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JENNIFER JAMES 101 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Jennifer James 101 on Menaul

The number 101 has some very interesting connotations.  If you grew up in the 60s, you might remember the Benson & Hedges cigarette jingle, “One, oh, one, one, oh, one, a silly little millimeter longer one, oh, one, a silly millimeter longer.”  Talk about ear wax.  That jingle was like It’s A Small World and the Gilligan’s Island theme.  Once you got it into your head, you couldn’t get rid of it.

My brainiac mathematician friend Bill Resnik appreciates that 101 is the 26th prime number.  He points out that it’s also a palindromic number (a sequence that reads the same forward and backwards) or rather a palindromic prime.  Geekier friends like Craig Stegman and Kenny Sanchez, developers extraordinaire, know 101 as a dreaded “fatal error” status code. In academics, 101 connotes a beginning or basic-level course number taught in universities in many English speaking countries.  English 101, for example, is typically a remedial English course (not that I’d personally know anything about that).  It’s where students brush up on the basics to prepare themselves for upper level courses.

So why would Jennifer James, arguably Albuquerque’s very best chef, choose the number 101 to share her name on her restaurant’s appellation?   It’s all about going back to basics–not in the remedial sense of the word, but in the sense that basics connotes simple, clean food.  Of course, under her deft hands, simple food is prepared with the freshest, seasonal local ingredients available and  is executed so exceptionally well  that those ingredients literally speak for themselves.  101 also implies the chef’s willingness to learning constantly while imparting the fruits of her lessons to her customers–lessons such as the spirit of sustainability and the use of local ingredients.

At Jennifer James 101 (JJ101), you won’t find the fusion of disparate ingredients competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds.  Instead, you’ll find surprisingly simple flavor combinations which work well together harmoniously.  Dinner at JJ101 is your taste buds’ equivalent of a sweet symphony performed flawlessly in your mouth–the type of symphony for which your taste buds will desire encores.  As with a moving symphony,  blissful satisfaction will have your mind recalling every subtle nuance and concordant flavor profile of a truly captivating meal prepared by a consummate virtuoso.

A slice of bread with flavored butter

Jennifer James didn’t so much burst upon the fledgling Duke City dining scene as she did  win it  over quietly, but decisively.  While savvy diners  and a smitten media  certainly heralded the talented chef as a  formidable  force to watch,  their acclaim –though reverential in tone–seemed somewhat subdued, as if awaiting something even bigger and better than her first  eponymous venture,  the  diminutive but fabulous Jennifer James Contemporary Cuisine (on San Mateo).  That something “bigger and better” became manifest in 2002 when she launched Graze, a tapas restaurant which cemented her reputation as perhaps the city’s very best chef.

Graze was undeniably one of Albuquerque’s most popular and innovative restaurants, the cynosure of the burgeoning Nob Hill area dining scene.  After nearly four years at the helm of arguably the city’s most progressive restaurant, Jennifer left Graze, resultant from the dissolution of a business partnership in which a common vision and direction was no longer shared among parties.  She took a brief (albeit interminable for her followers going through  JJ withdrawal) sabbatical during which she traveled, cooked and planned her next venture.

Fortunately she chose to remain in Albuquerque which she sees as being on the cusp of emerging as a formidable dining destination.  JJ101 opened on April 29th, 2008, oddly well-distanced from the Nob Hill district which seems to preternaturally draw much of the city’s culinary innovation.  The restaurant is instead ensconced in an area not especially regarded for its restaurants, a denizen of a strip mall on Menaul, just a few blocks west of the Coronado Mall.  Interestingly, the “anchor tenant” of that restaurant for more than a year was a hot dog joint that has since left the area.

In 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 (five consecutive years) Jennifer James was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as best chef in the southwest, a validation of her place among the nation’s elite chefs.  A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world and is widely regarded as its equivalent of an Academy Award.  It’s quite likely the other nominees weren’t self-taught as Jennifer was.  Spending her childhood on a farm in Illinois had a profound influence that permeates her philosophies on fresh, farm to table ingredients.

Large family dinners also engendered an appreciation for community, the sharing of food.  In her fabulous tome, An Alphabet for Gourmets, M. F. K. Fisher wrote “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” Jennifer’s restaurants have cultivated that spirit.  At Graze, diners would order several different appetizer-sized small plates and share them among the table, a practice encouraged and facilitated.

The restaurant’s color palate is an interesting blend dominated by ocre-rouge walls punctuated by long, thin mirrors positioned both vertically and horizontally.  The ceilings have the contemporary touch of exposed dark grey ductwork.  Tables are adorned with white linen cloth contrasted by the black-backed chairs which are more functional than comfortable.  The solid, blond hardwood floors and suspended lampshade-style lighting provide plenty of illumination.

Menus are seasonal and even at that, are subject to change based on the availability of ingredients.  The menus are also small, a limited number of first course appetizers and a second main course menu plus the day’s specials.  Freshness of ingredients is absolutely guaranteed–in part because of the chef’s commitment, but also because the restaurant is too small to accommodate much storage.  As much as possible, ingredients are procured locally from area farmers with whom relationships have been established.  Fish is flown in overnight from the Pacific Northwest with wild river salmon a favorite.

Shortly after you’re seating, the amuse bouche of the day is brought to your table. Fortune smiles upon you if it’s the pickled cucumbers and onions.  Served in a small ramekin reminiscent of those used in Korean restaurants for the variety of pickled vegetable dishes known collectively as namul, this is a fabulous introduction to the creative simplicity of a brilliant chef.  The cucumbers are sliced razor-thin, almost to the point of being transparent.  Wholly unlike sour dill pickles, this cucumber-onion amalgam is sweet without being cloying, tangy without pursing your lips and crunchy with a snap of freshness.

The staff of life featured at JJ101 is a crusty slice of bread; it comes courtesy of Santa Fe’s Sage Bakehouse, an artisan baker non-pareil.  It’s a delicious masterpiece studded by another unique Jennifer James twist–butter accentuated by complementary ingredients you might not believe can improve butter as much as they do.  Think butter tinged with a subtle hint of curry or lemon, neither in such quantity that they dominate your taste buds, but both in perfect proportion to tease and tantalize them when spread on a yeasty canvas.

Appetizers

21 June 2008: Years of dining at Jennifer James restaurants should have taught me not to be surprised at just how wonderfully executed simple foods are under her talented hands, but every visit brings with it new surprises.  One of my favorite first-course surprises is the freshness and deliciousness of flash-fried oysters.  As good…make that better…than any I’ve had in New Orleans, these pearlescent beauties are sheathed in a thin, golden batter that crunches slightly as you bite into them, releasing the briny sweetness characteristic of fresh oysters.

Arugula Salad

22 May 2010: Another first course executed extremely well is an arugula salad with dried apricots and a hazelnut vinaigrette.  As with many Jennifer James creations, it’s not overdone with a plethora of ingredients; it’s a mound of fresh arugula leaves with just enough dried apricots for contrast.  It’s an interesting contrast at that.  Arugula is an aromatic salad green with a slightly peppery flavor while dried apricots have a burst of sweetness tinged with just a hint of tanginess.  The hazelnut vinaigrette is lightly applied and provides an interestingly crunchy texture to the greenery.

Ahi Tuna Sashimi, Tatsoi, Wasabi-Soy Vinaigrette, Ginger

3 August 2012: For diners who appreciate a greater greenery variety than the small garden salad usually served with sushi, many Japanese restaurants have a section on the menu dedicated to salads. Typically Japanese salads are crunchy, sprightly and made with fresh ingredients including sashimi, but too many are given misleading names such as “Viagra” and are then dressed with an overly sweet-tangy dressing which deflates the salad’s heat-generating properties. Leave it to Jennifer James to create a Japanese inspired salad with a better balance of flavors than we’ve experienced at any Japanese restaurant. Instead of conventional greens, the salad is made with tatsoi (sometimes called spinach mustard) which has lush green, spoon-shaped leaves and a sharp, strong, slightly spicy flavor. The salad is stacked with gloriously red, wonderfully fresh ahi tuna then drizzled with a wasabi-soy vinaigrette tinged with ginger which accentuates the wasabi without watering your eyes or overpowering other ingredients. Featured in the summer 2012 menu, it’s easily one of the best Japanese inspired salads I’ve ever had.

