It’s tempting to make certain assumptions about a restaurant named Cochon (French for pig): (1) the menu will contain pork; and (2) the food will compel you to eat to the point of gluttony. Both of these assumptions, it turns out, are true of the new Queen Village French bistro helmed by chef Gene Giuffi and his wife Amy. But when this duo was mulling over names for their BYOB, they settled on Cochon for an entirely different reason.
Cochon is the latest crusader in the city’s French restaurant revolution—a liberating development in light of Philadelphia’s time-worn allegiance to the Italian BYOB. The bistro occupies the space that formerly housed Café Sud. During renovations, Gene and Amy discovered charming fixtures almost too good to be true—a well-heeled mosaic tile floor and original pressed tin wall panels that have been sanded and painted powder blue. The warm, expanded dining room now comfortably seats 44 at humble wooden tables. The gleaming new open kitchen is nestled into the corner. A large chalkboard decorates the wall to display daily specials.
Though young, Cochon already has a clear identity, all thanks to the pig. To chef Giuffi (formerly of Davio’s, Nan, La Boheme and ¡Pasión!), the pig represents the essence of rustic, farmhouse food. And he named his bistro after the uncultured sow to remove the pretense often associated with French fare. It’s a proud, unapologetic reminder—this is peasant food. But don’t let the rural theme fool you. Cochon’s food may be simple, but it’s not without sophistication.
Clean and tender escargot and Shitake mushrooms rest in a red wine sauce. Gently kissed with garlic Pernod butter, the deep, herbaceous sauce is ambrosial, making this one of the most memorable and satisfying appetizers on the menu.
Another must have is the crispy chicken livers appetizer—a Davio’s dish Giuffi updated. Tossed with balsamic, candied walnuts and raisins, the livers are soft, rich and pleasantly sweet.
The delicate tomato-leek saffron broth in which the mussels bathe could use a touch of heat. Still, you won’t be able to resist dredging the bowl with a spent shell to rescue the last drop of broth.
Entrées, too, are smart without losing their pastoral appeal. Beautifully prepared duck breast comes with a white bean ragout that includes crisped-up bacon and confit, a creative play on refried beans. Giuffi skillfully prepares a Prime cut of Belevedere strip steak for the steak frites, and the fries conceal a faint hint of heat that warms the back of your throat.
Slow-cooked country staples receive the tender care they deserve. The pork shoulder marinates for almost 2 days and roasts for 8-10 hours. It’s a comforting prelude to winter, though the dish could use more of the roasted Brussels sprouts that are nesting in the hearty and flavorful lentils du Puy.
But the braised, free-range lamb shank steals the show. The sweet, wild meat spills off the mammoth bone with the slightest brush from a fork. And the syrupy port reduction that hosts earthy rutabaga and fingerlings balances the lamb’s richness.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux are ideal for Giuffi’s cuisine, though the selection of these wines at the nearby 5th street PLCB store is thin and/or expensive. In a pinch, the 2003 Chateau Greysac will do (PLCB No. 4453, $18.95), as will the 2003 Chateau Les Fief de Lagrange (PLCB No. 7991, $18.99). But those searching for a less expensive alternative may enjoy the 2005 Crios de Susana Balbo Mendoza (PLCB No. 29021, $11.99), a Syrah/Bonarda blend (think: Merlot with a personality).
Cochon’s key strength, ironically, highlights a small weakness. Giuffi’s signature sauces are intensely addictive and beg to be soaked up with a deep, never-ending basket of sliced baguette. But the single, elegant roll you receive instead doesn’t last long (especially with the delicious butter dressed with sea salt) and even seems a little too fussy for Cochon’s humble personality.
But Cochon’s only real blemish—one that’s common in Center City eateries—is the relatively high noise level. The angular dining space and tin panels are likely more to blame than the open kitchen.
Most desserts are currently being sourced from outside vendors. But the creme brulée, made in-house, is a flawless dream that should not be missed. Its hard, caramelized shell harbors a cool, satisfying custard.
With its warm environs and rustic country cuisine, Cochon’s a bistro the everyday Frenchman would call home.
801 E. Passyunk Ave.
Prices: $8-$23; Cash Only
For more pics, check out my Cochon set on Flickr.