Location: 400 Bridge St., Phoenixville
Contact: (484) 924-9721, sipsphoenixville.com.
Cuisine: Classic French bistro fare.
Cost: Appetizers $6-$22, entrées $11-$27.
Atmosphere: Friendly, despite its mixed identity.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday. Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Extras: Outdoor dining and free parking.
Opening a traditional French bistro in the suburbs is no easy feat for any restaurateur, though it helps if your background includes a culinary and hospitality education in Europe, plus managing stints at places like Philadelphia’s Brasserie Perrier and Long Branch, N.J.’s Bungalow Hotel. Such is the story of Fabien Chaigneau, who, after leaving France for a hotel job in the Dominican Republic, somehow landed in Philadelphia eight years ago. He has since settled in Phoenixville, taking the reins at his own restaurant, which opened this past summer.
You won’t find Sips Bistro & Bar nestled among bustling Bridge Street’s other eateries and bars. So, if you’re tempted to park the car and take a stroll to find it, you’ll be in for a walk. Sips is located on the outskirts of Phoenixville’s main drag, in a rather awkwardly positioned 118-year-old building that most recently housed the Moon Saloon. The space has a small front bar area, a casual dining room and a lovely courtyard. And while it has undergone some renovations, the place doesn’t exactly scream authentic French bistro.
The crowd was sparse on a recent Thursday night, but Chaigneau’s excellent culinary output at affordable prices should attract more guests once word gets around. Compiled on a menu executed by former Great American Pub chef Gerald A. Petrus Jr., most items are thoughtfully prepared, the presentations refined yet approachable, the flavors comforting and rich. The traditional bouillabaisse, steak frites and leek-and-potato-stuffed crêpes are what you’d expect from a French bistro. There’s also a decent mix of options for those seeking something on the lighter side, like a charcuterie plate or a salad.
As with most traditional French eateries, French onion soup is a menu staple. Sips’ version, alas, was disappointing. The Gruyère-blanketed bowl lacked any rich, buttery flavor, and the thick mass of caramelized onions tasted charred. The cheese plate was better, with its Brie, blue and goat cheeses, baby onions, pickles, grapes and slices of toasted bread.
Sips’ roast chicken arrived perfectly browned and glistening. It came sliced into portions, revealing its moist, herb-flecked interior. The velvety pan sauce put the dish over the top. The haricots verts added a fresh, seasonal brightness, and a rich orb of paper-thin potatoes au gratin rounded things out nicely.
The night’s special, two generous trout fillets, paired wonderfully with a side of haricots verts tossed with succulent shrimp and fresh tomatoes. The simplicity, freshness and light preparation made this another standout.
Just as the candlelit courtyard was beginning to look a bit more Parisian, we ended our meal with a traditional tarte tatin—buttery caramelized apples heaped onto a flaky crust and topped with a not-too-sweet dollop of crème fraîche.
The skinny: Solid preparations and reasonable prices should have locals stop-ping into Sips on a regular basis. For the rest of us, Chaigneau needs to better capture that cozy, convivial bistro vibe to make it well worth the drive.