Caramelized onion and garlic galette with Gruyere

3 August 2012: Almost at the opposite extreme of the ahi tuna salad and its complex flavor profile is a caramelized onion and garlic galette which is magnificent because of its simplicity and delicateness. The term galette has been used to describe a fairly wide variety of flaky pastries which can be filled with either savory or sweet ingredients, but the best description I’ve read comes from Noelle Carter of the Los Angeles Times who calls the galette “pie’s free-form cousin.” In filling the galette with caramelized onions, JJ101 managed a harmonious interplay of both sweet and savory. The onions are browned slowly so the onion’s natural sugars caramelize, emphasizing its natural sweetness. A sheen of Gruyere, a slightly sweet, slightly musty cheese tops the galette. It’s a wonderful marriage. The galette itself is light and flaky with rich, buttery undertones.

Lobster tail salad

Chilled Lobster  salad

10 March 2014: During an intimate evening with Merry Edwards, the Doyenne of California winemakers, JJ101 showcased the pairing of wine and food.  Holding fast to my stance that I won’t drink (not even a drop) adult beverages when driving, I can’t offer a first-hand perspective on the quality of the wines, but every diner at our table raved about them.  A Sauvignon Blanc was paired with a chilled lobster salad as luxurious and fresh as any you’ll find in Maine.  The lobster had a remarkable for New Mexico “just caught” freshness with chilled, not frozen flavor.  The bite-sized chunks of lobster meat from the tail and claws were delicate and sweet, steamed to perfection.  Unctuous avocados, tangy grapefruits and sliced red peppers provided complementary and contrasting elements to the light salad drizzled sparsely with a light dressing.  It was a perfect way to begin a terrific evening.

Entrees

Oyster Po’ Boy with bacon-salted housemade chips

3 August 2012: With her first bite of the fried oyster Po’ Boy, our friend Kimber Scott enthusiastically proclaimed the oysters “the best I’ve ever had.” That’s quite an endorsement considering Kimber hailed from Houston, Texas where the Gulf Coast’s silky, pearlescent beauties are extracted from cool waters every day. We lived 90 miles east of New Orleans where we also had boatloads of oyster Po’ Boys and none were nearly as good as JJ’s version. Interestingly, the best fried oysters I’ve ever had come from Albuquerque restaurants—JJ101 and Cafe Jean Pierre. These oysters are fried in a light batter which yields with a satisfying crunch to the warm, moist, and succulent oyster within. Their flavor is deeply earthy and satisfying, and the experience might lead one to prayer of gratitude. The Po’ Boy is served with housemade chips flavored with a bacon salt.

Grilled buffalo New York strip steak with Crispy Shallots

3 August 2012: Steaks are a frequent offering on the seasonal repertory, and not always beef steaks. The Summer, 2012 menu included a grilled buffalo New York strip steak which has far fewer calories and saturated fat than steaks made from beef. Buffalo also has a “sweeter” and livelier flavor than beef without gaminess. Jennifer James manages a seared-in charred crust that belies a medium-rare degree of doneness, not an easy feat. The steak is tender with a flavor reminiscent of high quality, high grade beef. Similar to premium steak and chop houses throughout the Midwest, the steak is topped with a melting butter (olive oil butter in this case) which adds a moist glaze and penetrates the meat with a subtle buttery flavor. The steak is then topped with crispy shallots, luscious tangles of sweet onions and certainly not a gourmet twist on French’s fried onions. 

Wagyu Beef with Tallow Frites

Wagyu Beef with Tallow Frites

10 March 2014:  In recent years, wagyu beef has become so de rigueur in fine dining restaurants that the novelty is all but worn out and the thrill is all but gone.  Given the option of a wagyu beef steak or a USDA Prime Beef (dry-aged, of course), many diners will opt for the latter.  Wagyu beef at JJ101 should never elicit a ho-hum reaction.  Not only is the beef characteristically rich and unctuous with a perfect marbling of fat to meat ratio, it is as carne adovada tender.  During a wine-tasting dinner honoring winemaker extraordinaire Merry Edwards, JJ101 infused wagyu beef with a huckleberry and molasses sauce which imparted a slightly sweet-tart flavor.  Wonderful as the wagyu beef was, the conversation at our table centered around the herb-tallow frites which all agreed were among the very best we’ve ever had.  Tallow (rendered fat), by the way, is what made McDonald’s fries so good.  JJ101′s herb-tallow fries would put McDonald’s fries to shame.  They’re crisp on the outside, fluffy and light on the inside and nicely salted.

Almond Crusted Halibut

22 May 2010: Back to basics with seafood means letting its inherent flavors shine on their own with very little embellishment to complement (and certainly not mask) those flavors.  In too many restaurants seafood is desecrated with ingredients seemingly trying to render the seafood fruity or cloying.  It’s an abomination!  Those purveyors of fishy perversion should take a lesson from Jennifer James and let the seafood speak for itself.They could start by trying to mimic Jennifer’s almond-crusted halibut.  The nutty crunch of a lightly-applied almond crust is a nice surprise, but the better surprise is just how moist and tender the halibut is and how delicate and flaky its white flesh is.  Halibut is a mild-tasting fish especially popular among those who don’t like “fishy-tasting” seafood.  It is served with a basmati rice so light and delicate as to have ethereal qualities, especially when sitting on a shallow pool of a  superb curry vinaigrette.  Sliced carrots prepared in accordance with French tradition are sweet and delicious with a snap of freshness.

Fried catfish, bacon hushpuppies, chow chow and black pepper aioli

22 May 2010: Having spent eight years in Mississippi and in close proximity to America’s most prolific aquaculture industry, I’ve long lamented the absence of great catfish in New Mexico.  Restaurateurs in the Land of Enchantment seem determined to coat catfish in sawdust and serve it as desiccated as beef jerky.  Jennifer James’ version of  fried catfish is several orders of magnitude better than any catfish I’ve had in New Mexico and on par with the very best experienced in the Magnolia State.  Two filets of lightly-coated catfish about a half-inch thick are moist and fresh, an exemplar of flavor.

The catfish are served with hushpuppies impregnated with bacon.  Hushpuppies are deep-fried cornmeal dumplings that traditionally accompany catfish throughout the South.  Bacon is a whimsical Jennifer James improvisation that works exceptionally well.  So does the chow chow, an American pickled relish served throughout the South.  Chow chow is made with a variety of ingredients which generally have a balanced flavor profile that includes just enough piquancy to grab your attention as well as sweet and tangy pronouncements.  Jennifer James’ version is the very best I’ve ever had–even better than the chow chow in a New Orleans French market off Jackson Square.

Risotto: roasted squash, tuscan kale, parmesan, pumpkin seeds

17 November 2010: I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that in my entire half century on this planet, I’ve had outstanding risotto only a handful of times.  By outstanding, I mean the type of risotto that elicited the type of reaction one of George Costanza’s girlfriends had when partaking of an especially wonderful risotto. In a memorable Seinfeld episode, the post-coital ritual of lighting up a cigarette was lampooned–only in this case George Costanza’s girlfriend lit up contentedly after a satisfying meal of risotto. The noisy ardor with which she consumed the risotto was something the ego-fragile George couldn’t elicit from her in the bedroom.

Jennifer James’ version of risotto is in the upper tier of the best risotto I’ve ever had and unlike others in that elite class, it isn’t studded with lobster, seafood or honey-roasted duck as were other memorable entrees of risotto I’ve had.  In fact, unlike the risotto that now exists solely in fond memories, the 101 version doesn’t include seafood or poultry.  The JJ version is a celebration of fall’s bounty, showcasing roasted squash, Tuscan kale, Parmesan and pumpkin seeds.  A risotto this absolutely perfect, so stunningly delicious undoubtedly requires very close tending to as risotto is a complex, multi-step to prepare entree.  The fruits of that monitoring is a rich, smooth, creamy…and comforting consistency coupled with a rare deliciousness rarely found in any rice entree. 

Risotto with Pork Belly

Risotto with Pork Belly

10 March 2014:  Aside from the company of Franzi, Albuquerque’s most beauteous barrister, the highlight of my evening during the Merry Edwards wine-tasting dinner was an incredibly rich, swoon-inspiring risotto punctuated with crispy pork jowl “chicharrones”, thinly sliced radishes and micro-herbs and served with a pork belly hunk.  The risotto joins the pantheon of rarefied risotto I’ve had–a risotto so good, it made a convert out of a nay-sayer at our table who believes the origin of risotto to have been an accident wrought by overcooking.  The pork belly was no accident.  It was porcine perfection, the answer to the critics who decry bacon to be “so over.”

