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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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Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar – La Jolla, California

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La Jolla’s Grande Colonial Hotel, home of the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar

My baby sister Anita paid me the ultimate compliment, not as a brother, but as a savvy restaurant essayist. When we ran into her at the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar in picturesque La Jolla, she told me “I knew you’d find this place,” acknowledgement that she recognizes my prowess in finding the very best restaurants everywhere I travel. Born nine years apart with four siblings in between, Anita and I are anomalies in our family in that we’re passionate gastronomes in a brood which suffers the same dull palate deficiency which afflicts many Americans who prefer chain restaurants.

Unbeknownst to us, Anita, her hunky husband Andy and their precocious, beautiful Emily were staying in La Jolla’s Grande Colonial Hotel, just a few miles from our rental home. Leave it to Anita to stay in the hotel housing the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar which was accorded the 2013 Gold Medallion Award as California’s best hotel restaurant in the fine dining category. Our other siblings would have been just as happy staying in a hotel adjacent to the Olive Garden.

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The dog-friendly patio where our Tim and Callie celebrated their ninth birthday

2013 marks the Grande Colonial centennial anniversary as the oldest hotel in La Jolla. The opulent grand damme, within strolling distance of La Jolla Cove, remains as stylish as many an elegant European hotel with mahogany trim and wood moldings as well as stylish lead chandeliers and crystal doorknobs. The Nine-Ten Restaurant, named for its address on 910 Prospect Drive, opened in July, 2001. Since its launch, the restaurant has earned almost every conceivable accolade: an “extraordinary to perfection” rating from Zagat, the California Restaurant Association’s “Best hotel Restaurant” designation, Gayot’s “Top Ten Gastronomy Cuisine Restaurants in the United States” award and many more.

More importantly for us, the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar earned a five bones rating from BringFido.com, an online resource for locating dog-friendly restaurants, lodging, air travel and more. Food and Wine also praised Nine-Ten for its dog friendly nature, noting that “the dining staff is especially accommodating to dogs, setting out water bowls and treats, and occasionally hosting dog parties on the patio.” Our darling dachshunds Tim and Callie certainly enjoyed their visit, especially when so many dog lovers stopped by to ooh and ah at them.

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An asparagus soup, light on cream, with pea pods

Nine-Ten’s executive chef Jason Knibb earned a broader national profile when he became San Diego’s first “cheftestant” on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America program where he was bested by Iron Chef Bobby Flay in battle caviar. In culinary circles, he’s much better known for the many accolades he’s earned and for his mastery of “California cuisine,” that fusion of disparate ingredients and cooking styles emphasizing the use of fresh, local ingredients. The chef changes the menu based on the growing season, procuring fresh produce from highly reputable local artisan farmers.

Special prix fixe menus are available daily and feature matching wines from the extensive, Wine Spectator-awarded wine cellar. For dinner, that means one hot or cold starter, one entrée, one dessert or one cheese. Intrepid diners desiring a true epicurean experience can put themselves at the “Mercy of the Chef”, a special prix fixe menu created at the whim and inspiration of the Chef and featuring matching wines. Frankly, you can put yourself at the mercy of the wait staff, too, because they know the menu well and make savvy recommendations.

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Taste of Four Cheese served with bread & accompaniments

One such recommendation was the soup of the day, an asparagus soup infused with pea pods. The soup’s neon green color bespoke of its freshness, but didn’t prepare us for its deliciousness. Especially remarkable is the fact that the soup was not of the cream of asparagus variety (a lot of cream will make almost any type of soup taste good). In fact, there was very little cream used on the soup. It was mostly pureed asparagus seasoned lightly and allowed to shine. Pea pods proved a very complementary partner, introducing elements of sweetness to the soup.

A simple salad of locally grown mixed organic greens with a champagne vinaigrette was similarly remarkable for its simplicity. The best and most intrepid of chefs allow ingredients to speak for themselves with seasonings and dressings used sparingly and only to accentuate the native flavors of those ingredients. The lightly applied champagne vinaigrette meant we could enjoy the organic greens with the flavors bestowed by fertile soil, sunlight and irrigation. When it comes to salad, simple can mean spectacular.

