Don't fret. The theater is not dead. At least not in Wash West. In fact, it's quite alive at the Caribou Café. Listen carefully to the joyful buzz reverberating between these hallowed old Philly floors and high ceilings and you just might catch the hushed, hopeful tones of a preppy young actor reciting lines and prepping for an audition at a nearby playhouse. Or you might tune into a passionate argument at a nearby table where tidy Main Line types banter on about the artistic merits of the Walnut Theater's playbill. Or you might chuckle as you eavesdrop on a gaggle of Iggles or Phillies “phans” alternately extolling and decrying their team's latest fiascos. Suffice it to say, the Caribou Café crowd confounds categorization.
Caribou Cafe is in the 'hood known as Washington West – Wash West, if you want to be Philly hip. This area was the second slice of Philly pie to be bitten into in the gentrification scheme to rehab the decay Philadelphia suffered in the forties and fifties. Quaker City's clean-up/ paint-up/ fix-up scheme rolled from the Delaware River westward. Thus the more riparian quarters like Society Hill and Olde City were the first areas to undergo full-scale re-buffing. Next came Washington West. Philly purists will tell you Wash West is the area bounded on the east and west by 6th and 10th Streets and on the north and south by Walnut and South Streets. Not so these days. With Wash Wests' still-burgeoning cachet, those boundaries have stretched. The bustling, world-class theater and restaurant scene in the area stokes a bustling pedestrian and vehicle thoroughfare. Gentrification is galloping there as well. For residents Wash West has the advantage of being within striking distance of most Philly happenings, particularly theater happenings. A few doors away is the Forrest Theater where shows like “Funny Girl”, “The Music Man”, and “Chicago” debuted before wowing Broadway and the rest of the globe. The Walnut Street Theater lies only a few blocks to the south. This historic playhouse, which debuted in 1809, is the oldest continually operating theater in the English-speaking world [is it time for Great Britain to consider dropping the “Great” portion of that title?]. Three blocks west of the Caribou Café is the Avenue of the Arts, site of the marvelously modern Kimmel Center, the Merriam Theater, the Wilma Street Theater and others.
Ah but don't be misled. The Caribou Café is anything but the exclusive domain of the theater crowd. This eatery is not the exclusive domain of any one group or tranche of society or business, which is just the way personable Chef Olivier Desaintmartin wants it. Olivier's little Walnut Street gem authentically replicates the feel, the warmth, the smells, the sounds, and the vibes of a bona fide French café. It's the kind of place that romantics get starry-eyed about, the kind of place that Van Gogh captured on canvas in Arles. The small tables, wall-side banquettes, and dark wood throughout provide the kindling for the establishment's pervasive charm. That vibe is then set aflame by a cheery, knowledgeable, and loyal waitstaff [most have been here since the Caribou debuted] coupled with the Café's lively, diverse crowd.
On the main floor, bistro tables in the front of the house give way to a row of wall banquettes as you make your way deeper into the room. A jumbo 30-foot-long Art Deco bar from Belgium made of deep-dark-wood, is über-laden with bottles sporting provenances from numerous places around the globe. The bar is tastefully ornamented with figurines and statues, eye-catchy kitch the curious eye can't resist. The bar boasts one of the city's highest bars in terms of quality and sweep when it comes to imported beers. You'll find brews from Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, England, Ireland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. A generous list of wines, mostly from France, is available by the glass. It's not surprising that the bar serves up a terrific Etienne Dupont, but the bartenders can also whip up a pretty potent pomegranate or applejack martini as well as any other specialty drink you mention. Sorry though, the bar doesn't serve absinthe despite being as traditional a French café as you'll find on our shores. Besides the main floor dining room and communicating bar, there's an upstairs room that stretches half the length of the main floor. Two-top tables line two of the walls, thus providing another riff on the Cafe's overlying theme.
And that overlying theme is? Make no mistake, the focus of this delightful eatery is to recreate a savory slice of France in the heart of Philadelphia. The Quaker City, after all, has maintained a soft place in its heart for the French ever since the Marquis de Lafayette was a Philadelphia fixture and man about town [The General incidentally was in attendance for the opening performance at the Walnut Street Theater].