Corn Smut – Fresh Corn Tamale, Chipotle Cream, Roasted Corn Salsa

3 August 2012: Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations have been reportedly making tamales at least since 5000BC. Although New Mexicans (we’re so spoiled) tend to associate tamales with corn husks filled with steamed corn masa and chile marinated pork, the versatility of tamales is virtually endless. The options, both sweet and savory, are limited solely by the imagination. JJ puts her own unique spin in creating some of the very best non- traditionally New Mexican tamales I’ve had and showcasing them in the Summer, 2012 menu. Sweet corn masa is punctuated by the unique flavor of huitlacoche (corn smut on the menu), a gnarly, slimy, sometimes gooey, ink-black corn fungus long savored in Mexico. Corn smut is imbued with an earthy, musky flavor some compare to truffles. The tamales are topped with a roasted corn salsa made from corn niblets scraped from the cob and a chipotle cream which packs a delightful punch.

Yogurt-marinated grilled chicken breast, Tabbouleh, Tomatoes

3 August 2012: It’s long been my concerted opinion that the one protein which is most vastly underutilized below its potential is chicken. Still, so many restaurants serve a perfunctory chicken breast entrée, most so boring they can render diners narcoleptic. Many are predictably bland and the restaurant’s efforts to provide something dietetic. JJ101 brings chicken to life! Her yogurt-marinated grilled chicken breast renders chicken more than interesting; it makes it delicious. The grilling process imprints the chicken breast with a deliciously charred crust. The chicken itself is moist and flavorful with briny notes. Accompaniments include a timbale-shaped “summery” fresh tabbouleh topped with sliced tomatoes.

Grilled mahi mahi, roasted parsnips, garlic confit, lemon, butter, parsley

17 November 2010: Deliciousness is imparted on every morsel of JJ’s grilled mahi mahi served with roasted parsnips, roasted garlic and parsley.  The subtlety of the butter, lemon and garlic confit with which the mahi mahi is grilled is like a sweet whisper across the pillow from a lover.  That subtlety means the flavor of the mahi mahi comes across wonderfully.  Interestingly mahi mahi translates from Hawaiian to “strong, strong” not because its flavor is especially strong, but because of its strength and fighting ability.  Thankfully that strength doesn’t translate to its flavor which can be exceptional.  It’s not “fishy” tasting and has a firm white flesh with a slightly sweet flavor needing little help to shine.  JJ obviously realizes this.  The accompaniment–roasted parsnips, roasted garlic and parsley are terrific in their own right.

Dessert

Hot milk cake with fresh strawberries and cream

22 May 2010: The dessert menu lists only a handful of post-prandial treats and as with other menus, offerings showcase seasonally available ingredients.  Early summer might mean a hot milk cake with fresh strawberries and cream, Jennifer James’ version of strawberry shortcake but legions better.  Hot milk cake is not unlike tres leches cake in that it’s moist and buttery though not nearly as spongy as its Mexican relative.  It’s also a cake so difficult to prepare correctly that only the most confident and well-practiced chefs should endeavor to do so.  The strawberries and cream transported me to the banks of the Windrush River in Bourton on the Water where I last had strawberries as succulent, fresh and delicious and cream so delightfully graceful and light.

Top: New Mexico Honey Panna Cotta with Plums
Bottom: Chocolate Cream Pie

3 August 2012: The Summer, 2012 menu featured seasonal desserts showcasing cool, fresh ingredients and fruits in season. The New Mexico Honey Panna Cotta with Plums answers the question “what would silk taste like.” The panna cotta, an Italian cooked cream dessert has an ethereal, slightly wobbly texture and a flavor that hints of star anise. It’s topped with wondrous New Mexico honey, the best in the world (but I’m not biased about my home state). The plums are fresh and juicy with a sweet tanginess that complements the more neutral sweetness of the panna cotta. The Chocolate Cream Pie is dense and dreamy, a chocolate lover’s little piece of heaven. The chocolate is, much like French gateaus, not overly sweet or bitter, but deeply chocolaty. It’s also deeply addictive.

Plum Cake with Black Pepper Ice Cream

Plum Cake with Black Pepper Ice Cream

10 March 2014:  There may be no challenge as formidable as declaring one dessert (appetizer or entree, too, for that matter) at JJ101 your very favorite.  Just when you thought you’ve experienced perfection, you partake of something that exceeds perfection.  My current favorite dessert at JJ101 (at least until my next visit) is a brown sugar cake stuffed with tangy red plums topped with a dollop of black pepper ice cream.  Every element of this dessert stands out.  Every element comes together.  The sweet-tangy, richly flavored amber fleshed plums marry oh so memorably with black pepper (who’d have thought) ice cream.  By itself, the brown sugar cake would have earned my adulation.  The coalescence–the whole–earned my devotion.

Chocolate Pudding Cake

17 November 2010: Another exceptional desert is the chocolate pudding cake made with an adult chocolate (semi-sweet).  It is a rich and moist, its center not quite of molten liquidity as pudding-influenced cakes sometimes tend to be.  Instead, the moistness is distributed evenly throughout the cake.  Every forkful is blessed with a sexy sweetness that imparts itself on your taste buds for a while. 

In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Jennifer James’ fried kale a “Hot Plate Award” as the “Hot Garnish” Albuquerque can’t live without. Frankly, “can’t live without” could describe almost everything on the menu.  The reasons for which she was nominated for a James Beard award are in evidence in every meal at Jennifer James 101.  It’s a transformative experience for cynics who decry what can be done with simplicity and freshness of ingredients.  It’s back to basics in the very best sense of the term–and it’s much more than a silly millimeter better than most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.

JENNIFER JAMES 101
4615 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884-3860
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2014
1st VISIT: 21 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 26
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Fried Oysters, Foie Gras, Arugula Salad, Almond-Crusted Halibut, Fried Catfish, Milk Cake, New York Strip, Chocolate Pudding Cake, Risotto, Mahi Mahi, Oyster Po’ Boy, Yogurt-marinated grilled chicken breast, Grilled buffalo New York strip steak, Caramelized onion and garlic galette, Ahi Tuna Sashimi, Corn Smut – Fresh Corn Tamale, Lobster Salad, Wagyu Beef, Red Plum Cake


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Farm & Table – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The sprawling complex which houses Farm & Table

For the past quarter century or so, American chefs and the dining public have increasingly embraced the concept of farm-to- table cooking.  It makes great sense from an environmental and an economical standpoint and as the Smithsonian Magazine wrote, “the farm-to-table movement is at once hip and historic.”  Its historical aspects are especially relevant in agrarian New Mexican villages where farm-to-table hasn’t always been a “movement,” “concept” or “trend.”  It’s been a way of life, especially in the state’s frontier days when food wasn’t nearly as plentiful as it is today.

Enchanting as it may be, New Mexico is a land which can be harsh and unforgiving as Native American pueblos and early settlers found out when, for centuries, they eked out a meager subsistence from an austere terrain amidst the ravages of climatic extremes.  To a great extent their ability to coax a stable crop supply from an often unyielding earth was a tribute to their perseverance, hard work and divine graces.

A view to the restaurant’s open kitchen

By the early 1800s, farmers made up about 90 percent of America’s workforce.  Entering the 20th century, the percentage of Americans engaged in producing crops and livestock was down to 40 percent.  Today, less than one percent of the population claim farming as their principal occupation.  Largely because most of us have no personal experience in crop production, children–especially those growing up in urban areas–have no idea where their food comes from.  Ask many of them where their food comes from and they’re apt to say “the grocery store.”

For decades, if you asked American chefs where their restaurants’ food comes from, they might well have bragged about importing ingredients from throughout the world.  It was a very expensive proposition, one with a heavy-footed impact on the planet.  Today, more and more chefs are “staying local” and “going back to basics” for their food sources.  Their goals are not only to reduce the environmental impact on the planet (reduced fuel consumption, less driving and flying), but to introduce diners to fresher, better-tasting, more nutritious foods grown locally. 

Orange tarragon roasted beet salad (marinated beets, mixed greens and pickled turnips with rosemary blue cheese yogurt and orange segments)

America’s farm to table renaissance was largely born in California during the ’60s and ’70s.  Some sociologists consider it an extension of the same cultural revolution that spawned the “hippie movement” and brought into social consciousness such terms as “organic food,” “natural food,” “back-to-the-earth” and “support-the-local-farmer.”   Alice Waters, considered one of the movement’s founders admits, however, that she wasn’t looking for organic, local food when starting her pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Chez Panise. She wanted to provide a venue in which guests could experience the type of freshness and flavor she found in France.

The wild success of restaurants such as Chez Panise proved that locally grown organic food could provide both exciting variety and utmost quality.  Restaurants throughout California offering farm-to-table dining took root with effusive fervor.  Among the  movement’s practitioners, it hasn’t been uncommon for chefs to change their menus almost weekly depending on what’s available and fresh during growing seasons.  Not even nay-sayers who dismissed farm-to-table as another faddish trend could argue against the freshness, deliciousness and inventiveness of the movement’s restaurants.

