The City Different is the same as hundreds of other American cities and towns in this respect at least: It has had a long, flickering flirtation with the idea of a French bistro. Nobody knows what a bistro really is anymore, maybe not even the French themselves, but here in the States, its minimal requirements would seem to be the word “bistro” in its name; an espresso machine, working or merely ornamental; a basketful of thickly sliced bread; French fries; and at least one variety of French wine (poster of the Eiffel Tower optional).
Nobody now living can recall how many local restaurants have fulfilled these requirements—dozens, surely.
And now Santa Fe has its newest iteration—but this one promises to be different. Bouche, the creation of well-known local chef Charles Dale, is set to open on Tuesday, Feb. 26 in the West Alameda space formerly occupied by Aqua Santa.
“We have all of these [requirements],” Dale says cheerfully, “except the Eiffel Tower.”
French-born and raised, Dale has his own set of essentials, gathered through the years when he apprenticed in kitchens in Lyons (perhaps the bistro capital of France), Paris and New York’s pricey Le Cirque. To refresh his memory of how things should be done, he took two research trips to Paris last year, dining at such classics as L’Ami Louis as well as some of the newer versions.
“A bistro must be small,” Dale says, “intimate in feeling. People should be tightly seated; the atmosphere should be slightly raucous. After all, these places are meant to be fun.” This is good news to those of us here who have endured the sepulchral hush of some of Santa Fe’s starchier establishments.
Atmospherics aside, Dale believes an authentic bistro must offer the following items—if not always, then with some consistency: roasted chicken, escargot, steak tartare, confit of duck, steak-frites and some form of foie gras. In a nod to changing tastes, he will also offer at lest one vegetarian entrée. These will form the core of his menu, and will complement nightly blackboard specials like coq au vin and what he calls “bistro cuts,” such as sweetbreads and calf’s liver.
As for the bread and wine, Dale has been fortunate enough to retain the services of Aqua Santa’s baker, whose crusty, flavorful bread clients will happily recall. He’s also assembled a wine list of French and American bottles that aspires to be “the best value in town, but not necessarily the cheapest,” along with a good selection of wines by the glass.
During the summer, diners can enjoy a completely redone patio, as well as some menu changes that reflect both the season and Dale’s Provençal background. To judge from the sample menu I saw, you probably couldn’t expect to get the full Bouche experience for less than $100 for two, sans wine.
Dale knows the Santa Fe gastro scene well from his years at Terra at Rancho Encantado, so he’s aware of the history regarding our flirtation with French-style restaurants.
“My goal here,” he says, “is to create a kind of microcosm within the wider community, so that when you walk into Bouche, you feel you’re walking into a Parisian bistro, minus the French accents. Of course, one has to remember that this is a tourist destination as well as a town with its own traditions. When people dine out here, they expect New Mexico-style food. But this is the kind of challenge I love.”
451 W Alameda St., 982-6297
Opens on Tuesday, Feb. 26