Award-Winning Comfort Food with a Touch of Elegance
French-born chef Charles Dale has always followed the calling of his heart. It has led him around the world, earning stellar acclaim for his craft wherever he cooked, and brought him to Santa Fe, where he opened the revered Bouche Bistro. Now, after more than three years of serving French-inspired fare at the bistro, Dale has changed things up, offering French and Italian coastal cuisine with an emphasis on seafood, along with a pasta, risotto or gnocchi special that changes nightly.
“This feels very natural to me,” says Dale. “It's a natural progression of where we should be going. We're having lots of fun because it's very authentic and it's a true blend of talent, with me, chef James Mazzio, who is Italian-American, and Steven Haskell, who we brought in from Maine because he is an expert at making gnocchi and pasta. It's exciting. You have to keep renewing yourself. And it makes it authentic for me, cooking from where I was born. This is the food I like to eat.”
Born in Nice and raised in Monaco by American parents, Dale studied Romance Languages and Art History at Princeton University before changing course to pursue his passion for creativity with food. He apprenticed at New York's legendary Le Cirque, worked with Michelin 2-star French chef Daniel Boulud and Georges Masraff in Paris, and launched the fine dining scene in Aspen with the 1990 opening of Renaissance, his French-inspired restaurant, landing him a spot on Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs list.
Santa Fe embraced Dale when he arrived from Aspen in 2008 to open Terra at Rancho Encantado. His creative Southwestern cuisine earned raves and Terra was named one of the best new restaurants of the year. The hotel was the first property in New Mexico to win a coveted AAA 5-Diamond Award, and it did so for three years running. But when Auberge ceded the resort to Four Seasons Hotels in 2012, Dale took a new direction and opened his own Santa Fe restaurant, Bouche Bistro, painstakingly designed to look and feel like a classic Parisian neighborhood bistro.
Many of the bistro classics are still on Bouche's menu, including Steak au Poivre with Pommes Frites, Classic Escargots à la Bourguignonne and Seared Fresh Foie Gras. But popular new items that reflect the shift in cuisine are Grilled Calamari and Marinated Octopus with Chick Peas and Arugula, Lobster and Bacalá Ravioli with Sweet Peas and the debut of Weekly Features such as Braised Osso Bucco with White Truffle Polenta. Nightly pasta, gnocchi or housemade fresh pasta dishes include Tagliatelle Bolognese, Gnocchi with Chicken Confit and Tomato and Spinach Risotto with Grilled Prawns.
It's not surprising to learn that Dale's wife, Leigh Moiola, is of Italian heritage and that the couple married in Tuscany. Dale is a huge fan of Italian wines and their home wine cellar is filled with varietals she introduced to him. When they made the decision for Bouche to focus on the coastal cuisine of France and Italy, they planned a tasting trip in March, and invited chef Mazzio to join them.
“It was a whirlwind of a trip,” Dale says. “We flew into Nice and visited two restaurants, one for lunch and one for dinner, then went to Monaco. I wanted to show my wife where I grew up, because she'd never been there, and also I wanted to re-immerse myself in that culinary culture. What I realized, even before crossing over into Italy, was that the cuisine in that part of France is highly influenced by the cuisine of Italy. And that's because, Nice, formerly known as Nissa, was part of the Duchy of Savoy, an Italian province since the days of the Romans. And it was Napoleon who took it back during the Napoleonic Wars. After the English defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, everybody from the north started coming down for vacations in the sunny Mediterranean, so Nice is very much a melting pot of Italian, French and English.”
Next, the trio toured the Ligurian Coast. “It's kind of an untrod path, as it isn't very well known to most people, other than the Italians,” Dale says. “Most tourists go to Rome, Naples, Venice and the Isle of Capri. But the Ligurian Coast is very interesting because it's primarily seafood-oriented. And of course, they eat great pasta and risotto. So we traveled along the coast to the point where we were really sick of seafood then headed inland and south to Modena, where you've got prosciutto, parma ham, and parmigiano cheese. It's the capital of balsamic vinegar, which is why they have this incredible combination of good prosciutto with chunks of 24-month old parmigiano, 18-month old parma ham and a 12-year balsamic. That's a fabulous combination of flavors and it's because all of those things come from the same region. That ideology influences the way that I cook and the way that I think about food: what comes from where, and that's how we put things together because they naturally and organically came together. A good example of this is ratatouille. The eggplants, zucchini, bell pepper and tomato all come from the same climate and ripen at the same time. And so you have a a lot of it and you need to figure out how to cook it.”
In Modena, Dale was excited to visit Osteria Francescana because the three Michelin-star chef/owner Massimo Bottura had dined at Bouche within the first three months of its opening. “I've had the good fortune to go to several three-Michelin-star restaurants in my life, all in different countries and I have to say this was at the top of all of those experiences,” Dale recalls. “It was intelligent cuisine, it was humorous, it was delicious and after 12 courses, we weren't stuffed. It was brilliant.”
One of those dishes featured black lentils served in a caviar tin. “There were five textures of parmigiano cheese along with the crunch,y burnt part of the lasagne that kids always go for first,” Dale says. “The lentils were better than caviar and the dish was phenomenal. What's beautiful about his cooking is that it's soulful, he understands the hearth, the family meal and the home and he brings it to this highly sophisticated place. That was an inspiration for us because the food at Bouche is about comfort with a touch of elegance. So without being over-thought and overplayed with, it's not heavy French food. It tends toward the lighter side and we go between the very essential cooking of France and now Italy with haute cuisine. One example of that hybridization is our Grilled Asparagus with Crispy Prosciutto, Brioche Toast and Hollandaise.”
After stops in Bologna to sample authentic, homestyle Bolognese cuisine then Venice for delicious pasta, seafood and wine, the travelers returned to Nice for one more delectable dinner then flew home, inspired by all that they had seen and tasted. And within just a few months, Bouche debuted a spring menu that transports diners to the coastal towns and inland regions of Italy and France via mouth-watering flavors and fresh ingredients. On Fridays, for example, the specials include Bouillabaisse Provençale with Rouille and Crostini and the pasta of the night, usually Tagliatelle Bolognese. “It's a great night, where you have the most classic seafood dish from the south of France and the most classic pasta dish from northern Italy.”
Part of the magic of Bouche's food comes from Dale's devotion to using fresh, seasonal ingredients, and he grows many of those in his home garden, which is about the size of his 50-seat restaurant. “This year, I'm growing a lot of basil, along with tomato, spinach, eggplant, potatoes, beans, peas, beets, carrots, cucumber and salad greens,” he says. “And it's all organic.”
When he's not at Bouche greeting diners, checking on their meals and overseeing every detail, Dale spends time with his family, which includes his 14-year-old son Lucien, and 16-year-old daughter Lili, who works as a hostess at the restaurant. Their family meals reflect the foods at Bouche. “As a special treat, we make spaghetti with bottarga, which is the dried roe of red mullet tuna,” Dale says. “In the south of France we saw bottarga made from tuna and/or swordfish roe. You grate it over pasta that's been tossed with olive oil, parsley, garlic and red chile. The kids also love linguine with pesto that we make with ingredients from our garden. We make it traditionally with pine nuts, parmigiana, garlic, olive oil and basil. Otherwise, we tend to have protein with vegetables and that is very much the Mediterranean diet.”
The new approach to Bouche's cuisine is about more than just the food. “We're trying to bring to the restaurant the idea that the lifestyle of these regions of France and Italy celebrates beauty, good food and conversation, conviviality and culture.”