Italian Soup

Though farm-to-table has had staunch devotees for decades among New Mexico’s restaurateurs, it’s only in recent years that they’ve really started to brand their culinary offerings as organic and locally grown.   Coupled with the very illuminating presence and farm-to-table advocacy of Edible Santa Fe,  a perfect storm has been created for restaurants showcasing the Land of Enchantment’s locally grown fare to succeed–and not just in Santa Fe which has been at the fore of New Mexico’s farm-to-table adoption.     

On March 1, 2012, the culmination of that perfect storm hit Albuquerque with the launch of Farm & Table, a  much anticipated opening fueled by food porn quality Facebook teases.  Within weeks of its opening, local media–KOB Television’s Best Bites, Local Flavor Magazine, the Alibi, the Albuquerque Journal, and the New Mexico Business Weekly–all rhapsodized effusively about the exemplar farm-to-table restaurant.  It’s usually my practice to let the hullabaloo die down before visiting a restaurant anointed by all the cognoscenti, but Franzi Moore, a faithful reader of this blog and a fellow epicure would hear none of that.  As persuasive and charming a barrister as there is, when Franzi says she wants my opinion, its nolo contendere; I had to visit Farm & Table.  We were joined by her husband Chris and their friend Beckett.

Black Cod & Parsnip Chowder

Black Cod & Parsnip Chowder

Farm & Table is located on a sprawling property on Fourth Street between Alameda and Paseo del Norte. It’s a veritable oasis of green amidst Albuquerque’s earth-tone and concrete modernity. The premises includes a working farm—nine acres of alfalfa and 1.5 acres for produce, including a greenhouse. The restaurant is a recent addition to a 200 year-old adobe edifice which houses La Parada (which translates from Spanish to “the stopping place” and indeed, the building was once a stagecoach stop), a bustling store showcasing the work of local artists in eclectic folk art, jewelry, vintage clothing and more.

The restaurant itself is comprised of two dining rooms and an expansive courtyard with views of the verdant fields in which many of the dinner or brunch ingredients are grown. The main dining rooms are festooned in an upscale Southwestern motif accented by sturdy blonde vigas and painted concrete floors. The smoothly hewn barn wood tables are burnished to a rustic glossy finish. One dining room offers a view to the heart and soul of the restaurant’s operations—not the kitchen, but the prep station in which the expediter (the person in charge of organizing orders by table, and garnishing the dishes before the server takes them out to the dining room) ensures everything runs smoothly. It’s a treat to see an efficiently run dining room operation and Farm & Table has become just that in a short time.

Pork belly with butterscotch miso sauce

The dinner menu showcases locally grown produce, both from the farm but from some of the state’s agrarian epicenters such as Albuquerque’s South Valley (spinach, arugula and field greens), Santa Fe (beets and potatoes), Los Lunas (grass-fed beef), Lemitar (red and green chile), Tucumcari (cheese), Corrales (Heidi’s organic raspberry jam), Mesilla (pecans) and honey from throughout the state. Obviously the menu’s pescatarian fare isn’t caught on the Rio Grande, but you can bet it’s sustainable seafood. Dinner and brunch menus are distinctively different with few cross-over items from one menu to the other. Both menus are vibrant and sure to please the most discerning palates.

Bread is baked in-house and is sliced thick. It’s served with an olive oil and seasonings dip, but is thoroughly enjoyable on its own where you can luxuriate on its artisan-quality, pillowy softness. As with all great breads, it’s also an excellent vehicle with which to sop up any remaining sauces from your plate. You might think it’s tacky to use bread in this manner, especially at a fine dining establishment, but it’s a time-honored custom practiced at some very fine restaurants in France. Besides, it’s less tacky than licking your plate.  It’s also not tacky to use your hands to pick up the thinly-shaved radishes (grown in the greenhouse) on the bread plate either.  They’re fresh and invigorating.

Local fig wood cold-smoked and seared scallops with bacon Brussels sprouts, white bean puree, apple foam and Balsamic caviar

Salads

29 April 2012 (Brunch): As you might expect, soups and salads are paragons of freshness at Farm & Table.  An orange tarragon roasted beet salad (marinated beets, mixed greens and pickled turnips with rosemary blue cheese yogurt and orange segments) honors its ingredients by letting them shine, not allowing them to be masked or overwhelmed by a dressing.  The earthy sweetness of the roasted beets is a perfect foil for the tangy orange segments.  The pickled turnips are not too tangy from the pickling process.  The mixed greens are crisp, fresh and delicious.  With most salads I ask the wait staff to bring me as much blue cheese as they can carry, mostly to obfuscate the flavors of stale, store-bought greens.  At Farm & Table, a little bit goes a long way though the rosemary blue cheese yogurt is good enough to drink like a beverage.

Soups

25 April 2012 (Dinner): Beethoven once said “only the pure of heart can make good soup.”  The Farm & Table kitchen must then be staffed with a phalanx of pure-hearted cooks.  The Italian soup is as good, if not better than most minestrone and pasta fagoli soups I’ve had in Italian restaurants.  Aromatically enticing, it is replete with fresh vegetables and redolent with a coarse-blend sausage from Joe S. Sausage, the Duke City’s  Scovie award-winning king of sausage.   A vegan soup (beet root, kale, spinach and so much more) might be even better.

Prince Edward Island Mussels with feta and green chile broth prepared with red onion and red bell pepper topped with cilantro

2 February 2014 (Brunch) Even in land-locked New Mexico, clam and seafood chowders have become fairly common.  Most won’t ever be mistaken for chowders offered along the country’s coasts.  In pairing black cod, one of ocean’s tastiest fish with parsnip, a mysterious root vegetable many people can’t identify, Farm & Table may have one-upped even some of coastal America’s best purveyors of sumptuous seafood soup.  Black cod, also known as “sablefish” is a delicate, flaky fish with a rich, buttery flavor and silky sweet and rich overtones while parsnip is a root vegetable with a sweet, delicate flavor.  This combination makes for a magnificent soup, one which will warm the cockles of your heart while tantalizing your taste buds.  It doesn’t as much explode with flavor as it does offer your taste buds the warmth and comfort of soupy deliciousness.  

Dinner

25 April 2012: Among the appetizers, the one that’s as impossible to resist as a dinner invitation from Franzi is the pork belly with butterscotch miso sauce. At first glance, the three petite pieces of porcine perfection resemble chocolate truffles, the sheen from the butterscotch akin to a glossy chocolate frosting. Far from being heart healthy, pork belly layers pork and fat together to provide a textural and flavor experience few foods can hope to match. In terms of flavor, think pulled pork meats bacon only better. It’s no wonder Emeril Lagasse likes to say “port fat rules!” The accompanying apple slices provide both a decorative touch and a flavor-texture contrast.

House-Ground Burger

House-Ground Burger

25 April 2012: What the dinner menu lacks in volume (only a handful of items plus specials), it more than makes up in the desirability of its entrees.  You might think it would be relatively easy to pare down your one selection from the relatively small number of entrees, but you’ll be hard-pressed to do so.  One safe bet is the grilled six-ounce beef tenderloin impregnated with a pungent blue cheese compound butter and served with horseradish mashed potatoes and roasted beets.  If you’ve lamented the absence of a steak that will make your eyes roll back in sheer delight, you’ll love this tenderloin, emphasis on tender.  At medium, it’s a foodgasm quality slab of beef.  The horseradish mashed potatoes add a nice kick.

25 April 2012: Seafood aficionados will react to the local fig wood cold-smoked and seared scallops the way a treasure-hunter reacts to finding a pirate’s plunder.  There are only three scallops on the plate, but they’re large and brimming with the sweet, succulent flavor that hearkens back to the days when scallops were synonymous with dining elegance.  The scallops are topped with Balsamic caviar to lend a tangy contrast.  A 2008 survey by Heinz shows that Brussels sprouts now take the prize as America’s most-hated vegetable.  Perhaps it’s because respondents have never had truly great Brussels sprouts.  Some of the very best we’ve ever had are the bacon Brussels sprouts at Farm & Table and not only because the bacon flavor shines through.  These Brussels sprouts are perfectly prepared.  They sit atop a white bean puree.  An apple foam on the plate is cute, but superfluous. 

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Chicken Salad Sandwich with Mixed Greens Salad

Brunch

29 April 2012: Not available on the dinner menu is a brunch entree that has supplanted my favorite of its kind in Albuquerque.  That would be the Prince Edward Island Mussels with feta and green chile broth prepared with red onion and red bell pepper topped with cilantro.  Forgive me P’Tit Louis Bistro, but the mussels at Farm & Table are even better than yours and yours are superb!  The broth, especially the marriage of feta, green chile and red onion is absolutely glorious, better even than the restaurant’s wonderful soups.  You’ll want several slices of the restaurant’s housemade bread to sop up each drop.

