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La Boheme Bistro Francais Philadelphia Hmmm … is it gauche to call a place “chic” anymore? I keep wanting to use that word to describe La Boheme, a French- and Moroccan-inspired bistro on 11th Street in Philadelphia. But somehow the label sounds all too trendy, and I’d never describe this lovely, relaxed BYOB as a mere flash in the pan. The place seats just 35 — slightly more in warm weather, when four sidewalk-cafe tables are pulled out — and features a creative menu that’s refreshingly inventive without being weird. The place is owned by the personable and talented chef Athmane Kabir, who personally served us our entrees. When I spoke with Kabir, two weeks after having enjoyed dinner at La Boheme, I was happy to discover my tastes are consistent. The Algerian-born chef previously cooked at Bistro St. Tropez — a personal favorite of mine located in Philadelphia’s Marketplace Design Center — from 1994 to 1998. However, La Boheme has a style all its own, and has begun to attract a following of, well, chic, pleasant customers ranging from their late 20s to 40s. On the warm evening we were there, everyone seemed relaxed and friendly. The group of diners next to us asked if we minded if they opened a nearby door to let the breeze come in. We were happy to oblige. The restaurant has only been open since October 2000, when it started by offering only lunch; it has been slowly growing ever since. Currently, La Boheme is also serving dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Kabir said he hopes to add Wednesday nights “in a couple of weeks.” And plans are in the works to add morning coffee and cappuccino when the student crowd returns to town in September. The lunch menu at La Boheme features salads such as salade nicoise ($6.50) and salade de poulet, a rosemary grilled chicken salad ($6.50); and inventive sandwiches like le thon — tuna with capers, sun-dried tomato, sliced black olives and sun-dried tomato paste ($6.25) –and le brie — brie cheese with plum tomatoes, red onion and mixed greens ($5.95) served on French baguette bread. Hot sandwiches served at lunch include the bohemian burger ($5.95), the chickenburger ($6.25), and a blackened chicken sandwich ($6.25). Vegetarians will appreciate the capellini with tomato-basil marinara ($5.75), penne arabiata ($5.75) and vegetable frittata ($5.95). Kabir’s favorite spices are reflected in the bistro’s decor. Saffron-colored walls and paprika-framed pictures on the walls formed an inviting atmosphere and were a nice complement to the blond-wood floors and dark wood tables. Only in the U.S. for six years, Kabir previously cooked in Montreal and France, whose styles he said he blended with his Moroccan influence. His dishes often contain a unique mixture of spices he calls “charmoula.” The blend of southern France, Mediterranean and Moroccan food is also light on fats, although Kabir does make use of phyllo dough in some recipes. He is also fond of grill cooking. The food he cooks at La Boheme is “simple home cooking,” Kabir said. We should all eat this well at home. I began with the spinach and goat cheese salad with caramelized garlic vinaigrette ($6), and my dining companion had the salade de mesclun with citrus-shallot vinaigrette ($5). Both had greens that were fresh and beautiful, and the serving size was neither too small nor too large. Other salad choices included a Caesar salad with hearts of Romaine and anchovy-Caesar dressing with prosciutto ($6.50) and the briouat de fromage, phyllo pastry with mixed nuts and goat cheese ($5). La Boheme also serves a soup du jour ($4.50), or soupe a l’oignon gratinee ($4). A few forgettable slices of bland baguette bread were in a small basket on the table at the start of the meal. At a restaurant, I like to either have a special bread I wouldn’t have at home, or no bread at all. This one we could have done without. But the entrees were a welcome feast. I ordered the crab and shrimp galette with red pepper coulis ($8). The two cakes of shredded crab and shrimp were grilled and had a nice texture and flavor. Mercifully, they were not dipped in batter or breading, and it looked like there was little or no filler. The plump galettes sat atop a red bell pepper puree, accompanied by piped potatoes and sugar snap peas that were well seasoned and cooked just enough to preserve their crunch. The ruby-red line of sauce that dressed the plate added a delicious flavor to the seafood; I later learned it was a reduction of red wine and balsamic vinegar. My companion had the special that evening — grilled trout with roasted red peppers ($14). She described the fish as “flavorful and moist … well prepared,” but said she didn’t think the topping of roasted sweet potato chips went well with it and said she thought it was more appropriate on a salad. My own opinion is probably the same as Kabir’s — sweet potatoes lend themselves to many dishes. The restaurant alternates the trout special with Mahi-Mahi for the same price. Other entree choices include fried calamari with lemon and romulade ($6.50), escargot a la Provencal with shiitake mushrooms and walnut-butter sauce ($7), and mussels with white wine-shallot broth ($6.50), as well as the higher-priced steak aux poivres with shallot butter ($16), vol au vent chicken and shiitake mushrooms ($13), grilled salmon with orange glaze over lentil confit ($15), shrimp Puttanesca ($14) and Moroccan chicken with eggplant puree, preserved lemon and green olives ($14). For dessert, my companion ordered the homemade rice pudding, which came in a generous helping, with chewy rice grains. She said she would have preferred a wetter texture, but said it was topped nicely with mint leaves and a raspberry. I had the tarte tartin ($5), a tart made of a pastry dough base layered with spicy glazed apples. True to its style, La Boheme’s dessert choices feature fruits, but not chocolate or anything especially heavy. Other choices were creme brulee ($5) and lemon tarte-royale ($5). Coffee aficionados will appreciate the rich, dark La Colombe coffee served by the restaurant as its regular coffee. But cafe latte and cafe mocha are also available for those who find this robust brew overly strong. Since La Boheme is a BYOB, we brought a bottle with us and as soon as the waiter noticed it, he rushed to uncork the bottle and brought back two glasses. Our glasses were thoughtfully refilled whenever the wine level started to drop. When I commented that Kabir is impressively fluent in English — he said that upon arriving in America, all he knew how to say was “hello” and “goodbye” outside of his native French — he thanked me, but was very casual about this accomplishment, as he is about his ability to turn out creative and flavorful food. “You know, a kitchen isn’t really the greatest place to learn English,” he remarked, noting it is mostly a world of mundane commands surrounded by the noises of busy pots and pans. “You learn a lot of curse words,” he said, laughing. But he has managed to pick up enough to be successful. In addition to La Boheme, the busy restaurateur co-owns the two La Cigale cafes in town with a business partner. La Boheme is all his own. Go for a relaxing meal and prepare to be chic, but please — no puca shells. Restaurant: La Boheme Bistro Francais Location: 246 S. 11th St. between Spruce and Locust. Reservations: Lunch is served Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Dinner is served Thursday and Friday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Note: Credit cards are not accepted.

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