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

New Mexico: Duran Central Pharmacy

The Green Chile Enchilada at Duran Central Pharmacy.

In these modern times, who would have known to go to the local pharmacy for a bite to eat? This isn't the fifties. Long gone are the days of the drugstore soda jerkIn these modern times, who would have known to go to the local pharmacy for a bite to eat? This isn't the fifties. Long gone are the days of the drugstore soda jerk. But perhaps time has forgotten this little town known as Albuquerque - and a good thing too.

Nestled along Central Avenue, near the tourist mecca of "Old Town" Albuquerque is the quiet, lazy and not quite so easy to find Duran Central Pharmacy. It's not much as far as pharmacies go. There's the expected drug counter and pharmacist waiting to fill your prescription for vicodin or viagra but compared to the slick Walgreen's and Rite Aids of the world, it's kinda sparse.

But we're not here just to pick up some Viagra (or Pepto Bismol). We're here to see just what all the fuss is about. To the left as you walk in, slightly hidden by display racks is a countertop and eating area that supposedly serves some of the finest New Mexican cuisine in all of New Mexico.

The trouble is that it's 6:28pm and they close at 6:30pm. Luckily, we catch a break and the friendly girl behind the counter decides to accommodate us. We're grateful.

Duran's menu is small but extensive. While they don't serve Chile Rellenos, they serve just about everything else from enchiladas to sopapillas to burritos and eggs. We're not sure what to order and go with the Enchilada Plate of three cheese enchiladas, covered in green chiles, served with beans and onions. To be honest, our visit to Duran is really just a snack before our dinner at Jennifer James 101 scheduled for 8:30pm.

After a few minutes, our enchiladas arrive and they're looking quite sexy. The enchiladas are literally drenched in green chile sauce and cheddar cheese. I both excited and torn to try it.

Maria at the plaza after a round of shopping.

It's the moment of truth. In my battle against giardaisis I haven't eaten anything substantial all day and have been guzzling Pepto Bismol like it's going out of style. All my suffering and effort have been in preparation for this moment. Can I handle the zesty fire of the green chiles without it sending me frantically sprinting for the men's room? With great angst, I take a bite.

The flavor of the green chiles with the cheese and tortilla is truly sublime. These green chiles don't have the furious zing that the Green Chile Stew at Frontier had. These are mellower with a light zing that compliments the flavor rather than overpowers. It's a flavor that builds a hunger. A hunger for more. It's absolutely delicious and I just want to devour it greedily.

Along with the enchiladas is a side of pinto beans that have to be some of the best beans I've ever eaten yet. They're soft while still firm with just the right bite. The flavor is rich and nutty while being creamy. I can't get enough of them. I want more.

In the end, we must stop because we still have a full dinner to eat in a couple of hours. In the meantime, we'll wander around Old Town searching for a new jacket for Maria and sharing deep and inner secrets under the moonlight in the plaza.

Next time, I'll be sure to try Duran's Torpedo and Mexican Combination Plate.

New Mexico: Sandia Peak

The tram arrives to whisk us to the summit.

Maria wanted to check out Sandia Peak so we were off. It's Balloon Fiesta week here in Albuquerque and they're expecting long lines. From the point we joined the line, the wait was thirty minutes, but there are signs farther down the line that foretold of waits up to two hours.

Luckily, it wasn't too long before our flight was being called and we were being herded onto the tram car that would take us to Sandia Peak, some ten thousand feet and fifteen minutes away. The Sandia Peak Tramway is actually the world's longest passenger aerial tramway, making 10,500 trips per year. In spite of my grumbling and not-as-angry-as-before stomach, the time in line passes quickly and soon we're being reaching for the horizon in our 55 passenger tram car.

I'm actually phobic of heights but if I'm ensconced in some sort of vehicle, dizzying heights rarely bother me. From inside the tram, I can lean my head against the window, look down and all is well. Do that over a cliff and I'm ready to freak out. At one point, the ground is nearly one thousand feet below. Certain death awaits should the cables above give way and Spiderman doesn't appear.

Whether it's on an airplane, a vehicle or tramcar, I have a decidedly morbid streak. I can't help but ponder and make comments about our certain doom. For me, it's humorous. A funny way of perhaps dealing with the uncertainties in life and adventure. Maria's a bit skittish about the tram and the height and doesn't find my commentary at all amusing.

Certain death awaits if we fall and Spiderman doesn't show up.

The odd thing is that part of me is secretly hoping for doom and destruction. I enjoy the thrill of living through some sort of disaster or near-miss event. Whether it's nearly getting side swiped by a car going fifty miles an hour or surviving a 7.2 earthquake, there's a certain thrill about living through such events. Of course, the key to that thrill is actually living through it and surviving relatively unscathed. Actually being killed or injured because of it kinda tempers the thrill...

At the summit, it's beautiful. The other peaks look fantastic but the thin air at ten thousand feet makes it difficult to keep up any sort of pace. On the back side of the mountain is a ski resort with the requisite ski lifts. On some days, you can just ride the ski lift up and down the back of the mountain. Today, the lift is closed and the weather is brilliantly sunny. It's hazy so Albuquerque looks a bit murky in the distance, but right here, right now, the weather is gorgeous.

My stomach's TSA Threat Condition is still Orange (that's a little travel slash TSA humor there) and Maria wants to wander through the woods. She likes to hike. I like the idea of hiking. I enjoy entertaining visions of myself scaling grand mountains and looking out across the void, satisfied in my accomplishment. But after nearly being killed (okay so that's a bit dramatic) by hypoxia while pushing for the summit of Mauna Kea (13,796 ft.), and ascending Mount Bradbury (485 ft.) in an ice storm, I've enjoyed relatively benign hikes through the alleyways of Towson.