2 February 2014: When you see diners order a burger for brunch at a fine dining restaurant there are only three conclusions you can draw: (1) other menu items are mediocre (see El Pinto); (2) the diners wouldn’t know good food if it bit them; or (3) that burger must be pretty darned good.  The House-Ground Burger (local grass fed beef, Tucumcari Cheddar cheese, farm greens, tomatoes on the house brioche and farm fries) is that darned good.  It’s simply one of the very best burgers I’ve had in New Mexico.  The green chile is very much on the mild side, so much so that I wondered if this is the “famous Colorado green chile” of which we heard so much before the 2014 Superbowl.  As with the Santa Fe Bite‘s world-famous burger, this burger is all about the beef, quite simply some of the very best beef on any burger in town.   The burger is roughly four inches in diameter and would resemble a slider were it not nearly as tall as it is round.  The other stand-out is the brioche bun which is about as perfect texturally and flavor-wise as any canvas on any burger in town. 

Pastel Impossible: Red chile chocolate cake with vanilla bean flan and spiced tortilla chip

2 February 2014: Mention chicken salad sandwich among foodies and you’re likely to lull their taste buds to sleep.  Chicken salad sandwiches aren’t widely noted for their taste appeal and are usually seen as more of a utilitarian offering, something you might serve if you’ve got left-over chicken and little time.  Farm & Table has a gumption to believe it can improve on something so culinarily uninteresting–and according to my Kim, it does.  Its components are celery, grapes, carrots, herbed mayo, farm greens and pecans on housemade toast.  My Kim must really have enjoyed this chicken salad sandwich because she only gave me one small bite.

Dessert

25 April 2012 (Dinner): While Franzi waxed eloquent about the entire menu, she was most enthusiastic about a dessert called Pastel Impossible (red chile chocolate cake with vanilla bean flan and spiced tortilla chip).  Sometimes called chocoflan, it melds chocolate cake and flan both texturally and as an unbeatable taste combination.  What is remarkable about this dish is that the chocolate cake and the flan are baked together, but are not mixed together.  What’s more remarkable is just how good the combination can be.

2 February 2014 (Brunch): The dessert against which I measure all other desserts is bread pudding.  Farm & Table hasn’t disappointed in either of the two bread puddings we’ve sampled.  One of the most unique is a Meyer Lemon bread pudding made from the house brioche and topped with a wonderfully crumbly streusel.  Meyer lemons are juicy and sweet while retaining the tongue-tingling properties of conventional lemons.  On the bread pudding it’s the sweetness that’s most prominent though just a touch of tartness sneaks in.  The streusel is a wonderful touch, so much more commonly used on coffee cakes, but at home on this terrific bread pudding.

Meyer Lemon Bread Pudding and Cream Puff

Meyer Lemon Bread Pudding and Cream Puff

Farm & Table is the type of restaurant rarity which promises and delivers a unique dining experience every time you visit.  It’s conceivable some, if not most, of the items about which I write on this essay won’t be on the menu when you visit.  Fret not.  You’ll find much to love at this gem of a restaurant.  Service is first-rate and the food is outstanding with appeal sure to please more than just locavores.

Farm & Table
8917 4th Street NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-503-7124
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 2 February 2014
1st VISIT: 25 April 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pastel Impossible, Pork belly with butterscotch miso sauce, Local fig wood cold-smoked and seared scallops, Beef Tenderloin, PEI Mussels with Feta Cheese and Green Chile Broth, Farm to Table Burger, Orange Tarragon Roasted Beet Salad, Piloncillo Bread Pudding, Meyer lemon Bread Pudding, Cream Puff, Black Cod & Parsnip Chowder, Chicken Salad Sandwich, House-Ground Burger


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Blades’ Bistro – Placitas, New Mexico

Blades' Bistro in Placitas, New Mexico has one of the most beautiful patios around.  Photo courtesy of Anja

Blades’ Bistro in Placitas, New Mexico has one of the most beautiful patios around. Photo courtesy of Anja Bladergroen

Ask three Placitans what they like best about living in Placitas and…
one will say it is being so far from everything, another, being so close to everything–and both will be right
.”
- The Placitas Chamber of Commerce

Chamber of Commerce not withstanding, the distance from Placitas to fabulous gourmet restaurants has spanned both great  mileage and the healing passage of time for residents. When hungry, the mileage between Placitas and either Santa Fe or Albuquerque has seemed interminable.  When fondly recalling a glorious meal within its doors, time has been the sole comforter for residents still missing their beloved Cafe De Las Placitas, a magnificent shooting star which faded away much too quickly but left an indelible afterglow. Most residents will agree the distance to fine restaurant dining is a small price to pay when you live in an idyllic haven back-dropped by the reddish Sandias and surrounded by panoramic views of hills dotted with dessert flora, weather-worn mesas and verdured mountains.  Compared to its bustling, burgeoning, boisterous neighbors, Placitas is a serene harbor of refuge and respite.

Blades’ Bistro, which opened on March 19th, 2009, has greatly narrowed the distance to fine-dining for Placitas residents while rekindling fond memories of fabulous gourmet experiences at the long defunct Cafe De Las Placitas. For diners who frequent the former, comparisons to the latter will be inevitable–and they will be favorable. In fact, Blades’ Bistro has become a standard by which restaurant greatness is measured–not just in Placitas, but throughout northern New Mexico. It’s that good!

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The Bladergroens: Chef Kevin and Anja, the first lady of Placitas

The village of Placitas (in Spanish, literally “small places”) was formed by the San Antonio de las Huertas (Saint Anthony of the Gardens) Spanish land grant in 1745.  While many descendants of the original land-grant families still reside in Placitas, it has in recent years blossomed as an affluent bedroom community for residents employed in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  Fewer than a dozen non-realty businesses call Placitas home, most of them ensconced in the Homestead Village shopping center, home of Blades’ Bistro.

Within a week after Blades’ opened, an excited Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog, shared the news of its launch with me. “My first impression was I’m not in Placitas any more,” he related. “It has a sophisticated ambiance, very big city feel and the food is terrific.” Bruce’s glowing descriptions of what he ate were the inspired impetus for our first visit.  Ive since had the great fortune to have met Bruce and his aptly named better half Grace at Blades.  It remains one of their very favorite restaurants.

Chef Kevin in the kitchen

Chef Kevin in the kitchen

Had it not been for Bruce, we might have thought the name “Blades” had to do with Rio Rancho’s multiplex arena by that name expanding into Placitas and into the restaurant business.  Apparently several people have made that mistaken assumption.  Blades’ Bistro is actually named for brothers Michael and Kevin Bladergroen.  Their name is Dutch, while their restaurant is a veritable melting pot of European and American culinary influences.

An exhibition kitchen is the domain in which Kevin Bladergroen plies his chef trade as he has now for three and a half decades. After years of opening, working in and managing the kitchens of several restaurants in Europe and America, he has set down roots in Placitas. No stranger to New Mexico, he started his professional career in 1975 at Casa Vieja, a Corrales institution. He has also worked at the Prairie Star and before partnering with his brother and wife Anja to launch Blades’ Bistro, was executive chef at the innovative Standard Diner. Anja runs the front of the house.  She is as charming and gracious a hostess as there is in New Mexico, the true first lady of Placitas.

Happy patrons enjoying their dinner on the patio in a mid-August day 2013

Happy patrons enjoying their dinner on the patio in a mid-August day 2013

Chef Bladergroen is classically trained, having attended the prestigious “La Varenne” cooking school in Paris.   His curriculum vitae also includes a unique professional odyssey by motor home.  To broaden his culinary edification, he and Anja traveled across the country to work in several restaurants with chefs he admired.  The journey included stops at a small coastal resort town in Maine; Aspen, Colorado, the glitzy playground for the rich and famous; and Pebble Beach, California, home of the national pro-am, one of golf’s most important events.

Chef Bladergroen’s menu is a culmination of his vast culinary training and experience. His cooking philosophy centers around using high quality ingredients to create a “melting pot of taste” with an innovative yet surprisingly unpretentious and simple menu influenced by the European and American culinary cultures from which he learned.  Some facets–moderately priced culinary fare and pleasant service–of Blades’ are true to the Parisian bistro concept, however, it could be debated that the setting is not exactly casual. It’s very well appointed and stylish, certainly more upscale than your typical bistro (albeit without being overweening). It’s a restaurant in which you’ll feel right at home and have fun while being inspired to be on your best behavior.

