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‘Best new chef’ will open restaurant tonight

If you go
WHAT: Bouche Bistro
WHERE: 451 W. Alameda
OPENING: 5:30 p.m. today

Much admired, multiply-lauded chef Charles Dale will open his own Santa Fe restaurant, Bouche Bistro, tonight in the West Alameda location of the former Aqua Santa restaurant.

Bouche means “mouth” or culinarily, “bite,” in French. In Paris, Dale said, a bistro is a neighborhood hangout.

Dale, who has received such recognition as “Best New Chef” from Food and Wine and Esquire magazines and plaudits from the James Beard Foundation, came to Santa Fe in 2008 from Aspen, where he owned and operated the luxurious Renaissance restaurant and Rustique Bistro.

Here, he was the executive chef at Terra, the five-star restaurant at the Auberge resort Rancho Encantado near Tesuque, where he again earned raves for his haute takes on Southwestern cuisine.

Now he’s going French, not a stretch for a man born in Nice and raised in Monaco by American parents.

“It’s in my blood,” he said of the choice to create a French bistro in New Mexico’s capital. “It was my first language, it is how I was trained and it’s the food that makes me feel good.”

After college at Princeton University, Dale apprenticed with Alain Sailhac, then chef at New York’s famed Le Cirque. A year later, he worked at Georges Masraff’s restaurant in Paris, then returned to New York and worked for Daniel Boulud at the Plaza Athenée Hotel. A trip to Boulud’s home town of Lyon put him in the kitchen of Jean-Paul Lacombe, disciple of Paul Bocuse. He returned for a stint as chef saucier at Le Cirque, again with Boulud at the helm.

Dale hastened to add, however, that the menu he’s created here is “very light”— meaning not a lot of heavy cream or butter. Lots of old favorites, though, including “Onion Soup ‘Les Halles’” and a charcuterie plank with San Daniele prosciutto, saucission de Lyon, duck rillettes with toast, country mustard and cornichon pickles.

Entrees range from olive oil-poached sole to a bistro steak with the requisite frites to braised short ribs, pot au feu style, or a confit of duck with white beans and kale. There’s a menu of “small plates” that grazers can enjoy, with the onion soup, tenderloin steak tartare and the classic escargots a la Bourguignonne.

Good news: The 10-person staff at Bouche includes Ephraim Gonzales, who baked the deservedly famous breads at Aqua Santa. He’s the only holdover from the former restaurant. They kept and rehabilitated the pizza oven that he baked those breads in, as well.

Building makeover

The building has undergone an extensive build-out. Floors have been replaced with tiles and mosaics in the kitchens. The bathroom has been completely renovated. The hardwood floor has been kept in the 35-seat dining room, but the walls were re-insulated and re-plastered —they were given a warm caramelish glaze by Guy’s Painting, Dale said.

“I said I wanted it to look like 70 years of people smoking Gitane cigarettes, and they nailed it,” he said happily. Mirrors and Parisian lamps will hang in the open kitchen and the dining room — five days before opening, the lamps were still being rewired for American electrical circuits.

The ceilings were soundproofed and framed with lengths of pressed tin ceiling tiles and then painted white. The north wall was opened and French doors now open to the 40-seat patio being prepared for summer. Dale kept the original chairs, the pizza oven and ranges from Aqua Santa, but just about everything else is new, including the storage units and coolers for the 60 labels on the wine list and the reverse osmosis filtering for tap water and ice.

A familiar friend, the ebullient Santa Fe native Paul Montoya, formerly of Terra and of Geronimo, is the sommelier and dining room manager. “We tested every one of the wines on our list,” Montoya said. He chuckled. “It was onerous.”

With entrees priced between $16 and $48 (for a roast organic chicken for two with garlic spinach), Dale didn’t want patrons to feel “hostage to a wine list.” His wines, he said, have a “reasonable” markup — “We do have storage and service and glassware costs” — but they are not priced out of sight.

“I know what a wine should cost,” he said. “That’s what our wines cost.”

Furniture artist Christopher Thayer was tapped to custom-build an antique-looking high table that sits between the kitchen and the dining room—a patron can sit on one of the four bar stools, have a glass of wine and some charcuterie and engage the chef in a little conversation while his meal is being prepared.

The building, Dale said, is 80 years old and has had numerous build-outs, some pretty careless, since its first incarnation as part of the West Side Feed and Fuel complex on Alameda. His landlord, Irvin Sandoval, is a member of the family that built the complex. “At age 7, he formed the adobe bricks that built this building,” Dale marveled.

“Irvin was here every day from 8 to 5 during the build-out for Bouche, working with the electricians, consulting on opening the wall for the doors to the patio,” Dale said. “He basically was my foreman and I didn’t have to pay him… of course, I was paying him rent!”

Dale took possession of the building Nov. 1, 2012, so it’s been a four-month renovation. “I am very ready to open,” he said with a grin.

And the telephone mailbox is crammed with reservation requests so he’s feeling anticipatory. Bouche will be open for dinner only, 5:30 p.m. until closing, Tuesday through Saturday.

“All in”

Dale is sole proprietor and sole investor. The investment has been, he said, “substantial. Restaurants are always capital-intensive.

“I’m all in, as they say in the poker game. But it’s exhilarating, and this is not my first rodeo,” he said. “You never know if you’ve got the right idea for the right place at the right time — or not. You have to take a chance.”

But he loves his neighborhood, across the street from Guadalupe Church and the Santuario. Dale said he is excited that Talin Market has opened a few blocks away. “I love the idea of marketing—of going to Talin and to the Farmers Market and creating daily specials from what I’ve found.”

He plans to stick with the basic menu for a couple of months and then start introducing specials. The cuisines of Lyon and Paris are his inspiration for the winter menu, but he intends to lean more on Provence during the summer months.

“I most look forward to Santa Fe continuing to be a vibrant culinary environment,” he said. “And Bouche being part of it.”