Thursday, June 3, 2004
The stork on the roof of Bechler’s signals your arrival at Pacific Grove’s own bit of Alsace off Highway 68. The stork is a symbol of Alsace, France’s eastern region bordering Germany and native region of pastry chef Gerard Bechler.
When you enter Bechler’s, a wall mural depicting an Alsatian village with its steep-roofed houses held together with wooden beams greets you. I am tempted to walk down the mural’s winding streets in search of shops selling the famous wines of the region like Gewurztraminer and Riesling as well as the region’s fragrant yet zesty cheese, Muenster. Luckily, to find beautiful pastries all I have to do is look around Bechler’s.
Sometimes I have chosen to eat pastries with coffee in this room, because its lace curtains separating it from the main dining room remind me of being invited to a French friend’s house for a chat. While there, I like to leaf through wedding magazines and Bechler’s notebooks of cake creations he has made for stars like Clint Eastwood and Luciano Pavarotti. I am reminded that the great chef Careme once likened pastry to the art of sculpture.
I usually eat in the restaurant’s main dining room when I go to Alliance Francaise lunches. Alsatian charm permeates the room. Most notably, Bechler has installed a two-tiered fountain with lion faces in the center of the room like the ones you find in Alsatian villages. Arms from the town of Colmar, close to Bechler’s village of Bergheim, decorate the walls along with a picture of beehive signs like the ones that hang from buildings in Alsace. Later, Bechler told me that the same beehives decorate shops in Germany.
“Alsace has been fought over by Germany and France several times,” Bechler told me. “Now all we want to do is drink wine together.”
The menu reflects light French fare rather than hearty Alsatian dishes like choucroute (sauerkraut with assorted pork sausages). Quiches, soups, and salad are the restaurant’s mainstays with daily specials adding variety. Quiche is the specialty of Alsace’s neighboring region, the Lorraine, which also has a history of contact with Germany. The name “quiche” actually derives from the German word “kuchen” meaning “cake,” according to Jean Ferniot’s La France des Terroirs Gourmands. It’s worth noting that the “ch” in French is pronounced “sh,” making the French pronunciation of Bechler “Beshler” not “Bekler.”
The day my husband Laurent and I reviewed the restaurant, we chose the salmon and spinach quiche ($7.50) and the spinach quiche ($7). Bechler’s creamy custard-like fillings always make his savory ingredients taste even better. What I liked most about my salmon and spinach filling was that the chef had used enough salt in the preparation so that the end result was not bland, but actually brought out the flavor of the salmon. The same was true of Laurent’s spinach quiche. The real test of a successful quiche lies in its crust. Bechler’s crust is tender and perfectly absorbs the flavors of his ingredients.
My favorite dish at Bechler’s is the onion soup ($4.25/bowl). Julia Child once said, “It’s hard to imagine civilization without onions.” Surely she must have been thinking of onion soups like Bechler’s. This famous bistro dish gets it start by sautéing onions in butter. You add beef bouillon to these when they have become golden along with the French-touch ingredient—dry white wine. The traditional recipe calls for toasting bread, sprinkling grated Gruyere cheese on top of the toast, and pouring soup over it all, melting the cheese in the process. Bechler improves upon the process by using thin slices of non-toasted bread in his soup.
On other occasions I have tried the restaurant’s pork pie ($8.50). This turned out to be a very sophisticated pot pie. The brown crust flaked in my mouth while the ground pork and onion interior made me eat slowly so it would last longer.
These foods are all good, but the real reason for coming to
Bechler’s is to sample the desserts. One of my daughter’s
favorites is the meringue cookies (85¢). These look like baked
packaging ribbons and really do not have a lot of calories.
Laurent likes to indulge in chocolate éclairs ($2.15).
features a pastry cream rather than chocolate filling.
I like the passion fruit mousse ($2.95) made of a thin, moist cake layer that serves as the base for the mousse, on top of which is a clear icing. Bechler sets a raspberry in the center on a white frosting base. On either side of the raspberry he makes two curving lines with chocolate sauce.
Bechler looks as grand as his desserts when he comes out of the kitchen in his double-breasted, white chef’s uniform. He perfected his pastry making at the three-star Michelin restaurant Auberge de l’Ile before coming to the United States in 1984 with his American wife. He hopes to introduce more inventive pastries like the ones he made in France to the Peninsula. I say, bring it on!
1225 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove
Open Tues-Sat 7am-6pm, Sun 7am-noon.