Wednesday, July 12, 2023

An Ode to bouchon at 25

Too often the food world gets caught up in flash and fashion, and forgets about the enduring values of grace, class, and taste. But people do eventually realize foams just look like spittle on the plate, that poke is just okey-dokey. Service, attention, care--that's what you really need if you want to dine.

So it's crucial to recognize the places that don't try to dance so fast you might not notice there's no music playing. That's why I'm here to praise bouchon as it celebrates its 25th anniversary on Victoria Street this Bastille Day weekend. (That anniversary day and the French name--which, btw, happened the same year somebody named Keller opened his Bouchon up in Napa--might be why people mistakenly think it's a French restaurant.) Given that restaurant years are like dog years--each one ages you like seven--you have to hand it to proprietors Mitchell Sverjen and Amy Sachs for not just surviving but thriving for two and half decades.

Even though you might want to shed a tear for the thousands of ducks done in to serve the restaurant's signature dish you see above. Take in that port-thyme demi-glace; its glaze so rich you can almost see your reflection in it. Then there's nailing both preparations, the maple-glazed breast precisely medium rare, juicy under its crisped skin, the confit leg a melt-in-the-mouth umami bomb. Plus it's a plate, not just a protein dump on a dish that insists you have to purchase sides at $10 a pop to finish out your meal. There's true comfort in knowing the kitchen thoughtfully put together that succotash of sweet corn, fava beans, leeks, applewood-smoked bacon, and Windrose Farms butternut squash. 

Also note there's a non-menu offering my pescatarian wife almost always orders, a vegetarian plate that a features whatever is most in season (the restaurant still does a market tour foodie stroll followed by dinner if you book ahead) minus anything you don't care to eat. Back in our wet spring, that meant a mound of chanterelles starred; now as summer finally peeks out from behind the marine layer, she received a luscious take on ratatouille, over fantastically flavored farro (see above).

Of course, as good as the food at bouchon is, and as appropriately Santa Barbara focused its wide-ranging wine list might be, it's the service that most stands out. This isn't a spot that grinds out servers as fast as they can graduate from UCSB. Keeping help has never been easy in the hospitable field, and has become nearly impossible since Covid shook-up notions of employment. That hasn't seemed to bother bouchon at all, no doubt because Mitchell and Amy make sure their issues are never your issues if you patronize them. Anniversary tables will have rose petals strewn atop, birthday celebrants get a candle waxed to the side of their dessert plate (it doesn't drip on what you want to eat that way). Waiters are warm, but not faux-chummy, alert, but not hovering. 

You leave pleased in every way possible, the powers of breaking bread, of celebration, reaffirmed. I'd say here's to another 25 years, but I wouldn't wish that on anybody. So here's to as long as it lasts, for that will be delicious and delightful enough.

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