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Hanger Steak with roasted baby turnips, carrots, chanterelle mushrooms, parsnip purée, Cabernet reduction

Several years ago much to the consternation of PETA, television commercials introduced the slogan “Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.” Whether the commercials bolstered the market for California’s artisan cheeses is debatable, but they did resonate with us. In most of our dining experiences at restaurants featuring California cuisine, we indulge in cheeses. The cheeses don’t always come from California, but they’re almost always delicious.

The “taste of four cheeses” with bread and accompaniments at Nine-Ten is an exemplary cheese plate, but it might not make California cows happy because no California cheeses are showcased. Instead, you’ll find Taleggio, an Italian cow’s milk cheese served with fig jam; Drunken Goat, a firm goat’s milk cheese from Spain served with fried almonds; Shaft’s Blue, a soft cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin served with apple slices; and Manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese from Spain served with pickled walnuts. This cheese plate provides great variety in flavor and texture, smartly employing palate cleansing accompaniments on which you can nosh in between frolicking in the fromage.

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Loch Duart Salmon: celery root puree, Swiss chard, roasted baby apples & salsify, apple cider gastrique

One of the dishes best exemplifying California cuisine is the hanger steak which is served with roasted baby turnips, carrots, Chanterelle mushrooms, parsnip puree and a Cabernet reduction. The hanger steak, a lean and thin cut of beef, is cut into strips and is absolutely perfect at a shade under medium. Most surprisingly is how very tender–cut with a fork tender–this cut is served. We’ve often found hanger steak tough and stringy when used on fajitas. The Cabernet reduction imbues the steak with a moist viscosity and smoothness while the vegetable accompaniment would make the most recalcitrant of children learn to love vegetables. Alas, there weren’t enough of us to suit our adult palates.

It’s with decreasing frequency that we order salmon in New Mexico. Despite often being prefaced by such terms as “wild caught salmon harvested by fishermen,” a residual “fishiness” belies any purported freshness. Nine-Ten’s Loch Duart Salmon is the best salmon we’ve had in many a year. As can be gleaned from the name, Loch Duart Salmon comes from Scotland and has been consistently judged superior in taste, quality, color and overall perception. While fruity flavors and fish don’t often go well together, the apple cider gastrique applied onto the salmon created a perfect marriage of savory-brininess tinged with just a hint of tangy sweetness. The accompanying vegetables–celery root puree, Swiss chard, roasted baby apples–were a tease. We wanted a plateful and received spoonfuls.

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Meyer Lemon Tart topped with raspberries and edible flowers; side of basil ice cream with cookie crumbs

Desserts are not to be missed. They’re as creative and delicious as dessert can be. On its own, the Meyer Lemon Tart would have made a sensational post-prandial indulgence. You would have been deliriously happy to devour it and call it a fabulous way to end a meal. Topped with raspberries and edible flowers, it purses your lips ever so slightly with its tanginess. The edible flowers provide a delicate, almost minty flavor while the raspberries are ever so fresh. The most welcome addition to this dessert is a single scoop of basil ice cream. It’s as refreshing as it sounds, as good as any Thai dish employing fresh basil.

At the other flavor profile extreme is the half-baked chocolate cake drizzled with caramel sauce and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. Its name foretells of its texture. The cake has an almost molten quality to it and it’s served warm so the ice cream melts almost immediately. Only the edges of this cake are cake-like. The rest is gooey (but not like melted caramel), rich and absolutely decadent.

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Half Baked Chocolate Cake: caramel sauce with vanilla bean ice cream

During our next family reunion, Anita and I would probably want it held at a restaurant like Nine-Ten, but may wind up at Red Lobster instead. Anything to maintain peace in the family.

Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar
910 Prospect Street
La Jolla, California
(858) 964-5400
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 26
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Asparagus Soup, Taste of Four Cheeses, Hangar Steak, Loch Duart Salmon, Lemon Tart, Half Baked Chocolate Cake

Nine Ten on Urbanspoon

Pizzeria Mozza – Newport Beach, California

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Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California

Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses,
like a dance from some ancient ceremony.
It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells
–there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise,
no hour of meditation in a music throbbing chapel
that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this
homely ceremony of making bread.”
~M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating

For those of us geriatrically advanced enough to have had moms who actually baked bread in their ovens, the singular joy of those incredible yeasty bouquets wafting toward us is a treasured memory, one we relive when we visit old-fashioned bakeries. The sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, influences our ability to recall past events and experience. It’s very well established that fragrance is one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up a memory and for tugging at the heart strings.  

At most pizzerias, it’s the aroma of garlic and sauce simmering on the stove that greet you, sometimes even before you walk in.  Step into Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California and your sense of smell might go into overdrive as your nose seeks out the incomparable fragrance of baking bread.  That, at least, was my inclination knowing that one of the three partners who founded and own Pizzeria Mozza also founded one of America’s most hallowed havens for the staff of life.

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Main dining room at Mozza Pizzeria

That partner would be Nancy Silverton, founder of LaBrea Bakery, the premier artisan bread brand in the country.  Founded in 1989, LaBrea Bakery sparked an artisan bread renaissance, ultimately leading to the bakery’s breads being sold at premier grocery stores and restaurants across the fruited plain.  Today, as La Brea Bakery celebrates it’s 20th Anniversary, its freshly baked, old-world breads are available in 17 different countries.   Longtime visitors will tell you LaBrea maintains the same signature taste, texture, and quality that was born in South La Brea Avenue so many years ago.

The other two partners are household names among foodies.  One is Mario Batali, the peripatetic restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality.  Batali is renowned for pushing the envelope, taking a contemporary approach to traditional cooking.  In doing so, he has earned a number of James Beard awards.  The third partner is Joe Bastianich, a restaurant impresario who partnered with Batali to launch Babbo, one o the most highly regarded Italian restaurants in America.

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Fried squash blossoms with ricotta
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

When it first launched in Los Angeles in 2007, Pizzeria Mozza instantly became one of the hottest reservations in the Los Angeles area.  Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize and James Beard award-winning food critic Jonathan Gold called Pizzeria Mozza  ”the hottest restaurant opening since Spago launched in 1982.”   Six years later, reservations are still a must.  Based on its success, it was a given that  Pizzeria Mozza spin-offs would open, the second launching in 2010 some 8,782 miles away in Singapore.  The third opened in Newport Beach in 2011.

Whether by design or by accident, the Newport Beach restaurant evokes images of Batali’s signature crocs.  Both the signage and awning are the same bright orange color Batali sports on his feet.  The cynosure of the main dining room is a brick wood-burning oven which will bake a pizza in three minutes at temperatures of 500-600 degrees, burning only almond wood.  Seating along the bar is in personal space proximity, but it might be worth getting to know your neighbors just to be able to imbibe the preternatural melding of fragrant smoke and baking bread.  

Pane Pomodoro with Speck, Burrata and Pickled Ramps

Pane Pomodoro with Speck, Burrata and Pickled Ramps
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

The menu is an exercise in salivation control.  It reads like a delicious novel, each item conflicting you between wanting to order it immediately or reading further just in case there’s something even better.  Fortunately our inaugural visit was with friend and passionate fellow foodie Sandy Driscoll, an LA resident who’s navigated her way through the menu during several visits.  Sandy is the very best kind of friend for visiting restaurants, the type of friend with which whom you’re comfortable reaching over with fork or spoon and sampling each others’ food is expected.  Male friends don’t share in this way.

