When Chef Clark Gilbert moved Gemelli from Narberth to Manayunk in June of 2011, he had high hopes. Looking to impress city-proper residents with high-end Italian dishes, he upgraded his pasta-centric menu, adding dishes like carpaccio and sweetbreads. While the place was well received, Gilbert was rather surprised to witness what he describes as “product shock.”
“We went the wrong direction,” he admits. “The menu was just wrong for an audience of 20- to 30-year-olds.”
At the same time his menu was struggling, Gilbert had issues with the space itself. “I felt it lacked some warmth, and it had such opportunity,” he says. “One of the words that kept coming up in discussions was the term bistro.”
With years of French cooking to his credit, Gilbert quickly saw what had to be done. He shuttered Gemelli (without regrets) and reopened as Bisou—French for “casual kiss.” The name is the ideal analogy for a new concept that’s warm and friendly, with a snazzy streak of Parisian sex appeal.
As such, the new space doesn’t scream classic bistro—you’ll find no cane chairs or flocked awnings. Bright-red walls envelop the restaurant’s three staggered levels with visual heat, while black accents add smolder. The open stairwell connecting the lower bar to the mezzanine lounge and upper-level dining area offers stark contrast with a swath of graphic wallpaper covered in playful white dots and charcoal kisses. The black-and-white images continue in both restrooms, where full-length photographs of curious onlookers add cheeky charm.
Seating options range from high-tops by the front door to cozy black-leather armchairs by the fireplace in the lounge. Clean-lined two-tops and banquettes can be found upstairs. The mix feels lush and romantic but never overwhelming, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows that offer views of Main Street and the river beyond.
Bisou’s menu leans in a more traditional direction, with selections like coq au vin and escargot. Appetizers are small in size but sturdy enough. Our duck-and-foie-gras terrine was rich but not too heavy, the vinegary red onions providing a tart-sweet contrast. And the lobster-and-shrimp app was light, perfectly cooked and dressed with a refreshing mix of citrus and avocado. On the heartier end of the spectrum, a bowl of French onion soup was topped with ample cheese, its earthy broth making the awkward experience of trying to consume it gracefully worth the trouble.
Entrées were a classic success. Our juicy steak frites was accented by green peppercorn sauce and seasoned fries, and fall-apart braised pork cheeks came heaped over mashed potatoes with peas and carrots. Unexpected Mediterranean flavors spiced up the lamb burger, which came with roasted red peppers. The grilled chicken sandwich is also classic … American, that is.
Gemelli devotees will find some comforting reminders of old. The house pasta is a carryover from the previous menu, and a number of drinks have an Italian influence, including the rose-scented bellini and a white wine-Aperol blend. The wine list circles the globe, with an emphasis on French reds. The surprisingly modern beer selection favors Belgium.
The menu isn’t overly bistro-esque, and its approachable middle ground should be a bigger draw for the neighborhood. “It’s French techniques, but not just French food,” says Gilbert. “It’s about simplicity in preparation. We will still do sweetbreads or carpaccio from time to time, but we focus on keeping everything solid and well executed.”
The Skinny: Refined but still flirty and fun, Bisou is a welcome newcomer to Manayunk’s ever-changing Main Street—and not too pricey or pretentious to scare off the younger crowd. Come for the alluring atmosphere; return again and again for the well-executed dishes.