Thursday, May 15, 2008
When Bouchée opened in 2002, it was as if a tiny, yet advanced, civilization had been plunked down in the middle of Carmel to demonstrate the next phase in the evolution of local restaurants. Those were the days when tech money gushed like oil from wells, and Bouchée could be counted on for a nice return on one’s investment.
Owner David Fink soon opened L’Auberge Carmel, a smaller, even more luxurious restaurant plus an inn, and then Cantinetta Luca, which also offered high design and food, but with more casual dining in the bar and seating at an open kitchen, as well as a sleek dining room. In 2007, Fink wisely borrowed from his own inspiration at Luca and refashioned Bouchée into a more accessible and relatively more affordable eatery.
The results are a welcome improvement. Walls were demolished, the kitchen was exposed, and bar seating was added at the kitchen. The establishment still feels worldly and cultured, and you can still invest heavily by ordering oysters, abalone, and $20 glasses of wine from the bistro-style menu. But portions are now larger and most entrees cost around $26, with starters as low as $8, comparable to many restaurants in Carmel. Yet the aim is higher than many restaurants in terms of food quality and the level of service.
For an example of both, the asparagus soup contains no cream or chicken stock, just the finest H.O.G. Farms organic asparagus from Hollister, puréed. Our server ladled the broth at the table over luxurious applewood-smoked bacon and morel mushrooms ($10). It was both delicate and unctuous, with an assist from good, warm bread made daily at Luca. Let’s not underestimate the importance of good bread.
On quiet Sunday and Tuesday visits, I felt spoiled with attention by all sorts of people: our gracious server, the helpful wine bartender, the ever-smiling bus person, and the friendly hostess. It was relaxed and appropriately chatty. On a Saturday, it was busier – which usually adds to a sense of fun, but there was a managerial energy that felt more like tense business than pleasure. Several tables were seated simultaneously, which perhaps strained service and contributed to the lack of bonhomie.
All meals begin with olives served to each pretty table and I recommend a glass of nonvintage Charles de Fère Brut Rosé Champagne ($9) to invigorate the palate. I tried two salads and appreciated their simplicity and precisely applied dressing: the butter lettuce salad with fresh tarragon and herb vinaigrette ($8) and the Maraîchère mixed greens with a Banyuls dessert wine dressing and goat cheese on toasted bread ($9).
The coq au vin ($26) was a well-presented demonstration of Executive Chef Jason Balistrieri’s tendency to showcase ingredients. The crisp-skinned chicken was braised in red wine and surrounded with morel mushrooms, chewy chunks of the applewood-smoked bacon, carrots and pearl onions. Many versions of this classic are stewed and saucy and the big flavor achieved here owed itself to the more discreet preparation.
On the busy Saturday, I had duck confit with arugula, marcona almonds, tangerine segments and beets ($26). The nontraditional complements worked well, though the duck was somewhat dry. The two gentlemen I dined with were also served first, and though this is inconsequential to me, a modern woman, I could not convince them to begin.
On one night, when the bartender suggested a glass of red Bordeaux, I quickly agreed. “Make it two,” said my companion (who, by the way, raved for days about his onion soup starter and pork loin with apples and fennel entree, $27). One sip of the generous, silken 2003 Chateau Belles-Graves from Lalande-Pomerol and I knew we should have asked the price (plus the hint: Pomerol). $20 each! Carpe diem! It was well worth it. Excellent wines by the glass are one of the great things about Bouchée – in 3.5 or 6 ounces.
We passed on the cheese cart in favor of some tasty profiteroles: three pastries filled with housemade ice cream (vanilla, chocolate and/or strawberry) and drizzled with chocolate sauce ($8).
The restaurant opens into the Bouchée Wine Merchant, a retail shop which doubles as the cellar.
The changes at Bouchée were absolutely the right idea. It remains one of my most recommended Carmel restaurants and is at its best when it doesn’t strain to overachieve.
BOUCHÉE RESTAURANT & WINE BAR Mission Street between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel • 5:30-10pm daily; wine bar opens at 4:30pm (4pm Fri-Sat) • 626-7880.