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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2014
1st VISIT: 21 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 5
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