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Trattoria Mollie – Montecito, California

Trattoria Mollie in Montecito, California

In its three best-selling editions–published in 2006, 2008 and 2012–National Geographic’s “Passport  to the Best” has enthralled, excited and educated connoisseurs of matters of taste across the globe.  With top ten lists in dozens of categories studded with savvy tips and inspiring imagery, this wayfarer’s bible invigorates investigative yearnings for exotic travel, if for nothing else to confirm or refute the opinion of the authors.  Still, when the  “Passport to the Best” recognized Trattoria Mollie in Montecito, California as “one of the “Ten Best Destination & Special Restaurants in the World,” the honor was probably lost on much of the popular culture demographic. 

Trattoria Mollie has instead garnered much more fame and acclaim courtesy of a rousing endorsement from media mogul Oprah Whitney than from any source.  Oprah reportedly dined at the swank Montecito restaurant every day during the summer of 2006, most often–if not exclusively–enjoying an entree showcasing three turkey meatballs studded with raisins.  It’s an entree she introduced to President Obama during his visit to Trattoria Mollie.  So impressed was Oprah that she also introduced Chef Mollie Ahlstrand to the world on both her popular show and “O” magazine.  As her annual “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode consistently proved, an endorsement from Oprah carried significant weight.

The petite and beautiful Chef Mollie Ahlstrand

Trattoria Mollie is the eponymous restaurant of an Ethiopian-born chef trained at some of the finest restaurants in and around Rome, including  Arturo’s Aurelia Antica, a favorite restaurant of Pope (now saint) John Paul II.   Preparing heavenly pasta dishes for the pontiff and for a phalanx of celebrity admirers isn’t necessarily what has earned Chef Mollie such a sterling reputation.  Her grace and charm are on display every time she leaves the kitchen to mingle with diners.  Swathed from head to toe in immaculate white, she employs ambassadorial skills in making sure her guests are happy.  She may not visit for very long, but has such a high likeability quotient that you’re left with the impression that you met with beatific greatness. 

Chef Mollie’s guiding principles seem to center around “fresh food prepared by hand” as you’ll be reminded by the wait schtick of a very well trained and amiable server staff.  Mollie purchases many of her vegetables at local farmers’ markets and much of the seafood used at the restaurant is delivered fresh daily by professionals who fish the nearby coastal waters.  You can observe Mollie and her staff in action as you walk into the restaurant.  She’s a veritable whirling dervish of activity, simultaneously performing and guiding the preparation of incomparable Northern Italian cuisine.  It’s why she earned the Five Diamond Silver Medallion Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.

Bread with olive oil and Balsamic vinegar in a utilitarian decanter

 The key word there is “hospitality.” It’s not every “celebrity” chef who leaves the comfortable confines of the kitchen to treat all guests as celebrities themselves. Heck, most celebrity chefs rarely even venture into their kitchens any more.  Mollie’s staff embodies a “mia casa, tua casa” spirit in making you feel welcome and valued.  We bantered with our Italian server as to Velveeta’s place on an Italian cheese platter and shared Fathers’ Day sentiments with another.  What we appreciated most, however, was the wait staff’s loving treatment of Tim, our darling dachshund who dined with us. 

You won’t be seated for long before a basket of bread arrives with a very utilitarian decanter holding both olive oil and Balsamic vinegar in one vessel.  The housemade bread is a classic–pillowy soft on the inside with a slightly hard crust on the outside.  It’s an ethereally light bread that soaks up olive oil and (or) Balsamic vinegar.  The wait staff will gladly replenish it if (when is probably more appropriate) you finish it.

Prosciutto and Melon

Trattoria Mollie’s simple menu belies the extraordinary preparation of some of the most sumptuous and extraordinary Italian food you’ll ever have.  The dinner menu includes nine pizzas.  Yes, pizza on an Italian fine-dining menu.  Appetizers, soups and salads are simple too, a far cry from the melange of ingredient combinations other restaurants deploy seemingly to impress, not necessarily to harmonize well together.  Daily specials warrant an attentive ear so you don’t miss out on something luscious. 

We compromised on a simple appetizer of prosciutto and melon, thinly sliced cured ham from Parma, Italy served with fresh cantaloupe.   The key to maximizing your enjoyment of this refreshing delight is to include a bit of each flavor component in each bite.  Considering the prosciutto is whisper thin, but resilient, it’s a bit of a chore, but well worth the effort.  Every ingredient is excellent on its own; together they sing.  The melon, as fruits and vegetables in California tend to be, is fresh, sweet and juicy.

Ossobuco alla Milanese

One of the consequences of the timing of our trip to California was that we missed out on the weekend special at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho.  We missed out on Joe’s life-altering pork ossobuco, an entree so wondrously prepared, it’s been known to cause rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air foodgasms.  As such, ordering Trattoria Mollie’s Ossobuco Milanese was a no-brainer.  Mollie’s rendition showcases a meaty veal shank prepared in a stew with prosciutto, onions, carrots, celery and rice cooked in a white wine sauce.  It’s an amazing dish as rich and sumptuous as any ossobuco we’ve had, bringing to mind favorable comparisons with Joe’s version. 

Mollie’s special of the evening, Lasagna Bolognese, showcased a sauce which has long been the bane of my dining experiences at Italian restaurants.  In America, Bolognese sauce has become the generic name for a meat and tomato sauce.  It’s been dumbed-down from the way it’s prepared in Italy.  Every prior experience at Italian restaurants in America has left me disappointed and irked at how inauthentic and inferior Bolognese sauces are prepared.  Fortunately Chef Mollie didn’t abandon her Italian training to suit American tastes.

Lasagna Bolognese

The Bolognese sauce on the lasagna was absolutely fabulous–so much so that I probably took an unfairly profligate number of spoonfuls from Kim’s plate.  We could never have imagined Lasagna Bolognese to be a superior entree to an Ossobuco entree, but it was!  What made the Bolognese transformative were several elements.  First, the sauce didn’t overwhelm us with tomatoes which, as intended, are a complementary ingredient to the meat, a lean ground beef coupled with high-quality pancetta.  Secondly, the sauce may have been prepared with a bit of milk, the telltale signs being the more orange than red color of the sauce and the tenderness of the meat.   Thirdly, the sauce was lightly seasoned.  None of the aromatic spices–not even bay leave–were in evidence.  Lastly, freshly grated authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano was used in perfect proportion to other ingredients.  This is a dish about which we’ll dream for a long time.

After all the dishes have been picked up,  a variety of delightful Italian cookies and biscotti are delivered to your table.  They offer a textural and flavor-profile variety which makes them a perfect post-prandial treat, not that you should miss out on Trattoria Mollie’s desserts.  Though the Dolci Fatti in Casa (housemade desserts) menu is tempting, for taste and textural contrast, you can’t beat the Formaggio Assortito, assorted Italian cheeses and fresh fruits.  The cheeses are a wonderfully sensual delight with textures ranging from hard and crumbly to soft and light and flavors ranging from sharp and nutty to sweet and milky.  The fruits–red and green grapes, strawberries and apples–provide a delicious contrast.

Formaggio Assortito: Assorted imported Italian cheeses and fresh fruit

Trattoria Mollie is an experiential delight that will remind you what hospitality is all about while introducing you to some of the most magnificently prepared Italian food you’ll ever have.

TRATTORIA MOLLIE
1250 Coast Village Road
Montecito, California
(805) 565-9381
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 June 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Lasagna Bolognese, Osso Bucco, Prosciutto and Melon,

Trattoria Mollie on Urbanspoon

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

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