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Bouchée’s remake keeps the legend alive.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Since opening five years ago, Bouchée has inspired foodies of national stature to issue sweeping declarations and pen purple prose. “The best thing to happen to Carmel since Clint,” wrote the usually wary Zagat. “Unparalleled, the best restaurant between Los Angeles and San Francisco,” breathed the travel mag Entrée. Gourmet flung itself on the bed at l’Auberge, confessing to postpriandial Bouchée-inspired dreams of fantastical foods and begging for more.
Such are the flutterings induced by a chef like Walter Manzke, who came up from Los Angeles’ Patina to open Bouchée with owners David and Kathleen Fink (who also own Cantinetta Luca and the hotel and restaurant l’Auberge). Manzke departed in January, and last month the Finks did a quick remodel, removing the fireplace and opening up the room and prompting fans to wonder what would happen next (besides televisions in the restrooms).
Now Bouchée: The Second Chapter opens. It might be titled “Return to the Bistro.” No more press pot crab soups and strudel with sweetbread and foie gras. Chef de cuisine Christopher Dettmer, formerly of San Francisco’s Campton Place and Jardiniere, has found plenty of inspiration in the basics. We get steak frites, pig’s trotters, classic onion soup and abalone with black truffle and potatoes—all rustic in substance yet elegant in presentation. On two recent visits I found the quality of the food very good to excellent, with a minor exception. Bouchée is in good hands.
On my first visit, Felix and I perched at the small bar and split a half bottle of Domaine Herve Azo Chablis from the Vau de Vey vineyard ($32). Bouchée’s wine cellar is legendary—after all, its other half is a wine market—and we weren’t disappointed by this luxurious expression of the chardonnay grape. The fairly extensive list of half bottles encourages experimentation, which is a great thing for a wine bar to do. Bouchée also offers several wine flights each evening.
The atmosphere was pleasant and light, the service friendly if a bit awkward in places; one of my dishes appeared at an odd time and was taken away by our slightly flustered bartender to be replaced later.
But I was charmed by the notion of sitting in Carmel with Felix eating mussels in red wine with frites ($12) and dipping my bread into a delicious, nuanced thyme-laced broth. How Gallic! The mussels were ocean-fresh, and the pleasantly crispy frites arrived on the side in a parchment flute set in an elegant iron holder. The Hog Farms Asparagus ($10), three beautiful spears set off by chewy crumbled bacon, hard-boiled egg and lovely new potatoes, was all about letting the food’s innate quality shine through without a lot of frippery. My rustic fantasy was complete.
Felix’s Colorado lamb ($23) was a diminutive portion served with an eggplant ragout. The lamb was mildly flavored and extremely tender; we each praised it to the heavens. The eggplant, however, was almost too salty to eat. We agreed that this one taint on the meal had to have been a mistake.
I returned weeks later with Michael, this time to sit in the dining room. We chose an inexpensive Muralhas Vinho Verde ($30), but sommelier Corby Hagen appeared with democratic graciousness to ensure it was properly chilled and to our liking.
This time the entire experience was excellent. Our server brilliantly negotiated the line between professionalism and friendliness, offering knowledgeable counsel when we asked for it and never once rushing us. Our roasted beet and goat cheese salad with citrus vinaigrette ($10) was simple and fresh beyond reproach. Michael’s roasted free-range chicken ($24) was tender and flavorful, while the vegetable ragout had none of the wince-inducing saltiness I’d feared. I ordered the small but perfectly sufficient squab with apricot puree and carrots ($27). I found the slices of medium-rare breast meat, with their slightly gamey flavor, nicely set off by a breaded portion of shredded and smoked squab croquette that added just the right texture and flavor to the dish. A dollop of rhubarb was an unexpected delight.
We finished with some wonderfully stinky Epoisses cow’s milk cheese ($6), just for a taste, as well as a glass of Oregon’s Erath Pinot Noir ($10) for Michael and a sweet, effervescent La Spinetta Moscato di Asti ($8) for me. It was the perfect coda to a fine meal, and we were left to enjoy it in peace.
The last ones to leave the restaurant, we stepped out into the cool, quiet Carmel night and agreed on the verdict: change is good.
BOUCHÉE BISTRO, WINE BAR AND WINE MERCHANT
Mission between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel. • Restaurant: from 5pm daily; store: 10am-6pm daily. • 626-7880.