SANTA FE, N.M. — Postage stamp-sized Bouche, 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 pâtés 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.
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.
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 classic garlic-oiled bread variety!
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 Childs 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.
The bouillabaisse was excellent, 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.