Although the bistro doesn’t have a formal “chef’s table” per se, you can still feel like like a VIP by sitting in an area directly adjacent to the exhibition kitchen. Only a plexiglass sneeze guard and an extended countertop separate you from the kitchen. You’ll be close enough to converse with the chef, an amicable gentleman with a quick wit. Chef Bladergroen is very well organized and purposeful in every motion. He is a treat to watch.

As enlightening and inspiring as sitting in close proximity to the kitchen might be, even better are the intoxicating aromas emanating from the panoply of pots and pans perpetually sitting atop high flames. Watching every appetizer and entree in every phase of its preparation, unfortunately doesn’t make it any easier to decide what you want to eat. Everything looks and smells absolutely fabulous. My advice–let the chef pick something for you. Don’t even let him tell you what it is so you can be surprised when it arrives at your table. That’s what I’m happy to have done.

Baked Mushrooms (escargot style) / white wine, garlic herb butter, fresh parmesan

Baked Mushrooms (escargot style) / white wine, garlic herb butter, fresh parmesan

Appetizers

31 March 2009: Blades’ array of appetizers is impressive, but not because of sheer numbers. Including daily specials there are only about a half dozen appetizers available, but if our inaugural choices are any indication, they are of four-star quality. Fans of fleshy and fabulous fungi will fawn over baked mushrooms served escargot style. Blanketed by a light, flaky puff pastry, rich, mellow mushrooms are baked in a light white wine broth with garlic herb butter and parmesan. Mushrooms, it turns out, are the ideal vehicle for soaking up all the buttery goodness (which even Gourmet magazine believes is the best best part of escargot).

It’s not easy to sop up any remaining broth with the hard-crusted crostini which accompanies the mushroom dish, but the crostini is lightly toasted and provides a nice counterpoint to the starring attraction’s richness. As do several of the best fine dining restaurants in the Duke City area, Blades’ Bistro acquires its staff of life offerings from Albuquerque’s Fano Bakery which specializes in artisan-style rustic and specialty breads. Characteristics of baguettes from Fano, a hard-crust complements a soft, airy texture on other breads served during meals at Blades’.

Roasted Fresh Beets

Roasted Fresh Beets

31 March 2009: Beauteous, blood-red beets roasted so they retain a soft inside and a firm exterior are the center point of a second appetizer, roasted red beets with toasted goat cheese and a Balsamic glaze drizzle on a bed of Arugula and Radicchio. The fresh red beets are moist and tangy, a flavor complement to the smooth, creamy texture and mild flavor of the goat cheese and both are a perfect counterbalance to the savory salt and pepper flavors of the Arugula and Radicchio salad. Red Beets are unique for their high levels of anti-carcinogens and their very high carotenoid content. It’s also heartening that they’re so delicious especially at the hands of a skilled chef.

Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad

16 August 2013:  Before even having a real opportunity to peruse the menu, Anja walked by and whispered two words “Caprese salad.”  That was good enough for us.  Chef Kevin’s takes some liberties with the traditional Caprese salad.  As made in the Isle of Capri, this simple salad is made of sliced fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, seasoned with salt, and olive oil.  Blades’ rendition replaces tomatoes with fresh, sliced peaches and adds mint, an edible flower and a drizzle of Balsamic vinegar to the plate.  Vive la difference!  This is one lively salad with invigorating greens complementing the fresh, sweet-tangy peaches.  The creamy mozzarella is the perfect foil, tempering all the bold flavors with its subtle qualities.

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Cajun style fried oysters with Remoulade sauce

16 August 2013:  Hearing that one of the specials of the night was Cajun style oysters led to some trepidation.  Oysters, after all, have one of nature’s most unique flavors (albeit one that doesn’t appeal to all diners).  A heavy hand with Cajun seasoning–or worse, blackening techniques–could bring ruin to those flavors.  Thankfully Chef Kevin knows oysters are to be treated with utmost subtlety and delicateness.  The oysters are lightly seasoned which allows their natural brininess to shine.  The zingy, but certainly not overwhelming, Cajun personality comes from the accompanying Remoulade sauce.  During our visit, the oysters shared the plate with a cold, peanuty noodle salad, likely Thai inspired.

Entrees

Veal Sweetbreads: pan-seared with apples and finished with Calvados Brandy Sauce

23 February 2012: There are entrees a plenty for landlubbers, too, including some not attempted by other restaurants in the Duke City area.  The seasonal menu for winter 2012 included two such rarities, veal sweetbreads and rabbit (if Anja has her way, these two stick around longer, especially the rabbit, her absolute favorite).  Sweetbreads are one of those words which demonstrate English is a crazy language.  They’re neither sweet nor bread.  They’re in the offal (animal entrails and internal organs) family, though many would spell it “awful.”  They’re also an acquired taste and one of the most misunderstood entrees–being mistaken for everything from bull’s testicles to liver–on any restaurant’s menu.  Sweetbreads come from two organs–the thymus (sometimes called the throat sweetbread) and the pancreas (sometimes called the stomach sweetbread).  Of all offal meat, sweetbreads are the most prized thanks to their mild flavor and color and their velvety, rich texture.  Veal sweetbreads are the most popular. 

My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, is a sweetbread savant, enjoying them so much he once had them every other week for six straight months at Chicago’s La Grenouille. When he compared Blades’ version to the one he enjoyed so much in the Windy City, I knew I had to try them, gout be damned (purine rich sweetbreads top the list of things gout sufferers should avoid). What’s a little joint pain and threat of kidney stones compared to the decadent deliciousness of great sweetbreads. Blades’ sweetbreads are outstanding–pan-seared, fork-tender veal sweetbreads in a rich, creamy Calvados brandy sauce perfumed ever so slightly with sweet, delicate apples. Texturally they’re absolutely perfect and flavor-wise, they’re incomparable. The sweetbreads are served with mashed potatoes and a salad of julienned carrots and red cabbage, a good counterpoint to the richness of the sweetbreads.

Rib Eye Steak with Cremini Mushroom Demiglace

23 February 2012: Another entree any carnivorous landlubber will lust after is a ten- to twelve-ounce rib eye steak which can be prepared with either a green chile or a crimini mushroom demiglace.  The steak is prepared to your exacting specifications and arrives at your table surrounded by a rich, glossy pool of pure deliciousness.  Unadorned it’s an excellent steak.  The crimini mushroom demiglace with its discernible red wine influence elevates it to another level.  Served with asparagus spears and one grilled tomato, it’s a terrific entree. 

Green Chile Cheeseburger

Green Chile Cheeseburger

9 August 2013:  You’re also well advised to heed any culinary recommendation from Bruce Schor, a bon vivant who rates Blades’ Rustique Bistro green chile cheeseburger as among the very best he’s had in the Land of Enchantment.   What distinguishes this burger from so many others is the Angus reserved beef from which it’s made.   Angus reserve beef is consistently tender, juicy and rich with flavor.  With the Bistro burger, you might swear you’re eating a fine steak nestled between a hardy Brioche bun.   The green chile, splayed generously beneath melted Cheddar, is of medium piquancy with a nice roasted flavor.   If you top the burger with the red onions, ripe tomatoes and lettuce provided, you’ll have to open wide to bite down.  The beef itself is easily eight to ten ounces.  It’s a very thick slab of beefy deliciousness, extending slightly beyond the bun.  If burgers are truly about beef, this is one burger which emphasizes beef.  It’s an outstanding burger, now in my hallowed list of New Mexico’s best burgers

Steak Frites

Steak Frites

9 August 2013: My Chicago born-and-bred Kim, raised on a typical 1960s Midwest meat-and-potatoes diet, has consistently found much better steak at Blades’ Bistro than at any Duke City steakhouse.  She’ll also tell you that Blades’  prepares a better steak frites entry than any French restaurant in Albuquerque.  The steak is a grilled New York strip topped with herbed butter and served with French fries which don’t have that all-too-famiiar and insipid out-of-a-bag taste.  The steak is prepared to your exacting specifications and is an exemplar of beefy perfection at just under medium.  The herbed butter pools with the juices of the steak to form an addictive flavor combination.  The fries are crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside with just the right amount of salt.  This is a classic French meat and potatoes entree no one does better than Chef Kevin.

London Steak: Pan-seared top round filet topped with bleu cheese and port wine demi sauce.

London Steak with scalloped potatoes and roasted vegetables

16 August 2013:  Just when my Kim thinks she’s had the very best steak on Blades’ menu, Chef Kevin introduces another, even more delectable slab of perfectly prepared steak.  Called a London Steak, it is indeed reminiscent of the steaks we enjoyed so much at The Mermaid in picturesque Burford, England.  The London steak is a pan-seared top round filet topped with bleu cheese and a port wine demi sauce.  Because top round is one of the most lean cuts of beef you can find and has very little fat, it’s a perfect vehicle for demi sauces or Bourguignon.  The Blades’ cut is topped with a port demi sauce as well as a pungent, sharp bleu cheese.  The sauce is thick and it is magnificent with sweet and beef stock elements.  With nary a hint of fat or sinew, this steak somehow manages to be tender and moist even without the sauce.

