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Aspen Times Weekly: Serendipity in Santa Fe

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Bouche Bistro

451 W. Alameda St.

Santa Fe, N.M.

505-982-6297

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AFTER 400 DUSTY MILES on a road trip that will stretch many hundred miles more, we arrive in Santa Fe. The sun is sinking low on the horizon, so we set our sights on dinner. But instead of seeking spicy Southwestern fare, I have something else in mind: French classics, with a twist.

Eighteen months ago, Charles Dale—perhaps one of Aspen's most influential chefs, notably for helming award-winning restaurants including Renaissance (1990), which earned him a Food & Wine Best New Chef title in 1995, Rustique Bistro (2000), and Range (2003)—opened a new joint in the heart of Santa Fe: Bouche Bistro.

From the outside, Bouche resembles any other 70-year-old adobe abode in New Mexico. Inside, though, the 1,100-square-foot space recalls a Provençal living room: warmly lit, wooden chairs packed with locals, and flanked by an open kitchen. Dale, 56, stands sentinel amid a whirl of white coats, alternately stirring dishes at the stove and greeting guests at the door just steps away. Our meal comprises dishes reminiscent of Dale's storied career: charred octopus; black mussels marinated in white wine; escargots à la Bourguignonne; frisée salad, updated with 60-degree egg and Humboldt Fog goat cheese; grilled sea bass with carrot-celery remoulade. La pièce de résistance — crème brulée, natch — is the version Dale has prepared since his apprenticeship at New York City's famed Le Cirque in 1983. It's crèma Catalana, covered with velvety, chestnut-brown Demerara sugar and spared the blowtorch, unlike the glassy, saccharine preparation commonly associated with the iconic Parisian dessert. Like Dale's other subtle flourishes, the swap has significant effect.

"This is reductive French—not four different people with their hands on your food," says Dale, pulling a chair to our table as service simmers down. "Simple French food, the kind I like to eat."

Read on for more about Dale's final venture in the City Different —and an upcoming Aspen reunion.

So, why Santa Fe?

Eric Calderon, former GM at The Little Nell, tapped me to open a hotel here for Auberge Resorts. They wanted a restaurant with a hotel, rather than a hotel restaurant. I'd been part of a team for the revamp of the Hotel Jerome in 1988, under Dick Butera, and the opening of [New York City's] Hotel Plaza Athénée in 1983. To have all of the food and beverage on my shoulders was exciting. In 2012, management was ceded to Four Seasons, and I felt it was time to go back to being an entrepreneur.

How is Bouche different from your restaurants in Aspen?

Bouche represents the most authentic restaurant I've ever done. I learned from Rustique and Renaissance that the food I love is a blend of bistro cooking and French home cooking. There are dishes on the menu that remind me of my childhood [in Monaco]; the design is based around classic Parisian bistros, places you go in your neighborhood. I'd done so much fussy food and worked for fussy chefs — I'd been a fussy chef at one point — and in maturing realized that simplicity is the best expression of your craft.

What are some examples?

When I was a kid, we used to have a dish of endive wrapped in ham with béchamel sauce, cooked in the oven with Gruyère cheese. The butternut squash ravioli with Parisian ham, Gruyère, and soubise, gratinéed, is a seasonal hybrid of that. I grew up in the south of France, actually Monaco, on the Italian border, so pasta dishes were part of our everyday meals. That's where my love lies. The Tuna Carpaccio Niçoise is a version of a sandwich we used to take to the beach in the summer, pan bagnat — Niçoise salad in a sandwich: egg, tomato, greens, tuna, olives, dressing. This is a lighter, more contemporary version, on the menu since day one.

What about the octopus?

My dad used to go spearfishing for octopus in the port of Monaco. I remember him bringing it in and we would cook it in a tomato-olive sauce, Provençal style. That dish is probably as close as I get to fusion today, Greek influence with the chickpea purée and pimentón. But it's all regional. There's no lemongrass on the menu, for example.

Any dishes from Aspen, specifically?

The beef short ribs pot-au-feu style we evolved at Rustique. Instead of cabbage, I use leaves of Brussels sprouts. Calf's liver with Dijon sauce, the way my mom used to make it, was on the original Rustique menu. I do a different version of frisée salad today, the only nod to my background in molecular gastronomy, when Barclay Dodge was chef de cuisine at Renaissance: A 60-degree egg, cooked in its shell in an immersion circulator so it's perfectly poached when we crack it. We do pork belly lardons instead of bacon, too.

What's the story behind the molten-center L&L's Cheese Tots we tried?

That's for my children, Lili and Lucien. They were both born in Aspen. When they were little they used to order grilled-cheese sandwiches. They'd take the cheese from the sandwich, stuff it in the tater tots, and say, 'Hey Dad, try this!' [laugh] I said, Someday I'll put this on my menu…so I did.

Were you wary of opening a locals' eatery on the tail of a recession?

We're full almost every night, so something is working. Parisians — French restaurants — don't advertise. Bouche — the word for 'mouth' — implies 'word of mouth,' as well as métier de la bouche, my profession as a cook — 'craft of the mouth.' We depend on people telling their friends and visitors that Bouche is a place where you can have a good meal.

Have you faced other challenges?

One of the great disasters of all time was printing a menu with Dover sole on it…and then realizing I couldn't get true Dover sole. I had to use what the fish purveyors were calling Dover sole, which was more like Petrale sole. We wanted to poach something sous-vide; we wanted something healthy, to dispel the notion that French cuisine is rich and butter-heavy. I maintain that people eat more butter on our house-made bread than we ever put in the food! The sole would fall apart when we took it out of the bag. Some people loved it; other people hated it. I thought, 'Gosh, I can't have anything that 50 percent of people hate. So I had to scrap 1,500 menus and change to halibut. I don't stand by the mistakes forever.

You've said that Bouche is your last restaurant. Really?

Yeah. This week it stands! [laugh]

So you might change your mind?

I'm a restless creative type. You never know, if I feel like it's reached its zenith, like with Renaissance, I might change it.

What's happening this winter?

I'm looking forward to James Mazzio joining me here for Christmas with a view to join me [permanently] as chef de cuisine. He came and did a guest-chef appearance in the spring, then went back to Snowmass, then came down for the Santa Fe Wine & Chili Fiesta.

A reunion of sorts, with a fellow Food & Wine Best New Chef [1999] to boot!

He was my chef de cuisine at Renaissance for several years. I have a menu that was signed in 1996 by Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Marcella Hazan, and Daniel Boulud — it was an incredible time that we had. We've all grown. That will bring me back to the Italian piece of my heritage. It's risky putting this in an article, in case he changes his mind, but I know he's coming for the holiday. So, when I say it's my last restaurant, its nice to qualify it. If I get a little more help, I might do more….

In 2012, a road trip led Amanda Rae to Aspen. amandaraewashere@gmail.com