The menu is segmented sensibly, starting with some thirteen antipasti, all showcasing the fresh bounty of California’s farms.  Next on the menu are five insalate, each one desirable.  Carne–four Italian meat dishes the envy of any charcuterie–follows then it’s bruschette, three toasted bread offerings topped with assorted ingredients.  Three panini are also available, but by the time you’ve read this far, you’re ready to peruse and imbibe the pizza menu, thirteen different pies as inventive and inviting as possible.  It’s likely that only after you’ve sampled all of the previous fare that you’ll even look at the piatti on the back side of the menu.  The piatti are three specials of the day (such as brasato al barolo).

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Bone Marrow Al Forno with garlic, sea salt and parsley
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

The fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta is a farmers’ market favorite available seasonally.  The squash blossoms are ethereal, sheathed in a delicate tissue-thin batter tinged with just a bit of sea salt.  The bulbous flower yields sweet-savory cheese nectar with each bite.  As with all antipasti on the menu, the squash blossoms are decadent and delicious, but they don’t linger and by the time you get your pizza, will remain a pleasant memory.   

Since Sandy introduced me to burrata several years ago, it’s been on my “must order” list. Burrata, an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella, is ethereal in its texture and as rich and creamy a cheese as you’ll find. In fact, in Italian Burrata actually translates to “buttered.” It bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.

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Prosciutto di Parma, Rucola, Tomato (certified organic tomatoes grown in Los Gatos, California by Robert DiNapoli and Chris Bianco) and Mozzarella di Bufala

At Pizzeria Mozza, burrata is available as a condimenti for your pizza, but can also be found on the bruschette menu.  More specifically, burrata shares canvas space on a perfectly toasted pane with speck (a salt-cured and smoked juniper-flavored Italian ham) and pickled ramps.  Every ingredient atop the bruschette is fabulous in its own right; together the combination may elicit a foodgasm or two.  The whisper-thin speck is porcine perfection.  The pickled ramps are infused with a sweet-tangy marinade which renders every bit of them thoroughly delicious.  The burrata was, of course, outstanding. 

Since a 2012 visit to The Purple Pig on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, bone marrow al forno has become an obsession, one for which I would endure twelve Herculean labors. While other foods may be considered rich, bone marrow is almost obscenely so.  It’s one of the richest, most unctuous ingredients available.  At Pizzeria Mozza, two split-roasted beef bones reveal in troth-fashion, a trove of irresistible marrow.  Almost too rich to eat on its own, the marrow is best enjoyed atop toasted bread with just a light pinch of sea salt, garlic cloves and parsley.  I’m already looking forward to my next bone marrow indulgence.

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Sacon, Salame, Fennel Sausage, Guanciale, Tomato and Mozzarella

The pizza menu is a showcase of California freshness, every ingredient a complement to the beauteous bread canvas on which they’re laid out.  The crust is blistered and puffed at the edges, tapering off to a whisper-thinness at the pizza’s middle.  It’s a crust which–credit Nancy Silverton’s mastery of the bread oven–will evoke fond memories of your mom’s baked bread.  When this crust hits your eye, it’s amore.  When it hits your taste buds, it’s “I’ll cheat on mom’s bread and I don’t care if she knows about it” good.   Each pizza is about ten-inches round, a personal sized pie you’ll want to share with good friends.

Pizza, unlike burgers, is so much more than the sum of all its components strewn out on a bread canvas.  Often the most overlooked aspect of a great pizza is the sauce, a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce that lends shimmering deliciousness, moistness and personality to your pizza.  Pizzeria Mozza offers three pizzas on which the sauce is showcased.  The three Bianco DiNapoli Pomodoro pizzas use a sauce made with certified organic tomatoes grown in Los Gatos, California by Robert DiNapoli and Chris Bianco.  If the name Chris Bianco sounds familiar, it’s because he’s widely credited with creating the best pizza in America at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.  

