Legendary American chef, author and television personality Julia Child was often exasperated with what she perceived as American’s propensity for culinary laziness, once commenting that “the trend in the U.S.A. was toward speed and the elimination of work.” “Americans,” she noted, equated as “gourmet” such “horrible glop” as “TV dinners, frozen vegetables, canned mushrooms, fish sticks, Jell-O salads, marshmallows and spray-can whipped cream.“
Julia Child obviously didn’t know Dave Hurayt, a fellow gastronome who’s shared some wonderful recipes with me. While Dave may not have spent two years and nearly 300 pounds of flour attempting to bake the perfect loaf of French bread as Julia Child once did, he experiments painstakingly with the recipes he creates, laboring assiduously until those recipes achieve his high standards of perfection. Perfection can sometimes be painful as he found out while experimenting with a recipe utilizing burnt bourbon. Much like a mad scientist adding a catalytic chemical to a burning beaker, the results were dramatic. He blew the glass right out of his new KitchenAid oven.
When a true kitchen warrior and gourmet such as Dave eschews his culinary domain and eats at one restaurant for seven out of nine consecutive weeks, that restaurant has got to be special. A restaurant capable of besotting his sophisticated palate has got to offer extraordinary quality and quality. Like me, Dave is not a monogamous gastronome when it comes to restaurants. When he does go out to eat, he typically will visit a variety of restaurants, not a select few like the truly culinarily lazy Americans to which Julia Child referred.
The restaurant which captured Dave’s heart and taste buds is Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill on restaurant row off the Pan American Highway on the west side of I-25. Nick & Jimmy’s has been wowing dining patrons since it launched in September, 2009 which means that only a few weeks have elapsed without a visit from Dave. One of the high wow factors is the restaurant’s redesign which might more appropriately be called a metamorphosis because Nick & Jimmy’s occupies what was once Johnny Carino’s, a middling quality Italian chain.
The estimate as to what the transmogrification cost ranges from one-million to two-million dollars, either amount impressive. The restaurant is an oasis of elegance in a restaurant row landscape dominated by chains. The walls are festooned in muted earth tone colors that seem to beckon hungry diners. Overhead, large wooden beams painted brown seem to signify strength and solidity. As you walk in, you have the option of dining in a sprawling dining room in which tables are in fairly close proximity to one another or in a more casual room in which a well-provisioned bar holds prominence. The two rooms are separated by smoked glass accented half walls.
A semi-exhibition kitchen is partially obfuscated from diners by the smoked glass accents. It’s a nice touch that gives you a hint of the bustling activity at a busy kitchen without being too distracting. As luxurious as the setting is, not all the improvements are readily apparent. One thing diners can’t see, but which is most definitely a hallmark of the restaurant is the 1400-degree broiler reputed to sear in all the juices and flavor.
The menu is inventive and eclectic, offering a smattering of steak and seafood entrees as well as Greek, Italian and American inspired cuisine. What you won’t see is a perfunctory tribute to the Land of Enchantment’s red and green chile, although the soup of the day might just turn out to be posole. More than half the entrees on the lunch menu are also available for dinner, albeit dinner is when carnivores should visit. That’s when the menu includes steak, chops and chicken entrees the likes of which every great steakhouse offers, but few prepare exceptionally well.
Most entrees are served with your choice of soup or salad, seasonal vegetables and one of the following: oven-roasted potatoes, rice pilaf, old-fashioned mashed potatoes or au gratin potatoes. Unlike some of their peers in the upscale casual market, Nick & Jimmy’s have a price point to which more patrons will relate and no a la carte offerings. Portions are generous so you shouldn’t walk out hungry.
As you peruse the menu, a basket of bread will be brought to your table and your attendant will prepare a dish of olive oil and seasonings in which to immerse the bread (which just happens to be some of the very best bread in town). The bread is courtesy of Fano’s Bakery, a local institution. It encapsulates all that is wonderful about the staff of life–a hard-crust surrounding a soft, yeasty bread. Also served in the bread basket are small wedges of the restaurant’s pizza bread which are infiltrated with parmesan cheese and chili flakes.
All but three of Nick & Jimmy’s ten appetizer options are succulent selections from the sea: shrimp cocktail, crab cake, Parmesan prawns, baked crab and artichoke heart dip, sesame seared Ahi tuna, fried calamari, shrimp scampi and pan-seared scallops (raved about by Dave). The sole landlubbers are hummus served with toasted pita wedges and Saganaki, flaming Kasseri cheese, also served with toasted pita wedges.
The Saganaki is almost as much fun to see prepared tableside as it is to eat it. Alit courtesy of a common lighter, the flames ascend toward the heavens, leaving blue and orange plume trails in their aromatic wake. Your well-trained attendant turns the cheese over with but a steak knife, manipulating the flames so they lick the cheese, imparting high heat through and through and with an evenness that ensures every bit of the cheese is flame-kissed.
In Greece, Kasseri cheese is made from sheep’s milk while its American counterpart is made with cow’s milk. Nick & Jimmy’s Kasseri is made from an amalgam of goat milk and cow’s milk. Its flavor is of medium sharpness with a salty prominence. It’s not meant to be spread on the pita wedges so much as it’s intended to be placed atop the pita, akin to a crown of cheesy deliciousness.
Dolmades (grape leaves rolled around rice, ground beef and herbs) Avgolomono (an egg and lemon sauce) is another great Greek starter. If you’ve ever lamented the fact that most dolmades in the Duke City come from a can, you’ll appreciate these housemade gems which, also unlike at most other Albuquerque restaurants, are served warm. The herbaceous aroma and flavor of the ground beef and rice combination coupled with the tangy richness of the Avgolomono sauce make these (five to an order) stubby cigar-shaped beauties some of the very best in the city.
