I admit to being a Francophile. I lived there for six months as a teenager, I speak the language passably, I've hosted French exchange students and I love the cuisine. The haute cuisine is fine, but the bistro food, using fresh, seasonal ingredients, is by far my favorite. And now we have a lovely place in Shockoe Slip that delivers the latter. Bistro Bobette (formerly Bistro Bouchon) is the creation of chef Francis Devilliers, who makes the most of every ingredient. The restaurant is managed by his wife, Wendy Kalif, who makes everyone feel at home.
The setting of this bistro is hip and elegant. The lighting is diffuse enough to be flattering but bright enough to read by. The gentle jazz playing when I visited was definitely not elevator music, and the sound level made conversation flow. Bistro Bobette is comfortable and chic, and that's a delicate balance to achieve.
The service during all of my visits was right on target — efficient and friendly, without being obsequious. It appeared that the servers watched conversation and served during the lulls in discussion. And the service didn't fail when it was just me. I sometimes dine alone, and I was as welcomed as if I had been with a party of eight. Solo diners also have the choice of sitting at the bar and getting a great meal with a glass. You may even be treated to a chat with Francis or Wendy.
The wine list is full of great selections at reasonable prices, with some very nice choices available by the glass. It was easy to select an option that flattered the food. And oh, that food!
Handsome Husband joined me for dinner on a rainy weeknight. The French cheese plate had an amazing Roquefort — not salty and sharp, but creamy and wonderful. It was so atypical of that particular cheese that I had to ask if it was Roquefort. And I used to manage a cheese shop. In fact, all of the cheeses were served at the appropriate temperature to highlight their flavor, avoiding a mistake many places make. (Really cold cheese loses both taste and texture.) The chicken-liver pâté was mild and flavorful, and the accompanying brioche was spot-on. When it came to our entrées, Handsome's steak arrived perfectly seasoned and cooked, while I ordered cassoulet, a French casserole of mixed ingredients and white beans with a crispy crumb topping. It was presented in a lidded cast-iron casserole full of sausage, white beans and a lovely confit duck leg. The flavors melded very well, with the garlic enhancing but not overpowering the dish, and the crumb topping provided a fine texture contrast. It was the ideal entrée for a cold, rainy night.
Though we had barely enough room for dessert, we couldn't resist the three-layer chocolate cake. Dense with flavor and true chocolate taste, its texture was just right, and I don't think we left a morsel.
There are always specials, so don't make your choice before your server describes these tempting treats. They showcase chef Devilliers' commitment to French comfort food, and he sources locally and seasonally when feasible. (On the Saturday I was writing this review, the special was Guinea Hen Raviole with Hedgehog Mushrooms and Salsify. That should get your juices flowing.)
My next visit was at lunch, which was both easy and fun. The crab mousse with pistachios — served with small jewels of carrot — had a sublime texture and an elegant taste. My entrée was an incredibly crispy duck with a translucent blood-orange sauce that contrasted with the rich duck nicely without being too sweet. The duck was first confited, and then crisped, so the contrast of the silky meat and the crispy skin was delightful. This sophisticated take on duck a l'orange brought the classic up to date. I couldn't pass up the blood-orange sorbet for dessert. A balanced finish to a great lunch, it wasn't sugary, just a real palate tickler. I splurged on a glass of rustic red wine, and it completed what may have been the best lunch I've had in a long time.
This restaurant is a great addition to the Richmond food scene. Its interpretation of French comfort food took me back to the many bistros I visited in France, with a modern twist: well crafted, wonderfully presented and very welcoming. The next time you're deciding where to eat, or you have friends visiting who love good food, Bistro Bobette would make a great choice.
1209 E. Cary St., 225-9116. Prices: Lunch appetizers $5 to $10; salads $5 to $14; crêpes $10 to $15; entrées $8 to $15; desserts $5. Dinner appetizers $8 to $19; salads $8 to $11; entrées $20 to $29; desserts $7. Hours: Lunch is served Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner is served Monday to Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.