In preparation for our annual Restaurant Guide, SFR’s foodies have been doing a little more eating lately. You know, nibbling around the city, checking out new places and revisiting old favorites like Bouche.
This downtown French bistro's high-class comfort food, refined service and cozy adobe atmosphere earned it a spot as one of our Top Ten Favorites in the 2013-2014 Restaurant Guide, and it still lives up to expectations—with some new twists.
A remodel reconfigured the modest dining room, adding three tall tables behind a big chef's table near the kitchen.
More importantly, chef Charles Dale last summer brought on a collaborator, James Mazzio, who had worked with him years ago at Renaissance in Aspen. Mazzio had been named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs in 1999; Dale made the same list in 1995. The pair decided to add a little Italian flavor to the menu, and this summer a nightly pasta, risotto or gnocchi was added to the menu, along with a pork osso buco and a tiramisu.
"I was born in Nice, so the cuisine I feel most comfortable with is that hybrid of French and Italian," Dale says. "So we've broadened our horizons while staying true to an ideology."
The menu still offers escargot and they're still only $14, but around the menu, prices have risen since our previous visits. The mussels gave gone up $2, the Niçoise-style tuna carpaccio has morphed from a $16 starter into a $21 plate and the steak tartare has migrated from the small plates section, where it was $14, to the mains, where it is listed at $26. Even the truffled French fries cost $3 more.
Dale says his food costs have gone up but he has refused to compromise on quality.
"I call this a luxe bistro and it's the Parisian trend right now, where it's informal and casual but the food is at a very high level of quality and there's an expansive wine list," he explains.
He cites the jumbo asparagus featured in a small plate ($18) with prosciutto, brioche toast and Hollandaise sauce as an example of an ingredient he believes is worth paying a premium for.
Indeed, on a recent night the asparagus spears were enormous. And they did contribute to the pleasure of a lovely dish. The prosciutto was shatteringly crisp and the almost-too-generous pool of Hollandaise was decadently rich. (Only the brioche toast, too gummy, was a disappointment.)
My dining companion and I made a meal from the asparagus and a few other small plates. L&L's cheese tots ($8/$12) are addictive nuggets of molten Gruyère cheese, coated in a golden, crunchy batter. They are so much better than what they sound like: the ubiquitous and terrible mozzarella cheese sticks. These taste like real cheese, expertly battered and fried. (Originally designed as a treat for the chef's kids, I'm embarrassed by how many of these I ate.)
The soupe du soir ($12), a corn soup with crab meat on the night we visited, was a delicate balance of warm soup and cold crab. My companion thought the soup was a little bland, but I liked the way the corn didn't interfere with the subtle, briny freshness of the crab. And at $12 the soup is one of the best deals on the menu.
We also tried the seared foie gras ($28), an item Dale says is an essential on any bistro menu. The details of the dish change but the one we tried involved nectarines, bitter greens and a tangy sauce that offset the richness of the goose liver. I've had the good fortune (read, gluttony) to taste a lot of seared foie gras in my life and it is always an experience that makes me shut my eyes and revel in the intensity of the experience. This was no exception. Although the house-made bread was a bit dense and undercooked in the middle, its thick crust made a perfect vehicle for the foie gras.
I would have liked to try the steak au poivre ($32), the cider-braised pork osso buco with fennel and fingerling potatoes ($29) or some of the other main dishes, but our budget for this meal was $100 and we exceeded that with wine before ordering a lemon meringue tart ($9) for dessert.
The wine list is long and the by-the-glass choices are appealing and affordable. The tangy lemon meringue tart had a buttery crust foundation and was topped with a beehive of meringue fresh from under a flame. It's a pretty big serving for two; four could easily share it.
And sharing is what you must do if you come to Bouche. The atmosphere feels inviting, with warm lighting, smooth plastered walls, mercury glass mirrors over the banquettes and a big, homey rug covering the floor. Although the food is expensive, it is in line with Santa Fe's other best restaurants. And here it is precisely crafted, expertly curated and pleasantly delivered by knowledgeable but not intrusive servers.
This is a great treat for a romantic dinner, a birthday celebration or a memorable night with good friends.
Bouche at a Glance
5:30-9:30 pm, Monday-Saturday
451 Alameda St., 982-6297
Best Bet: Small plates
Don't Miss: Foie gras preparation of the day