The soup of the day rotates frequently and as noted previously, is served complementarily with many of the restaurant’s entrees. Separately, soup is available for five dollars a bowl. Alternatively, the menu offers five salads: Caprese Salad, Iceberg Wedge, Dinner Salad, Greek Salad and a Caesar Salad with your choice of dressing: Bleu cheese, Ranch, Greek, Caesar, Thousand Island or Raspberry Vinaigrette.
Legendary French chef and restauranteur Auguste Escoffier once said “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.” Not all soups warrant such lavish praise, but some soups seem to have been the inspiration for Escoffier’s sage words. Nick & Jimmy’s Beef Barley Soup is one of these.
The beef and barley soup is rich, hearty and tasty, replete with a thick, savory beef stock ameliorated by a generous amount of tender beef. It is served piping hot with steam wafting upwards to tease and tantalize your olfactory senses. This soup exemplifies all that people equate with the comforting and nurturance of a truly good soup. It is a soup Nick & Jimmy’s should consider for the daily menu–or at least as a seasonal offering available in cold weather. The other soup offered during our inaugural visit was posole, but its flavor profile was tarnished with cumin which I disdain on New Mexican food.
Another soul-warming soup, one which might make you long for a cold day, is the seafood soup, showcasing calamari, squid, crab, fish and shrimp in a heavily-seasoned broth with potatoes. Heavily seasoned in this case doesn’t mean the seafood flavor is obfuscated in any way. Especially delightful are the calamari ringlets which are chewy and delicious. This is wholly unlike most chowder-like seafood soups which are thick and seem to beckon for oyster crackers. The only things this soup cries out for are a large spoon and a second helping.
The lunch and dinner menus both include eight Italian inspired pasta dishes as well as four wood-oven fired pizzas. For lunch you can also order a hamburger with green chile, a traditional gyro sandwich or a chicken gyro sandwich, all served with French fries and a house salad served with your choice of dressing.
The lunch menu lists five items on the steaks, chops and chicken section, a number which doubles on the dinner menu. You might be surprised to find such upscale meat entrees as oven braised lamb shank and spiced, braised short ribs on the lunch menu. Don’t hesitate to order either.
The spiced, braised short ribs come six to an order. Braised slowly and marinated for hours, they are fall-off-the-bone tender and taste like very good, very expensive Irish pot roast seasoned very well though the “spiced” adjective doesn’t appear to equate to piquant. Coupled with roasted potatoes, this entree reminded me very much of the wonderful comfort meals we’ve had in Irish restaurants. The sole let-down in our inaugural visit was the vegetable medley, an al-dente and under-seasoned offering of carrots, zucchini and red onions. Compared to the spectacular vegetables at Chez Bob, these were of pedestrian quality.
Another entree at which Nick & Jimmy’s excels is the roasted spring chicken which is slow-roasted with fresh herbs, prominent among which are garlic and oregano. The chicken is comprised of a breast, leg, thigh and wing, all moist and thoroughly delicious. Easily large enough to share, you probably will want this chicken all to yourself. An excellent complement to the chicken is the buttery and rich rice pilaf, each grain of which is imbued with flavor.
If Greek entrees are what appeal most to you from the menu, but you also want a sandwich, Nick & Jimmy’s offers a gyro sandwich with tomatoes, onion, tzatziki sauce and an amalgam of beef and lamb nestled in a thick, warm pita. Though a good sandwich, this one isn’t overstuffed with beef and lamb the way I enjoy my gyros. Thankfully it is very moist and very well-seasoned, a perfect foil for the thicker than usual tzatziki sauce.
Dave Hurayt often extols the excellence of Nick & Jimmy’s pasta dishes. No longer exclusively the domain of Italian restaurants, pasta dishes are often better prepared in fine-dining eclectic establishments than they are in their more well-practiced Italian brethren. That’s certainly the case with the Beef Tenderloin Tip Rigatoni, a swimming pool-sized bowl brimming with rigatoni in a cayenne cream sauce with wild mushrooms and red peppers studded with beef tenderloin. The cayenne cream sauce is redolent with a peppery piquancy that New Mexicans will love. The pasta is perfectly prepared at a shade beyond al dente while the beef tenderloin, at medium-rare, is tender and succulent, a real treat.
The dessert menu includes such seemingly de rigueur standards as creme brulee and bread pudding. It also showcases a pineapple upsidedown cake, not a very common dessert offering in New Mexico restaurants. This is wholly unlike other pineapple upsidedown cakes I’ve ever seen as it’s not sliced from a large sheet cake. These are individually portioned cakes sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and surrounded by rich whipped cream and fresh berries. The cake is moist and thoroughly delicious, not too sweet as some of its ilk are apt to be.
Another Greek-inspired dessert favorite is the Baklava Sundae, a sundae glass in which two mounds of Blue Bunny’s vanilla ice cream are topped with a triangle of moist and rich baklava replete with sweet honey. The baklava sweetens the ice cream all the more, forming a decadent marriage sure to appease the most discerning of dessert aficionados.
Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill is owned by Albuquerque’s dynamic partnership duo of Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos. The former is a veteran restaurant impresario, having owned Yanni’s for more than a decade.
Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill
5021 S Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 October 2010
1st VISIT: 14 November 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pineapple Upsidedown Cake, Spicy Beef Short Ribs, Greek Style Roasted Chicken, Saganaki, Gyros Sandwich, Baklava Sundae, Dolmades Avgolomono, Beef Tenderloin Tip Ravioli, Seafood Soup