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Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Size does matter. More specifically, how you use the size you've got — I'm talking kitchens here — matters more than the number of burners on your stove or the square footage of your prep area. I can't tell you the number of times I've walked into a tiny restaurant and been handed a two-page menu listing dozens of edible species prepared dozens of ways, and foretold the future of my meal. The signs of a kitchen overstretching itself are clear: The squid always tastes two days too old, the salad greens have all the snap of a warm chocolate bar, and the cooks prove that they can't do half the things they say they can — well.
So to sit at the counter at Bouche, waiting for my guest to arrive, and flip open the cover of the slim menu to see 10 dishes and a few additional sides was promising. After all, in front of me three young cooks were hustling in an open kitchen that any studio-apartment renter would complain about, its only luxury shelves that stretched high enough to require a ladder to stock.
Equally promising was the chef's background. Nicolas Borzée has worked for the kind of chefs who pique the interest of Michelin-guide groupies: Robuchon, Troisgros, Ducasse — all French chefs with three-star restaurants — and, locally, he has been a sous chef at Daniel Patterson's Coi.
603 Bush St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
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Bouche, opened by another young Frenchman, Guillaume Issaverdens, a few months ago, took over the old Bar Crudo space. Issaverdens gave his restaurant a punny name — pronounce "Bush Street" with a French accent and you'll catch it — and romanticized, and Gallicized, the space. The diners who walk around the kitchen and up the metal steps to the mezzanine, where most of the tables are located, will find they've papered the molding with pages from old French books and painted the walls the color of burnished brass. It's dim and rustic, and even when the wooden tables are occupied, feels hidden. I wasn't surprised to see a couple of dates that, judging by the places hands were drifting, were going awfully well.
A third Frenchman waited tables with an enthusiasm unexhausted by his regular runs up and down the stairs. On one night, a busser had either been sent home or didn't show up, and so he struggled to keep up with the busy room. That didn't seem to dim the mood he set, translating the wines — all southern French, and pleasant if not awe-inspiring — into grape varietals for American diners unfamiliar with the region, and monitoring the progress of the meal without hovering over the table.
If you can survive a decade in the kinds of kitchens where Borzée has worked, you've picked up some technical skills. And on his menu of appetizers and mini entrées, those skills were evident — technical flaws were few, proof not only of the chef's experience but his ability to work within the space he's been given. But the food often tasted disjointed or just plain odd, like the writing of an honors student who is still learning to think for himself.
One of the dishes that needed deep editing: the brown-butter carrots ($8). It was a photogenic plate, which I'd watched the pantry cook arrange with tweezers. Loops of shaved raw carrot curling around tufts of herb leaves and soft, cola-colored slow-roasted carrots the size of a woman's pinkie. But the raw carrots were dressed with cumin and lime, which clashed with the deeply caramelized sugars in the cooked carrots. Everything was covered in gritty breadcrumbs, as if the chef had decided to toss a handful of dust over a just-swept room to make it look more natural. There was also a pairing of lightly pickled sardine fillets and smoked spinach purée ($9) — earthy and creamy on its own, bizarre with the marinated fish — and a dessert consisting of a bowl of tangy ricotta-like fresh cheese mismatched with another bowl of salted caramel sauce. It was as if the waiter had brought out the sides to two separate desserts by mistake.
Borzée's best dishes all shared a characteristic: They were single-mindedly rich, the kind of food that one imagines coming out of Escoffier's kitchen. A chestnut cream soup ($7), puréed into satin, was capped with a froth of brown butter and sage, with bits of braised bacon lurking underneath. Squid ($12) was sautéed with black trumpet mushrooms and butter, the two main ingredients melding together, impossible to taste apart. A square of roasted lamb shoulder ($22), so tender and veined with fat that we pulled it apart with a fork, brushed with a caramelized-onion jam that seemed to melt into the flesh, sweetening every bite.
Despite the small size of the menu, it was hard to figure out how to interpret it in order to construct a meal. Big and little dishes alternated on the menu, so the "duck confit with beets" listed next to the entrée-like lamb turned out to be a salad, and the marinated salmon ($15) near the bottom of the list turned out to be, well, I wasn't sure. Translucent orange slices of fat-streaked, lightly cured fish were piled up on a nest of kataifi, those crisp threads of dough used in Turkish pastries, which hid a cool poached egg and a fat dollop of crème fraîche in their center. Where most of Bouche's dishes veered between the rich and the strange, this was both. Of course I cleaned the plate — every component was beautifully prepared — but like Bouche itself, the dish left me more puzzled than satisfied.