Sips Bistro & Bar
400 Bridge Street
Firmly ensconced in the ancient building that was most recently home to the Moon Saloon (and various other previous incarnations), Sips Bistro & Bar is a welcome addition to the Phoenixville dining scene. Proprietor Fabien Chaigneau, a native of Pays de la Loire, France, and former general manager of Pond and Brasserie Perrier, obviously brings a host of experience to his new venture. Long-time colleague Dan Wallace helps Mr. Chaigneau run the establishment, while Chef Gerald A. Petrus, Jr. – whose culinary credits include Great American Pub, Circa, and Plate – executes the classic French bistro menu with style and panache.
The restaurant’s interior has a great deal to recommend it. Crossing the threshold, the highly polished antique bar – shipped over from England in 1894 – clearly beckons. And its rustic charm is perfectly complemented by a series of sturdy high-top tables. This is a warm, inviting space, so it’s quite easy to settle in and enjoy one of the house specialty cocktails: an espresso martini, a Bellini, perhaps, or the slightly sinister Femme Fatale, a combo of Absolut Grapevine, Lillet Blanc, and Ricard.
The restaurant also offers a modest catalog of brews and an equally compact list of vintages. The wine list may be small, but it’s very French and marries extremely well with the cuisine. Particularly noteworthy are the ever-reliable Trimbach Riesling, Louis Jadot Macon-Villages Chardonnay, and Louis Latour Bourgogne Pinot Noir.
Other than the enclosed spacious outdoor patio replete with babbling fountain, the perfect venue for warm weather dining, the bar area is my favorite place to chow down. Those high-top tables and matching chairs are exceedingly comfortable; and the friendly bartender is sure to keep your lunch/dinner humming right along.
There are several other dining areas, including a space in the rear of the restaurant that was originally an outdoor courtyard before being enclosed. This room is adorned with banquettes festooned with an attractive array of red pillows sewn by Veena Chaigneau’s mother. These are, indeed, a feast for the eye… but sitting on them is an exercise in masochism, as they offer no back support whatsoever; in addition, they leave the diner hovering vertiginously above the table, an atmosphere or two above his/her dining partner in the chair opposite.
But so much for anatomical tidbits… on to the food. As hinted at above, the creative French bistro fare is served up in ample American-size portions at reasonable prices… and it is very, very good. And it also strikes a perfect middle ground between often intimidating esoterically-oriented upscale cuisine and somewhat less than sophisticated pub grub. It is “bistro” in the very best sense of that term, as it utilizes pristinely fresh ingredients that are lovingly prepared and sent forth in attractive soul-satisfyingly subtle presentations.
To start things off, purists will surely not be disappointed with the restaurant’s traditional French offerings: pâté de campagne, poultry pâté garnished with cornichons, Dijon mustard, and rustic country bread; planche de charcuterie, a mix of cold cuts, pickles, baby onions, and toasted bread; and the homey tartines, slices of buttered bread topped with Brie cheese, smoked salmon, and prosciutto & Gruyère, respectively.
The greenery, however, is equally up to the mark. The classic Lyonnaise salad (in the style of Lyon, France) is comprised of feathery frisée, sautéed potatoes, and bits of bacon tossed with a zesty mustard emulsion and topped with a perfectly poached egg. The goat cheese salad, creamy discs adorning large crispy croutons, is set on a pillow of spinach and splashed with balsamic vinaigrette. And the chicken paillard, thin slices of sautéed chicken breast, is companioned by arugula, herbs de Provence, and finished with a superb lemon-caper sauce.
When available, however, nothing quite tops the starter special of sautéed chicken livers. Pure velvet upon the tongue, they are set on a pillow of haricots verts, accompanied by lardons (diced, fried bacon), minced onions, and finished with an utterly addictive red wine sauce. Descriptive adjectives fail; “superlative” would be a gross understatement. Simply not to be missed.
Entrées continue the kitchen’s good work. Classic bistro dishes include steak frites, a 12-ounce sirloin teamed with mesclun salad and some of the best fries it has ever been my pleasure to ingest; poulet roti, a half roasted chicken with sauce au jus; and Le Burger, 8-ounces of succulent ground sirloin – especially good when topped with Gruyère cheese – accompanied by tomato, sautéed red onions, salad, and more of those incredible frites (also available at lunch).
That being said, however, bear in mind that the chef is particularly adept at seafood… So, if you are so inclined, this is the ideal spot to indulge your whims. The branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), for example, is pan roasted, presented on a warm Yukon gold potato salad, and consummated with a perfectly complementary citrus beurre blanc. But even better, in my opinion, is the beautifully grilled salmon filet. It is kissed by a touch of olive oil, presented with an outstanding side of ratatouille, and crowned with a tiara of mâche salad.
On the other hand, if you’re a bivalve fan, you will undoubtedly find the mussels irresistible. Pristinely plump, they swim to table in a succulent sea of white wine, shallots, and herbs. The pièce de résistance? An eye-catching spiral cone of those delicious frites with ramekins of ketchup and remoulade in attendance.
But if the chef has a signature dish, it is most assuredly his bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew. Mussels, clams, salmon, branzino, langoustines, and potato wedges all luxuriate in an exceptionally seasoned tomato-based broth. Just make sure you snare some extra bread for dipping, as you wouldn’t want to miss a drop of this incomparable ambrosia.
If you can’t make dinner, you should definitely give lunch a try, which is conveniently served Monday – Saturday 11:30 – 2:30 p.m. (brunch is served on Sundays in the same timeframe). In addition to the aforementioned burger, Sips also serves up several dynamite sandwiches. The chicken & Brie cheese, for instance, sports ciabatta bread, slices of tomato & red onion, and a provocative tarragon aioli.
My personal fave, though, is the kitchen’s updated version of the ubiquitous turkey club. Thick portions of house-roasted turkey are stuffed between two slices of multi-grain bread and embellished with lettuce, tomato, bacon, and avocado. And a generous slathering of zippy chipotle mayonnaise adds just enough “bite” to keep the taste buds standing at attention.
Side dishes are a mere $5.00 additional and certainly worth considering. The previously mentioned haricots verts, frites, and ratatouille accompany several main courses. But if you’re hungry for more, nothing beats the rich & creamy potato gratin or the equally decadent mac & cheese awash with Gruyère.
The desserts, all very French, offer four (4) tried & true favorites: crème brûlée, mousse au chocolat, tarte tatin, and gâteau au chocolat. The tarte tatin, caramelized apples in a rather soggy crust garnished with crème fraiche, was good but not exceptional. The gâteau au chocolat, on the other hand, rich flourless chocolate cake kissed by a homemade strawberry coulis, was benchmark and most assuredly worth every extra calorie.
As noted at the outset, Sips Bistro & Bar fills a much needed niche in the Phoenixville dining scene. And judging by the increasing number of dinner patrons observed recently, a goodly number of residents seem to agree. So if you enjoy good food at reasonable prices buttressed by friendly service, Sips should be at the very top of your dining agenda.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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