Maria walks by the fence that cannot contain my wanderlust.

Hiking through Towson can be fun and enjoyable - especially since you can easily stop for a hot dog or chat on a park bench, but at ten thousand feet, the air is thin and I'm dreading every step we take down the trails surrounding the summit. Each step means a strenuous, hypoxia-laden step back up, but more importantly, it's one more step further away from the rest room at the High Finance Restaurant.

But I'm a man and I know it's my role to present a strong and stoic face - no matter my true disposition at the moment. It is our (males) lot in life to suffer silently and I've accepted that fact. It's why we're the uncommunicative side of the male/female equation. We can't cry, we can't show emotion, we can't seem weak. We just do and forge ahead - even when facing certain doom and destruction. Women don't chase us or give us flowers. It's no wonder we have shorter life expectancies than females.

Peering out to the horizon, I am ready for my destiny.

It's pretty here at the summit and like any dim-witted boy, if there's a fence, I must see what's on the other side. Even if that fence is keeping people away from dying a horrific death by falling off the side of a treacherous cliff. It's a fence. I'm a man. No fence shall impede my God given right to go where I want and do as I please. Truth is, I'm really too scared to get too close to the edge and look too far over. It's easily 800 feet to the rocks that will certainly break you in half should you fall. My acrophobia starts to kick into high gear and before I become a shriveling ball of crying human flesh I make my way back to the safe side of the fence.

Happily, my tummy is slowly recovering. The whole time we've been in Sandia, I've managed to hold on pretty well. With any luck, I'll be able to indulge myself this evening. Luckily, our trip down the mountain is relatively uneventful, except for the two ten year old boys who yell out at regular intervals: "We're gonna DIE!!!!"

I smile privately, secretly wishing I could join their chorus.

New Mexico: The Grove

Maria and San Pellegrino.

It was absolute, utter misery.

That was my night last night. Sheer agony. Okay, maybe not "agony" but definitely miserable. Probably one of the most miserable nights in my life. I didn't really fall asleep until 4am and then was rocked awake by another frantic sprint to the bathroom. Could've used a matchbook. Hell, a blow torch would have been ideal.

It's morning and things have settled down a bit but I'm worked. The only positive aspect of the night is that I read just about every printed word in this week's Alibi (Albuquerque's Alternative Weekly Newspaper) and have intimate knowledge of every event going on in town. Did you know that Journey and Cheap Trick are playing tomorrow at 7:30pm? Now, you do.

After spending half of her night giggling at my misfortune and suffering, Maria is hungry and ready for breakfast. I can't eat a damn thing. I'm not even hungry. What was I thinking eating that Green Chile Stew last night? Moron.

But she's hungry and she wants coffee.

Finding coffee in a new town is always an adventure filled with trepidation. Luckily, Ray was in town earlier this year shooting a movie - maybe it was porn, maybe not (okay, porn is what I'm planning to do next year), and recommended a place called The Grove. Since he and his wife own the half eponymous Gesine in Vermont, it's a safe bet to check out.

The nice thing about Albuquerque is that everything is pretty darn close to each other. It's one of the blessings of a small town, which makes getting places easy peasy. The Grove is both a cafe and market. Actually, it's more gourmet than market with only a selection of pricey gourmet offerings but there's a big La Marzocco GB5 espresso machine behind the counter that instantly buoys my spirits, not to mention the really tasty menu offerings from the kitchen.

The only thing I'm allowed to eat: plain English muffin.

Problem is, I can't eat anything. A phone call to Doctor Mom revealed what I already feared in my heart of hearts: no solid foods, no caffeine, no dairy, only liquids and crackers. Ugh, what a nightmare.

It's a shame because while I really wanted to check out their coffee, I couldn't. It looked pretty good. They were doing latte art. They steamed milk individually per order. They've got a nice espresso machine. Lots of good things going on.

That's when I noticed the barista pulling a shot for a cappuccino that was done at 22 seconds, she kept it flowing. For the uninitiated, one can tell when an espresso shot is "done" by the color of the espresso stream as it falls from the spouts of the portafilter. It should come out dark and brown. When it turns blonde, you know that all the great flavor of the coffee has been extracted out of the bean and you should stop, lest you prefer excessive bitterness in your coffee.

Unfortunately, I don't think these people were trained with that little tidbit of information because this barista let that shot run and run, and run. All the way to 27 seconds. It's not as if she was distracted, she was intently watching the shot the whole time - probably waiting for some prescribed amount of time to pass before stopping the brew. A shame. And at least I had a reason why I couldn't drink coffee.

Maria's crepes with fresh fruit, yogurt and creme fraiche.

Compiling my misery was what I ordered for meal: house made English muffin, no butter and a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water. The muffin was pretty good. Sliced. Would have been nicer fork split to have all the nooks and crannies to hold your melted butter. Of course, I couldn't have butter so I suffered. Compound that with the mineral-y carbonated water from Italy and I wanted to stick that butter knife in my throat and just end my suffering.

Fact of the matter is that I hate, absolutely detest, carbonated water. Unless it's got a 5 to 1 ratio of Coca Cola syrup in it, I'd prefer to have plain water. Then no butter??? Just a plain English muffin??? Can you feel my pain?

Maria, on the other hand, went ahead with a vanilla steamer and an order of Grove Pancakes - French style crepes with fresh fruit, creme fraiche, toasted nuts, local honey with yogurt. It looked absolutely delicious.

The Grove Cafe & Market
600 Central Avenue SE
Albuquerque, NM 87102