A quick weekend get-away from New York landed us at the Oakland Airport where we rented a car and drove south to Monterey and Carmel. We paid $8.50 to do the 17-mile Pebble Beach Drive which rewarded us with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, lots of cypress trees and an occasional sea lion swimming around the big rocks dotting the coastline. Afterwards, we walked down to the beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea which is a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. We could have stayed and watched the sun set but wanted to get ready for dinner that night.
Dinner at Bouchee that evening, a wine bar/retail store by day and upscale restaurant at night, was a true find. It was a Sunday night, so the restaurant wasn’t very crowded and the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea itself seemed eerily quiet. Sometimes though, the lack of guests in the dining room puts a kitchen into what I like to refer to as “coma mode.”
Initially, we were served something we never ordered. Once the kitchen realized their mistake, they woke up out of their “slow night in the restaurant” malaise and started showing off. And that they do very well as evidenced by a dazzling array of dishes that gradually came out of the kitchen. Think small portions but well balanced. Think the freshest fish and vegetables, the choicest meats.
For starters, we were brought an amuse bouche of halibut “balls” (basically fried fish balls) served with a creamy gazpacho. Never having eaten or heard of sand dabs, I moved on to try this small flat fish that’s usually only found in the Pacific. The sand dabs came with a cumin and yogurt sauce and were served with an heirloom tomato salad. Next course up: a warm tomato soup with giant prawns. (We were eating a lot of end-of-the-season, eat all you can get tomatoes here.) Second appetizer: the kitchen’s deconstructivist version of pasta alla carbonara: some homemade pasta, some pancetta and the pièce de résistance — a goldenrod-colored egg yolk nestled smack in the middle of the dish for one to mix and coat the noodles at one’s leisure. (Trust me even with the self-mixing, we consumed this dish in about six seconds.) The main course: melting-off-the-bone short ribs with some baby vegetables on the side. With a simple but elegant cheese course, paired with a Walter Hansel Cabernet Sauvignon, Bouchee was a restaurant we wanted to come back to again and again.
Going in with high expectations based on last year’s visit, this time Bouchee was packed but the service was impeccable and the kitchen up to speed.
What bothered us: annoying guests at THREE other tables (a record I think for annoying people on all sides of you). Dining with us tonight at:
Table # 1 – Middle-aged son with a very old mother who apparently was not ordering what he thought she should eat. (My reaction: Leave her alone for Christ’s sake!)
Table #2 – Young couple who drank soda with every course. (Yuck, get a life or at the very least have a glass of water not a brown beverage loaded with chemicals and sugar with dinner!)
Table #3 – Group of retirees who wouldn’t stop drinking and thus had difficulty getting up from the table when it was time to leave. (I won’t comment on this since sometimes even I have trouble getting up from a table after too much eating, drinking or both.)
Putting on blinders and trying to focus despite the many distractions around us, Lynn started with a white bean soup with prosciutto-wrapped prawns that were drizzled with pesto. I had the ever-so-popular tuna tartare with fresh chunks of avocado. I know this dish can sometimes be a bore, but it wasn’t. We both had the fish special of sole. It was a decent piece of fish but not particularly memorable. But something was missing here. Ah yes, no freebies. NO AMUSE BOUCHE? I guess we were spoiled by last year’s “free food,” which threw us off guard. We finished by splitting a plate between us of profiteroles with espresso ice cream and drank a bottle of Justin Cabernet Sauvignon.
The wrap up? Sometimes second visits don’t measure up to the first visit especially if there was a lot of “wow” factor going on the first time. It’s still however, our favorite place to eat when we are in the Carmel, California, area.
The big surprise in this year’s visit was the menu had changed, drastically. All of a sudden Bouchee had become “old school” French. I was a tad disappointed since the menu on both of our previous visits had been so visionary. Luckily, “old school” French was “good school” French with a slew of still very creative California-inspired fresh from the sea or market driven appetizers.
Bouchee also did a room renovation in the last year or so getting rid of the fireplace which had been awkwardly placed in one corner taking up much valuable table space and expanding the front wine bar to encourage street traffic to come in for a glass of wine. They’ve also jumped on the band wagon of the open kitchen concept/chef’s table where a select few diners have the privilege (or not) of watching what’s being stirred, chopped and plated.
Service that night was handled by one single waitress who was quite adept at going over menu items, the wine list and expertly describing the cheese cart.
Foremost on the menu of appetizers was the abalone. Since we can’t get this tasty fish on this side of the Atlantic, while expensive, it’s a luxury I couldn’t pass up. It didn’t disappoint; thin slices of lightly sautéed abalone were nestled on a bed of creamy potatoes surrounded by a ring of truffled butter sauce. Lynn had some oysters as a starter then moved on to perfectly cooked slices of duck breast with fresh asparagus. I had old school Boeuf Bourguignon but that’s where the surprise began. It was cooked in a semi-traditional manner with onions, carrots, and mushrooms but the red wine sauce was much lighter (seemingly not thickened with flour and butter) and it was not chucks of beef per se but a beef short rib that had been ‘de-ribbed” so the meat was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
We had a bottle of Trochard Cabernet Sauvignon that worked quiet well with both entrees. Then came the choice of cheese. Considering where we were (Central Coast California not too far from many small artisanal cheesemakers plus the now quite large Cowgirl Creamery*), I was surprised that their cheese selection was primarily French. I can only think it had to do with their menu revamp.
(*Cowgirl Creamery while still operating filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and in the spring of 2009 new owners took over Bouchee.)