Friday, October 03, 2008

New Mexico: Jennifer James 101

Maria sporting her new jacket.

On any trip I like to do at least one nice dinner. One at a "fancy" restaurant. And while Albuquerque has a few "fancy" restaurants, the one name that kept coming up in reviews was Jennifer James. It seemed that when it came to haute cuisine, it was "Jennifer this" and "Jennifer that" and "Jennifer left this place" and "Jennifer went up to Seattle." On and on and on the local media went about Jennifer James and how she had returned to town to open her eponymous restaurant: Jennifer James 101.

Oddly enough, the restaurant is away from the city center on a suburban-like boulevard in a suburban-like strip mall. The facade blends in so well with the surrounding suburban scenery that it's easy to miss. After circling around, we found ourselves in a relatively smallish space (probably around 1500 square feet) painted in orange and accented in black. Halloween colors? Well, it didn't look Halloween.

Centerpiece and table pickles.

As you walk in there are several tables in the center of the room, a banquette (in black) runs along the left wall and the kitchen is smack dab in the middle of it all - directly in front of you as you walk in. Jennifer James herself is manning the hotline in light blue and after having read so much about her, I couldn't help but to feel slightly starstruck by it all.

We were offered a choice of seating and Maria left it up to me to decide. I chose the two top with the banquette facing the kitchen so I could catch all the action. Of course, Maria took that seat, leaving me sitting with my back to the kitchen and catching glimpses in reverse through the sliver of mirrors hung on the wall. Once again, the male suffers in silence...

Duck Confit, wilted chard, sweet onions & honey.

The menu is small with only five offerings for both the "primary courses" and the "secondary courses." I'm not one who really enjoys thinking too much about what to order, maybe it's because I've come to enjoy tasting menus where the chef decides for you or maybe I'm just lazy. Either way, even ten choices are too much for me - especially since I'm still in gastro-recovery.

Maria decides that she's only going to have one course, the Seared Tasmanian Salmon. I ask our server to ask the kitchen if they would please choose two courses for me. I have no restrictions and I'm willing to eat anything. I'd just like to try whatever the kitchen thinks is best.

The Hawaiian Fish with sauteed peppers and rice.

It's a Friday night and the place is humming. The dining room is nearly full and everyone looks to be having a good time. The vibe in the restaurant is fun and lively. A couple of bikers have left their custom choppers (with ground effects lighting) outside the door and lit up, giving a festive atmosphere to the exterior. There's cool bikes outside, a good vibe inside and you think that Brad and Angelina are going to walk through the door at any moment just because.

After a little while, the Duck Confit arrives. It's juicy and tender but the skin isn't crisp. I don't know if this is an error or intention by the kitchen and I don't bother asking. I'm here to enjoy and experience, not to compare whether or not this follows what I think is French tradition. Personally speaking, when it's good, I can't get enough of duck confit and I certainly couldn't get enough of this one. Tasty and delicious, paired with the wilted chard and onions and it's a nice combination - though I don't really taste any of the honey.

Seared Tasmanian Salmon, caramelized onions & fennel with horseradish-cheddar mashed potatoes.

Not long after, Maria's salmon arrives and it tastes good. I only had a bite so I can't really say but she enjoyed it enough.

That's when my secondary course arrived. A nicely seared white fish. I believe our server said it was a "Hawaiian Hobi" but I can't be sure. Actually, whatever name she said, it wasn't familiar at all to me. It began with an "h" but there's not many Hawaiian fishes that start with "h", other than the famous Humuhumunukunukuapua;a.

Affagado - espresso granita with vanilla ice cream and chantilly.

The fish was meaty. Thick and meaty. Almost like steak. It was delicious. And filling. Topping it were a medley of sauteed peppers, both sweet and spicy. They were a perfect compliment. There were sweet peppers and then there was the unexpected burst of flame from the hot peppers. The bite started off with the rich meatiness of the fish, complimented by the sweet peppers and then a punch in the face from the hot peppers, tempered by the steamed white rice and soy reduction. Five flavors on the plate singing in harmony. Just lovely.

From there, we moved to dessert. The Affagado (yes, I know it's spelled incorrectly, that's the way they wrote it) was really quite exciting as a coffee dessert. Sweet espresso granita mated with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream? Wow, a great interpretation of an Italian classic.

Biscotti with Dessert Wine.

I went for the Cookie and Dessert Wine combination that paired three types of biscotti with a sweet dessert wine. I can't remember the specifics of either the biscotti or the wine but I hoarded them greedily. I had never thought that biscotti and wine would go together so well.

That was it. Dinner was over. It was good stuff. But more importantly, I had made it. After nearly 24 hours of suffering, I had beaten the odds and completed my meal. It was delicious and I look forward to going back.

Jennifer James 101
4615-a Menaul Boulevard NE
Albuquerque, NM 87110

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