When I asked Rick Boufford about his extraordinary wine list, he opened up like a sunflower in July.
Boufford is the proprietor of Tustin's Black Sheep Bistro, a sweet little storefront restaurant that is just full of surprises. Wine is his passion, and it shows--the restaurant is a paradise for wine lovers. If Boufford has a great wine to match every dish he serves, it's because he has been collecting wines for 18 years, about half his life.
There are wines on his list from nearly every famous producer in Europe. "This wine," he said, referring to a '78 Barbaresco from Angelo Gaja that he personally decanted at the table, "has been in my cellar at 60 degrees for over 11 years, since its release." Finding a wine this sought-after in a neighborhood restaurant is rare enough, but having it served properly after years of impeccable care comes as a shock. Very few restaurants anywhere handle wine with half Boufford's seriousness.
He takes cooking seriously, too, as he happens to be the chef. He cooked at the Hobbit for 11 years and worked with Alan Greeley at the Golden Truffle, two restaurants where a chef can do almost anything that strikes his fancy. The style he developed from his tenure at these restaurants could best be described as Mediterranean: heavy on garlic, herbs and olive oil. His menu is simple and rustic, full of farmhouse dishes from the south of France and the north of Italy. Nearly all his food complements wine from Piedmont, Burgundy or one of the other great wine regions nearby.
You get the sneaking suspicion that he has opened a restaurant just to create a vehicle for wine appreciation. You might be right.
He and his wife, Diana, bought the place last year and retained its cozy, rural appeal. There are wooden farmhouse chairs, robin's-egg tablecloths and framed scenes depicting life in the slow lane of rural France. The two dining areas are separated by a tiled wine bar, the larger (and invariably more crowded) room being for nonsmokers. An eclectic blend of New Age and classical music plays softly in the background. It's a comforting place to spend an evening.
The minute you are seated, Diana, the unofficial maitre d', brings a dish of the restaurant's home-cured olives, the Nicoise variety. They come swimming in a marinade thick with thyme, oregano and minced garlic, and are dangerously addictive.
Start with a grainy pate maison, some tiny, can't-miss mussels in saffron caper sauce, garlicky escargots a la Bourguignonne or something the chef calls Black Sheep tri-shrimp: three large shrimp with aioli (garlic mayonnaise), rouille (a similar suspension livened up with red pepper and spices), and a pale green sauce made with pureed cilantro. There are often special appetizers, such as the succulent fresh foie gras with raspberry sauce that I tried. If that is available, Boufford has several Sauternes and Alsatian Gewurztraminers to match it.
The main courses are mostly flame-broiled meats, grain-fed lamb, New York steak, duck breast and chicken breast. These meats are served with a choice of oil-based sauces, pesto, herb garlic and Provencal, the last being the herb garlic dressing with thyme and olive added to it. They're OK.
The thing to watch for, though, is the daily special, often a classic regional French dish such as bourride, cassoulet or choucroute. These are the best things to eat here, and Boufford adheres to the authentic recipes as closely as he possibly can. And frankly, his cooking seems to be better when he's not wandering off on his own.
At the moment Boufford is featuring maigret de canard, specially fattened duck breast that he gets from Ariane Daguin, daughter of Andre Daguin, one of Gascony's most celebrated chefs. This maigret comes from New Jersey, and it is one of the best products you can buy. I urge you to try it, for its exceptional richness and depth of flavor. There is a whirlwind of good Bordeaux and California Cabernets on the wine list to enjoy with it.
Another off-menu dish you'll want to try is one almost always on hand, confit de canard. This is duck preserved in its own fat, and the chef prepares it by the bucket. It sounds richer than it is, actually. When cooked, the fat is usually steamed or sauteed off, leaving a complex, slightly stringy meat.
Boufford serves his confit on a bed of pasta, as if France and Italy had magically become one country. On the back of the menu, it happens, there is a map of the two countries, along with a reference to the "ancient mystical country of Francaly." An appealing fantasy.
Dessert is not a strong point at this restaurant, but the kitchen makes an honest effort to please. There is a handsome cheese board with Laura Chenel chevre, St. An dre and a runny Brie, among others, plus a fine flourless chocolate torte and a solid pear tart with homemade creme fraizche. The others, I regret to say, are not worth consideration.
Especially when you could have more wine to end the meal--a vintage port, say, or something from the extensive list of dessert wines. The prices for all wines, incidentally, are more than reasonable. To give an example, Ric Forman's Cabernet is $60 at one of the hotter local restaurants but only $40 here. If $40 seems steep, there are dozens of wines here under $25 you will be delighted to drink. And if money is truly no object, how about a '61 Chateau d'Yquem for $600, or a private tasting of Domaine de la Romanee Conti for $1,500?
Fifteen hundred dollars. That's serious money. Boufford, it's obvious, is not kidding around.
Black Sheep Bistro is moderately priced. Appetizers are $6 to $8. Pastas are $12 to $17. Main courses are $14 to $23.
BLACK SHEEP BISTRO
303 El Camino Real, Tustin.
Open for dinner Tuesday though Sunday, 5 through 10 p.m.
MasterCard and Visa accepted.