SANTA FE, N.M. — Bouche opened this spring on the edge of the Guadalupe district in the space formerly occupied by Aquasanta. The chef and owner, Charles Dale, knows his way around a kitchen and drew rave reviews (mine included) when he ran the show at Terra, the restaurant at the Encantado Four Seasons Resort. Dale is a pro and Bouche, although it still has some rough spots, seems to be on a trajectory to become one of Santa Fe’s premier restaurants.
The best thing about Bouche is the chef/owner’s hands-on attention to detail. The night of our visit, Chef Dale introduced himself to his customers table by table, welcoming them and thanking them for their business. He asked how we liked the food. This personal commitment to quality ought to make a difference.
Friends and I visited just before the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, and I’m glad it was still temperate enough to eat outside beneath the warming lamps. Although the atmosphere was picnic-like, it was quiet. The interior of Bouche is cozy and can be tight and noisy when busy, especially on weekends.
Dinner at Bouche brought two big surprises.
First, for a new restaurant, the food and service seemed well under control. The process of making a reservation wasn’t smooth over the phone, but that could new restaurant jitters. The open table website worked very well.
Secondly, I was surprised at the bill. While Bouche is striving to become one of Santa Fe’s best restaurants, it is already among the more expensive. We paid $18 for the charchuterie plank, an assortment of cold meat which we shared as an appetizer. The meat was good – first-rate prosciutto, nice lean salami and a tasty house-made pork rillette (a country-style pate), a few tiny pickles and a bit of sharp mustard. But it wasn’t more than a few bite-fulls for each of the four of us. And the additional $12 to add a slice of “Terrine of Foie Gras” was unacceptable. The slice was tiny —— the size of a stack of four half-dollar coins —— and not worth the price. Our entrees however, were memorable in a delicious way. We ordered and enjoyed two of the evening’s specials. The swordfish was some of the best I’ve ever eaten, juicy, delicious and perfectly cooked. It came with a colorful assortment of fresh vegetables, including eye-catching purple potatoes, none of them overcooked. The braised lamb was fall-off-the-bone tender and full of flavor. The steak, selected from the menu, was excellent as were the slender, fresh, hot fries. The presentation of this dish, however was uninspired, just a piece of sliced beef with sauce on a white plate with a white bowl of French fries. The other two were beautifully plated.
The regular menu is brief but interesting, divided into small plates, salads, entrees sides and desserts, with a separate listing for platters —— the charcuterie assortment we tried as well as cheese and seafood. The small plates and salads include a different nightly gourmet preparation of fresh sauteed Foie Gras, steak tartare, escargots a la bourguignonne, friseé salad with egg and pork belly, and frog legs. In addition to the steak and nightly specials, entrees feature sautéed sweetbreads, calf’s liver, grilled chicken paillarde, mussels, halibut and duck confit.
For a young restaurant, there were surprisingly few missteps. The soup of the day, fresh carrot with a garnish of crab, was too salty. The Caesar salad we ordered got top marks for fresh lettuce, a nice amount of thinly shaved Reggiano cheese and an abundance of anchovies. But the dressing was much too lemony for my friend’s taste, and I agreed.
When Chef Dale came by to chat with us, my friends and I mentioned these problems. Dale tasted the soup, sampled the salad and agreed —— although he might be partial to the tart dressing. My friends who had ordered the unsuccessful dishes were surprised (and pleased!) to be presented with a complimentary dessert. The red fruit tartlet ($10), a light, flaky little pie had a thin layer of sweet custard topped with raspberries, strawberry slices and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The profiteroles ($4 each) were marvelous, attractive and yummy. The light puff pastry shell stayed crisp despite serving as a container for a generous scoop of rich vanilla ice cream. The waiter poured luscious warm chocolate sauce over the shell so it dripped onto the ice cream. He left the remaining chocolate for us. We didn’t let it go to waste.
Service was good throughout the evening, well-informed, polite and attentive without being intrusive.
Our bill for the shared appetizer and three entrees was approximately $120 with tax before the tip and without wine. The restaurant deducted the cost of the problematic soup and salad and offered two complimentary desserts.