Roasted Prime Rib Served with Au Jus and Horseradish sauce

Roasted Prime Rib

24 January 2014: One of the most popular of “cold weather dishes” on the Blades’ menu is roasted prime rib served with au jus and horseradish sauce.  The prime rib, as with all meats we’ve enjoyed at Blades’ is outstanding: rosy colored and bursting with copious juices flowing at medium rare, devoid of excess fat though nicely marbled and with a nice concentration of  deep fresh-roasted flavors.  At about twelve ounces it’s “right-sized” slab of beauteous beef, one of the very best we’ve had in New Mexico.  The prime rib is served with garlicky mashed potatoes, sauteed vegetables and a sweet, tart and sour red German cabbage as good as you’ll find at any German restaurant.

Entrees: Seafood

Shrimp Melanaise

Shrimp Melanaise

31 March 2009: The entree chef Bladergroen prepared for me during our inaugural visit is a dish he started preparing while serving as chef in a Fort Pierce, Florida restaurant overlooking an Atlantic waterfront. It’s Shrimp Milanaise, an entree named for the Italian city of Milan. For the most part I’ve equated breaded shrimp with disdained restaurant chains that tend to serve them in all-you-can-choke-down quantities. I had also assumed initially that the breading would be similar to the breading used on steak Milanesa, a Mexican favorite. Blades’ Bistro has forever changed those conceptions.

The breading is light and very well seasoned, adhering like a second skin to the perfectly prepared, sweet and succulent shrimp without dominating their native sea born flavors. Appropriately–being this entree is prepared by a chef of Dutch heritage–the shrimp are served with dollops of smooth and creamy Hollandaise sauce which imparts a rich, buttery flavor with a mild tang. Also served with the dish are rice and carrots, green beans and fennel served al dente. There are only two things wrong with the entree: it doesn’t come with a dozen or more of the crusty crustaceans and it’s not on the daily menu.

    Con Frutti de Mar -- (The Fruit of the sea) Shrimp-Scallops-Lobster with white wine garlic cream sauce over linguini

Con Frutti de Mar

31 March 2009: Seafood lovers in land-locked New Mexico have rarely had the quality of succulent shellfish and mollusks available in one dish–Blades’ Bistro’s Con Frutti de Mar, literally fruit of the sea. This entree features shrimp, scallops and lobster with a white wine garlic sauce over linguini. It’s an inspired entree in which the richness of the sauce is a concordant marriage for the sweetness of the seafood. It will not only sate your lust for protein and carbs, it may leaving you swooning in appreciation. In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Frutti de Mar entree a “Hot Plate Award” as the hot entree Albuquerque diners can’t do without.

Black Cod with a Miso Glaze and Assorted Vegetables

Black Cod with a Miso Glaze and Assorted Vegetables

9 August 2013: When Anja recommends a dish, you’re well advised to heed her advice especially when it’s the special of the night. Special often means spectacular at Blades’ Bistro. Such was the case when the featured special was the black cod with a miso glaze. It’s an amazing dish Chef Kevin was taught to prepare by restaurant impresario and celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, founder of Hawaiian fusion cuisine. Black cod, also known as “sablefish” is a delicate, flaky fish with a rich, buttery flavor and silky sweet and rich overtones. The miso glaze lends a savory-sweet element that pairs magnificently with the fish. It’s one of the very best fish entrees I’ve had in New Mexico, a luscious dish which will make grown men swoon in appreciation. Though I wasn’t bright enough to heed Anja’s recommendation, cousin Susie did and she was nice enough to share her bounty.

16 August 2013: Just how good is the black cod with a miso glaze? It’s good enough to inspire a return visit one week later and this time, I had all six ounces of deliciousness all too myself. It was just as wonderful the second time around.  This superb entree made my “best of the best for 2013,” a tribute to the very best dishes I had the pleasure of consuming during the year. I also paid much more attention to the sides: scalloped potatoes and roasted vegetables (carrots, asparagus, zucchini, beets and a single tomato. All were prepared to perfection. The scalloped potatoes had the right blend of cheese and creaminess to appeal to diners of all ages.

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Sole Meunière

24 January 2014: The mark of a truly outstanding chef is often the ability to take what outwardly appears to be a simple dish and execute it perfectly.  At its bare essence, Sole Meunière is simply sole dredged in flour, prepared in a hot skillet then doused with a pan sauce of butter, lemon and parsley.  Though this dish has relatively few ingredients, it’s a daunting dish to prepare because any mistakes or flavor imbalances are glaring.  Whether from years of practice or deft skill, Chef Bladergroen prepares this dish perfectly.  The pan-fried sole is imbued with a very light golden blond crust.  A press of a fork reveals sweet, creamy meat.  The sauce is rich: a revelation in nutty butter, fragrant parsley and the tartness of lemon, all in perfect proportion.

Dover Sole En Papillote

Dover Sole En Papillote

24 January 2014: Yet another way in which Blades’ showcases sole, a flat fish member of the extended flounder family, is as Dover Sole En Papillote, a classic marriage of British and French cuisine.  “En Papillote” is a method of baking fish within sealed parchment paper which creates a self contained mini “oven” in which the flavors blend and infuse the dish.  Because the parchment paper is porous, it allows steam to escape so the fish is baked rather than steamed.  The British contribution to this dish is the Dover sole itself.  Found in the waters below the Cliffs of Dover, this sole is sometimes considered the “Porterhouse of fish” and is one of the most delicious fish, cherished and beloved by gourmets who love fish.  Chef Bladergroen’s rendition of Dover Sole is as good as we remember the Dover Sole we enjoyed in England.

Soups

French Onion Soup

23 February 2012: The only sane reason for which you should forgo an appetizer is if you’re going to luxuriate in one of the chef’s wondrous soups. The French onion soup is among the most aesthetically appealing and delicious of its genre in New Mexico. Served in a traditional two-tone soup crock, it arrives at your table steaming hot with the cheese brown and bubbling over the top of the crock. The aroma of onions is intoxicating and the broth is thicker than most French onion soups. The onions are cut larger, too, imparting the wonderful sweet flavor of perfectly prepared onions. You’ll risk the molten cheese and sacrifice the roof of your mouth to dig into this soup right away.

Clam Chowder

23 February 2012: Ask any New England transplant to New Mexico what soup they miss most and invariably the answer will be clam chowder (chowdah to Bob of the Village People), the thick, hearty, soul-warming favorite of folks from Maine to Connecticut. Expats will also lament the absence of good clam chowder in the Land of Enchantment. Blades’ rendition is the best we’ve had since vacationing in Massachusetts in 2009. It’s creamy and thick, but not overly so. The potatoes are perfectly prepared and the clams are plentiful –a nice ratio of potatoes to clams. Best, they were neither tough nor chewy. It would have been interesting to see Chef Bladergroen attempt oyster crackers.

Borscht, one of several soups on the winter soup rotation

06 February 2011: If the soup du jour gracing the menu is Borscht, contemplate the rest of the starters menu no further (unless it’s to have Borscht and another starter).  The Borscht, one of several soups on the chef’s winter soup rotation, is excellent. Deep reddish-purple in color courtesy of beetroot, it is redolent with tomato, potatoes, beef, sour cream, garlic and dill.  Borscht, a veritable culinary treasure in Eastern and Central Europe, is one of those dishes for which there is no one universal recipe.  Cultural differences (Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian, etc.) account for variations in ingredients and preparation.  There are also seasonal variations that include serving it as a cold soup or a hot soup.  Blades’ version is served steaming hot and it’s terrific! 

Tortilla Soup

Tortilla Soup

24 January 2014: In January, 2014, Blades Bistro debuted the soup it would enter in the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souper Bowl.  It’s called a tortilla soup, but it’s much more complex than its simple name would imply.  Among its components are red chili (sic), roasted corn, avocado and melted shredded cheese, all seasoned with rosemary, oregano, nutmeg, cinnamon and more.  Its diversity of ingredients imbue it with a very interesting and delicious flavor profile.  If you enjoy the adventure of ingredient discernment, this is a soup you will love.

Brunch

In 2010, Blades’ Bistro began serving lunch on Friday and Saturday from 10AM to 2PM and brunch on Sundays during those same hours.  Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the very best of both.  It’s a leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something, almost as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before your main entree.  Brunch in Placitas has the additional feel of going out-of-town, away from the maddening traffic and crowds to a more sedate and tranquil paced haven.

