence came from him being squarely in his element: aside from all the training he acquired in France, he also met his wife there. By adopting the traditions of her family as his own, it sounds like he's not just cooking French food, he's living it. The meal we were about to experience, he explained, would be as close as possible to sitting around the table with a French family.
After the introduction, the meal began, all served family-style which added to the sense of conviviality around the table. We started with some hors d'œuvre: crisp-shelled gougères, very clean-tasting salmon rillettes served on endive leaves, black olive tapenade on croutons, and small poached button mushrooms, which had a hard-to-place bitter note to them.
Next up, some heartier appetizers, including a pork terrine with soft bits of liver in the middle, served on a tasty slice of toasted homemade brioche. Served with the traditional accompaniments of mustard and cornichons, the terrine was delicious, but I feel as though its flavor would have come out a bit more if it were served a little warmer. An endive, pear and fennel salad with Roquefort and a lentil salad studded with some huge lardons rounded out this course.
The main course was the undisputed heavy-hitter of homestyle French cuisine, boeuf Bourguignon. This was a great rendition, with the beef falling-apart tender. Alongside the beef was a huge dish of gratin Dauphinois, a creamy, if slightly salty, dish of nicely tender potatoes crowned with a dark golden crust. Perhaps the most surprising dish of the night was the haricots verts, a simple dish of green beans cooked with tomato and onion – but the beans, rather than being served just barely cooked and crisp, were cooked within an inch of their lives. Rather than being unappealingly mushy, they were in fact sumptuous, and the beans maintained their green color thanks to some proper blanching before being cooked down. The butter added at the end didn't hurt, either.
Despite the rather tremendous amount and variety of food we had eaten so far, no proper French meal would be complete without a cheese course, this one composed of Comte and a soft blue-veined cheese, served with homemade baguettes and a refreshing green salad.
To finish, the quintessential rustic French dessert, tarte tatin. The crust on this upside-down caramelized apple tart was a little doughy for my taste, but the caramel ice cream served with it (homemade, of course) was uniquely delicious.
As Chef Peter popped in periodically throughout the meal, we had a chance to talk a little about his approach with the restaurant. Unlike a lot of contemporary places that are keen to reinvent and deconstruct, Woolsey's philosophy is to simply execute classic dishes well in keeping with the mold of a traditional French bistro(t). Catering to an American audience, though, means making portions a little bigger and dropping some of the offal-based dishes from the repertoire. It's a bit of a catch-22, because I for one would love to see what Woolsey can do with some more exotic ingredients, but it just doesn't pay to keep them on the menu if diners are scared off by them.
He also talked about his approach to sourcing ingredients, preferring to buy in small quantities to ensure freshness, even if this drives some of his purveyors batty. And he makes an effort to buy local ingredients, but only if they're in season and "if they're good", which is refreshingly pragmatic in the face of some restaurants' local-at-all-costs dogmatism.
With the arrival of some chocolate truffles, the meal was over, and it was quite an experience. In addition to enjoying some great food, we had a unique opportunity to really get some of the inside story on the restaurant business. Considering Bistrot La Minette's success so far, it was a great case study. Now that we've had the family-style treatment, we'll be sure to return for a more typical dining-out experience – though we'll be sure to schedule around any French national holidays.