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Coach Farm Goat Cheese, leeks, scallions, garlic and bacon

Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes aren’t found on too many pizzas.  Organically grown, these plum-shaped beauties are packed with a touch of sea salt, organic basil and topped with their own juices.  The results are a sweet tomato so good you’ll want a bushelful.  At Pizzeria Mozza, the tomatoes are hand-crushed onto the dough and topped with other signature ingredients.  An excellent combination includes prosciutto di Parma, rucola and mozzarella di buffala, all premier ingredients, all downplayed by my enjoyment of the tomatoes.  Frankly, Nancy Silverton’s pizza crust and these tomatoes would have made for an outstanding pizza on their own.

The most popular pizza on the menu is the “meat lovers” pizza (though to call it such would be to give it the same sobriquet as a vastly inferior chain pizza) featuring bacon, salame, fennel sausage, guanciale, tomato and mozzarella.  The fennel enriched sausage is a coarse blend and it’s piled on in intimidatingly large chunks.  It’s easily the most plentiful among the toppings and it’s the most flavorful, too.  

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Caramel Copetta: Marshmallow Sauce, Salted Spanish Peanuts, Caramel
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

While ingredients are predominantly from California, Pizzeria Mozza cares more about the quality of their ingredients than about their place of origin.  One pizza showcases Coach Farm goat cheese, an authentic, artisanal goat cheese made in the traditional methods employed by French farmstead cheese-makers. Vive la différence! This goat cheese is rich and creamy, but not at all gamy or overpowering. It’s a perfect foil for leeks, scallions, garlic and bacon.  As with the sausage pizza, the goat cheese is apportioned generously.

Even if you don’t have room for it, you’ve got to try Pizzeria Mozza’s desserts, all of which are formidable equals to the menu’s savory fare.  One must-have is the Caramel Copetta, a “sundae” of caramel ice cream, marshmallow fluff, caramel topping and Spanish peanuts with a pizzelle cookie at the bottom and more than a pinch of sea salt.  The combination of sea salt and caramel has become almost de rigueur in many restaurants, but few couple these ingredients so well.  The interplay of salty and sweet ingredients makes this a memorable dish.  It’s deliciousness makes it a dessert we’ll order again.

Strawberry Gelato Pie

Strawberry Gelato Pie
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

One of the most refreshing desserts we’ve had in recent memory is the strawberry gelato pie with caramelized almonds and Saba.  Upon reading “Saba,” my mind immediately conjured images of Japanese mackerel at a sushi bar.  Thankfully, Saba is also a word for a sweet-tangy Italian condiment made with grapes.  In any case, it enlivened this pie (not that it needed much help) with just a bit of cloying sweetness to meld with the tangy sweetness of the strawberries.  

My dessert, the Stone Fruit Copetta (apricots, sbrisolona (a crunchy Italian tart), vanilla gelato) was the least successful of the three, a Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” dessert considering I had the entire cup almost to myself.  Apricots are an acquired taste, an often overwhelming and powerful sweet-tangy fruit with a deeply intense flavor.  The Stone Fruit Copetta is almost an anti-dessert in that it’s not overly sweet and won’t win over too many hearts and appetites, but I liked it a lot.  Perhaps I can relate.

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Stone Fruit Copetta: Apricots, Sbrisolona, Vanilla Gelato
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Service at Pizzeria Mozza was terrific.  A highly professional and personal wait staff answered all our questions and was on-the-spot with refills and advice. When we lingered long after our meal, we were offered a complimentary glass of wine to move from the patio to the dining room so the restaurant could accommodate a private party. It’s wholly unlike the stereotype of LA service.

Pizzeria Mozza is on my short list of restaurants which have provided “best pizza experiences” of my life, joining the aforementioned Pizzeria Bianco and Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana as the three most transformative pizzas I’ve been blessed to experience.  

Pizzeria Mozza
800 W Coast Highway
Newport Beach, California
(949) 945-1126
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 26
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Bone Marrow Al Forno, Fried Squash Blossoms, Pane Pomodoro, Pizza, Strawberry Gelato Pie, Stone Fruite Copetta, Caramel Copetta

Pizzeria Mozza on Urbanspoon