Fettuccini alla Carbonara: pasta tossed with cream, eggs, bacon & parmesan cheese

06 February 2011: Perhaps the most sinfully rich brunch entree (on a menu which includes a Croque Monsieur made with Gruyere cheese topped with a cheese bechamel sauce) is the Fettuccini alla Carbonara, pasta tossed with cream, eggs, bacon and Parmesan.  This version is more cheesy than it is creamy and it’s thicker (though not clumpy and sticky) than some Carbonara dishes.  Carbonara, an Italian pasta dish with its genesis in Rome, is best made with al dente pasta and while Blades’ rendition is certainly not al dente, it’s so good and so rich you won’t–you can’t–stop eating it.  Besides that, every spoonful includes bacon and you can’t go wrong with that.  This dish is so rich, it should be served with a side of angioplasty.

Mongolian Ribs with Sweet Potato Fries and Coleslaw

6 February 2011: During our inaugural brunch visit, we lucked upon a special-of-the-day offering called Mongolian Ribs, a veritable tower of meaty ribs glazed with a ginger-sesame sauce.  The plating of the ribs is tower-like, indeed.  At least six ribs are stacked atop one another, buttressed by a mound of coleslaw and a phalanx of sweet potato fries.  The ginger-sesame sauce is practically shellacked onto the ribs, but if that description leaves you dubious based on similarly described Chinese rib dishes, fear not.  Unlike some Chinese ribs, these are not candied meat lollipops.  The ginger-sesame sauce complements the beef ribs; it does not overwhelm them.  Did I mention these ribs are meaty?  Though they’re not quite Flintstonian in size, they will appease any a carnivore.  The accompanying coleslaw is tangy and delicious, made with Fuji apples and julienne carrots on a bed of greens.

Desserts

31 March 2009: What many will love most is dessert and Blades’ Bistro doesn’t disappoint here either. An outstanding option sure to please one and all is the tiramisu.  Blades’ rendition is served in a large goblet but the cake’s component parts are certainly present: ladyfinger biscuits dipped in espresso layered in a whipped mixture of mascarpone, sugar, egg yolks topped with cocoa.  The distinct addition of a liqueur is also discernible.  It is a phenomenal dessert and that’s selling it short.  Along with the incomparable offering at Torinos @ Home, this rendition is at the top of my list of my very favorite tiramisu desserts in New Mexico, a Tuscan treat so good I’d eschew my other favorite (if it was on the menu) dessert–bread pudding.

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

17 December 2011: In the June, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine celebrating “New Mexico’s Best Eats,” a three person panel of culinary experts of which I was a part, selected as the Land of Enchantment’s best uptown dessert, the red chile soup at La Casa Sena.  Studded with Chimayo chile that enlivens the chocolate, it is one of my favorite desserts.  In the Chocolate Chili Pot, Blades’ Bistro may have one-upped La Casa Sena.  The chocolate chili (sic) pot is a ramekin brimming with dark chocolate pots du creme with toasted Chimayo chili.  Its consistency is reminiscent of a very thick frosting served cold, but it certainly doesn’t taste like the topping for a cake.  The adult chocolate is made even more flavorful with the infusion of Chimayo chile (better, by the way, than Hatch chile).  It’s topped with whipped cream studded with blueberries.

Chocolate Chili Pot: Dark chocolate Pots du Creme with toasted Chimayo chili

23 February 2012: Even in winter, savvy restaurateurs will serve cold dishes, perhaps figuring that frozen desserts are good any time of year.  That’s certainly the case with Blades’ trio of sorbets, a refreshing, teeth-chattering bowl of flavor explosions.  This housemade triumvirate is as good a chilly dessert as there is in the Land of Enchantment.  As with all excellent sorbets, each truly captures the essence of the flavors they represent.  The pear sorbet tastes like fresh-picked pears (only served ice cold).  The pineapple-mint sorbet blends two distinctive flavors into a composite of what’s good about both.  The blackberry-cantaloupe sorbet is similarly fruity and delicious.

A trio of Sorbet: Pineapple-Mint, Blackberry-Cantaloupe and Pear

23 February 2012: Besides sweetbreads, another addiction my friend Larry McGoldrick and I share is for bread pudding.  It’s our catnip and kryptonite–practically bringing us to our knees in gratitude to the bread pudding gods when it’s made right.  Blades’ bread pudding made Larry’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame, an indication of its rarefied greatness.  It’s at or near the top of my list, too.  Unlike the soggy, custard-like bread pudding that relies on cloying sauces for flavor, this is a firm yet spongy bread pudding with a texture that’s absolutely spot-on.  In terms of taste, it’s an eye-opener with the pronounced flavor of banana and rum, the latter cutting the sweetness of the former.  It’s a winning combination.

Banana Rum Bread Pudding

9 August 2013: There’s only one thing wrong with the dessert menu at Blades’  It’s that every single dessert item with which you fall in love doesn’t always grace the menu.  Desserts, as with entrees and appetizers, rotate with seasonal regularity.  Perhaps the most perfect of summer sweets is Key Lime Pie, the official state pie of the state of Florida.  The key lime pie at Blades is terrific with a pronounced key lime flavor (key lime juice, by the way, is yellow not green the way faux key lime pies are presented) tempered with sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks.  Kenney Chesney once sang about the perfect key lime pie, describing it as “not too tart, not too sweet.”   That’s the perfect description for the key lime pie at Blades’ Bistro.

Key Lime Pie with Graham Cracker-Coconut Crust

Key Lime Pie with Graham Cracker-Coconut Crust

16 August 2013:Could there possibly be a more appropriate name for a triumvirate of chocolate decadence than  chocolate decadence trio?  It’s a no brainer.  If you’re a bonafide chocoholic, having this dessert is also a no brainer.  Quite simply, it lives up to its name.  The chili (SIC) lime chocolate pot’s du creme has the type of heat which hits the back of your throat coupled with the rich, adult chocolate to generate an endorphin rush.  A sole peanut butter truffle, the coupling of two great tastes (chocolate and peanut butter) that taste great together will have you wishing for a bowlful.  The flourless chocolate torte with strikes of raspberry sauce is dense and intensely flavored with adult chocolate notes.  This is the type of chocolate dessert that provides the same “high” as falling in love.  You’ll certainly fall in love with this dessert

Chocolate Decadence Trio: Chili Lime Chocolate Pot's du Creme, Peanut Butter Truffle and Flourless Chocolate Torte

Chocolate Decadence Trio

24 January 2014: Blades certainly knows how to capture my heart, offering a bread pudding du jour that proves the diversity and deliciousness of my favorite dessert, even managing to make a great bread pudding out of an ingredient I don’t like.  That ingredient is white chocolate (which is technically not chocolate at all even though it contains cocoa butter), perhaps the only item bearing the name “chocolate” I don’t like.   Blades’ white chocolate and macadamia bread pudding topped with a housemade brandy sauce is so good, it might even make Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  The macadamia nuts cut the sweetness and richness of the white chocolate while the housemade brandy sauce lends its own richness.  Make sure you order this bread pudding a la mode because the housemade ice cream is rich and delicious.

White Chocolate Macadamia Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream

White Chocolate Macadamia Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream

In just over three years, Placitas has become a dining destination frequented not only by local loyalists, but by diners from throughout the state and beyond.  In 2011, Blades’ Bistro was selected by readers of Local IQ as the Duke City area’s best romantic restaurant, best fine-dining restaurant and for having the area’s best bartender.  The operative term here is “best,” a term that has become synonymous with this stand-out restaurant and with its superbly talented chef and of course, the first lady of Placitas.

BLADES’ BISTRO
221 Highway 165 Suite L
Placitas, New Mexico
505) 771-0695
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 January 2014
1st VISIT:  31 March 2009
# OF VISITS:6
RATING: 25
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Baked Mushrooms (escargot style), Roasted Fresh Beets with toasted Goat Cheese @ Balsamic Glace Drizzle, Con Frutti de Mar, Shrimp Melanaise, Tiramisu, Trio of Sorbets, Chocolate Chili Pot, Mongolian Ribs, Borscht, Fettuccinni alla Carbonara, Banana Rum Bread Pudding, Veal Sweetbreads, Rib Eye with Mushroom Demiglace, Steak Frites, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Black Cod with Miso Glaze, Key Lime Pie, London Steak, Chocolate Decadence Trio, White Chocolate Macadamia Bread Pudding, Roasted Prime Rib, Sole Meunière, Dover Sole En Papillote, Tortilla Soup, Dutch Style Mussels


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