To recreate the insouciance and essence of the French café, Chef/ Owner Olivier Desaintmartin links outstanding, vibrant regional French cuisine with an atmosphere that is at once festive and relaxing. Desaintmartin brings a winning measure of gastronomic savvy, training and excellence to the task. His mettle and the respect he earns in his métier has been recognized. In 2009, he was admitted into the highly selective society of Maitres Cuisineir de France. That's no meager feat. The honor is conferred on only about 300 chefs worldwide.
Olivier perfected his culinary chops while working in some of the world's most renowned food palaces where he had the good fortune of apprenticing under some superstars of French cuisine – legends like Paul Bocuse and Michel Gerard. Olivier also helped open Le Bernardin in the US. His introduction to the City of Brotherly Love came when he was selected fro the prestigious task of reopening the Bellevue Stratford following the fallout from “Legionnaire's Disease” which caused the grand old hotel to be closed. In opening Caribou Café however, Olivier chose a different path: a return to the cuisine he grew up on. He opted not to open a posh French white-tablecloth palace but rather one that showcased the diversity of French regional cuisine for the everyman. His menu is a veritable tour de force gastronomique around France.
Tartare de Boeuf, an Alsacien favorite is a wide, heaping compact coupon of red, diced beef that towers next to a green tangle of frisée speckled with red chunks of tomato. Presented on a huge white recessed plate, the tartare is no less a treat to the eye than to the taste buds.
The classic Soupe à l'Oignon, a Parisian standby, restores the gusto I've lost over the years for this dish. On our shores, too often the preparation suffers from kitchen ennui. Familiarity breeds blandness that results in an uninspired and disappointing dish. Not at Caribou Café. The delicious hot concoction redolent of Gruyère sets the mouth watering before it even hits the table. The soup is served in an attractive terrine in which the Gruyère has melted cheesy muscle into the crunchy baked cap atop the soup. Salade de Chèvre, a popular salad in Burgundy as well as other regions of France is a colorful temptation that scores with textural interest and vivid flavoring. A pair of red beets play pedestal to a leafy green column of spinach with a dulcet hit of balsamic vinegar. Perched on top of the spinach is a browned crisped slice of crusty French bread hoisting a warmed silky slab of goat cheese garnished appetizingly with parsley.
Among the entrées, Raie aux Câpres is a pet dish of Olivier that he perfected in his days in Provençe. Haricots verts alternating with salsifis [oyster plants] lay across the plate side-by-side like a veggie logjam. The ripply look of the vegetables is replicated in the undulated profile of the skate. A brownish pool of caper sauce rims the plate while a full green battalion of capers caps the skate. Delicious.
Truite Farcie, a dish that makes them go gaga in the south of France, uses a hefty cod brandade to give the trout oomf. The trout is lightly dusted with flour and pan seared with lots of lemon and butter. Then the brandade of cod, a pounded combination of salted cod, olive oil, garlic, milk and cream. is stuffed into the trout which is layered with slivered almonds that lend subtle crunch. Beside the trout, which rests on a green bed of haricots verts, is a sweet, grilled half tomato infused with garlic. Filet de Porc, Choucroute d'Alsace, Saumon Provençal round up a few of the other regional treats gracing the country-trotting carte.
As one who apprenticed under legendary pastry chef Gaston Lenotre, Olivier confects a plethora of dessert dandies. Crème brulée is prepared in the classic fashion with Tahitian beans. Souflé Au Chocolat soars on Arabica crème anglaise. Served à la mode, it becomes sinfully good. There's also a series of zestily flavored crèpes as well as a long slate of additional post-entrée temptations.
But why Caribou Café? Well the name is a holdover from the previous owner. Olivier decided to keep it, since the century-old building holds historic value in a neighborhood where preservation rules. And again: Why the Caribou Café? Because this eatery distinguishes itself from scores of ersatz wannabes. The Caribou Café comes off authentic and real because it is. This place has all the ingredients: Outstanding down-to-earth regional food, a vivacious vibe, delightful décor, and attentive service. In fact, if Toulouse Lautrec ever came to Philly, he'd make a beeline for the Caribou Café even though they don't serve absinthe. He wouldn't give up his absinthe for any place but the best.
Insider Tip: When you are in the mood for your favorite French dish but your group can't or won't go out to eat, don't fret, because Caribou Cafe will cater!