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Bouche offers best of French dining in intimate space

Champagne waits to be served at Bouche Bistro, where French cuisine is featured. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Champagne waits to be served at Bouche Bistro, where French cuisine is featured. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Postage stamp-sized Bouche Bistro, the latest incarnation at the site of the old Noon Whistle on West Alameda, serves meticulous French classics in an intimate, but not chummy, atmosphere well matched with the food.

It was busy on the Saturday night we dined, yet despite the open kitchen only steps away, not at all hectic. We relaxed into the full French dinner: appetizers, salad, entrees and dessert, plus a glass of wine and plenty of conversation.

Bouche is proud of its charcuterie – house-made patés and terrines, for example, and other butcher-shop delicacies. So we opted for the charcuterie plank ($20, plus $14 for an added slice of foie gras terrine) to start.

It was a plank – a wood cutting board with generous servings of Italian prosciutto, Lyon sausage and a little pot of duck rillettes, the latter another house-made specialty. A slice of that liver terrine, a dollop of mustard and a few little cornichons were included.

All the selections were great, but we have to say it was the bread – a thick-crusted, thick-sliced and homemade country-style loaf – that kicked the selection up to wonderful. We tore off hunks, slathered on mustard and wrapped or piled or layered the various meat options. All were tasty – the prosciutto was so far above the supermarket “gourmet” offering it renewed our interest in the genre.

The rillettes were tender and richly flavored, the sausage excellent and the terrine milder than we expected, which may be a point in its favor for folks not generally interested in liver. Our only criticism: a few more cornichons please.

Bouche also offers a cheese plate garnished with mustard-laced fruit and Marcona almonds ($16/$30), as well as a seafood platter that includes oysters ($36/$60).

“Small plates” – or more conventionally, appetizers – range from onion soup and vegetable terrine to escargots, frog legs and steak tartare (in the $12-$18 range). We opted for escargots ($14), which none of us had sampled since various French excursions decades ago.

We weren’t disappointed: Six little succulent morsels were inundated in garlic, parsley and butter. Again, the snails were good, but the bread-and-sop with that savory butter was best of show.

From the salad offerings, we chose the Caesar ($14). The dressing was as it should be: bright with lemon, well laced with garlic and with just a hint of anchovy. The romaine was well coated with dressing, and the shower of sharp and thick-shaved reggiano cheese was generous.

But the croutons, billed as “panisse croutons” on the menu and subsequently described by the waitress as made with chickpea flour and thus gluten-free, were a universal dud with us. We found them heavy and soft. Bring back the standard garlic-oiled bread variety, please!

Other salad offerings include mesclun with sherry vinaigrette, tuna carpaccio Niçoise and frisée with crunchy pork lardons, a soft-boiled egg and creamy Humboldt Fog goat cheese.

Main-course selections range from beef stew-smothered ravioli, sweetbreads and calves’ liver to braised beef with horseradish and steak-frites, several offered in both larger and smaller portions at prices ranging from $16 for some of the smaller to $32 for some of the larger items. Well into the classics groove, we chose cassoulet ($30) and bouillabaisse, the featured fish dish of the evening ($32).

Julia Child describes cassoulet as French-style baked beans. Well, maybe. There are beans, in this case large, white ones. It is baked, which is to say the beans and the various meats are deep-dish melded in the oven. Pork is present, too – in Bouche’s version, it was a thick and fatty slice of pork belly.

But since cassoulet is a French dish, you expect herbs and garlic – both nicely in evidence. Bouche’s version includes a quarter of duck, the skin well crisped, plus braised lamb. My dining companion, hearkening back to his undergraduate year in France, loved it.

The bouillabaisse was excellent, too, and showily presented: The waitress brought the big soup bowl with the seafood to the table and poured over the saffron broth separately from a little carafe. A couple of Melba toasts spread with garlic-and-red-pepper-laced rouille came alongside.

The fish – shrimp, squid, rockfish and mussels – was very fresh and just cooked through. The broth was tasty and laced with strands of black spaghetti (colored, appropriately, with squid ink). Again, we resorted to more of that marvelous Bouche bread to mop up.

It was time for dessert. What could be better than more classics? We opted for tarte tatin and créme brûlée ($9, $8). Bouche gave both a little spin: The tarte was extra-thick, almost like an American apple pie without the top crust. Lots of apples, in short, perfectly cooked and not too sweet.

But the caramel sauce slathered over the top had congealed against the vanilla ice cream, making it hard to eat. And we wondered, who really needs caramel sauce atop the perfect apple pie?

The Demerara créme brûlée, however, was a show-stopper. Over and over, our spoons reached out to it. What made it special was the topping, of dark brown Demerara sugar.

Our waiter explained that this less-refined sugar burned black if the torch was applied to make the hard sugar crust typical of créme brûlée. So Bouche runs the pudding briefly under the broiler, giving the Demerara topping a faint and very pleasant burnt-sugar taste while leaving lots of crystalline, molasses-laced crunch.

Seriously good. We may never eat any other kind of créme brûlée again.