Chez Axel – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chez Axel and its familiar Eiffel Tower rooftop

“Another Land of Enchantment.” That’s how the menu at Chez Axel describes the Provence region in France. No one who’s ever traveled through the region and luxuriated in a café crème at a sidewalk café on a leisurely Sunday morning would ever dispute that the region is as enchanting as any in the world.  It truly is a soiree for the senses, especially for those who believe food is art and that it can restore not only the body, but the heart and soul.

For freshness of ingredients, there is no region in France more renowned than the Provence region in southern France. The cuisine raised in this verdant, sun-drenched region has earned the nickname “la cuisine du soleil” or “the cuisine of the sun” a tribute to freshness and quality.  The produce in Provence perfumes the Mediterranean air where it competes with the wafting bouquet of lavender, oleander and olives.  Is it any wonder French cafés associate their freshest cuisine with this food-lover’s paradise?

The colorful and romantic interior of Chez Axel

High aspirations have been meeting consistently good execution at Chez Axel since it launched in 1996.  Owner-chef Stefan Springer is not the founding owner, but he’s raised the bar so much that in 2010, he was named Chef of the Year by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.  This award is accorded to an outstanding chef in recognition of excellent cuisine and excellent service.  Chef Springer was cited not only for his culinary skills, but for his civic-mindedness.  An organization he founded to keep at-risk students in school provides clothing, school supplies and other necessities.  Albuquerque can use more chefs like this. 

We can use more French restaurants like Chez Axel.  Interestingly, the restaurant’s exterior edifice does not have a Provencal theme.  Instead, its most conspicuous feature is a replica of the Eiffel Tower on the roof.  At night the Tower is illuminated, a beacon to lead hungry diners to a terrific menu of excellent cuisine in a colorful and romantic ambiance.  Each table is draped with white linen table cloths and red napkins folded into wine glasses.  Bottles of wine are displayed on floor level racks and on shelves above eye-level.  Service is personable and attentive.

French bread with herbed butter

The menu showcases French cuisine at an affordable price point, especially for lunch when you can have a two-item lunch combination meal for under ten dollars.  That combination features you choice of two items from a list of soups, salads, quiches and crepes.  You can also opt for entrees the type of which Julia Child herself might have featured had she operated a restaurant–Chicken Provencal, Beef Bourguignon, Cassoulet, Shrimp Provencal and Trout Almondine.  

The dinner menu shines even more brightly with an appetizer menu which includes Snails a l’Aixoise and frog legs as well as salads and soups.  A pageful of meat offerings is even more luminescent.  All meats come from the Adkins Ranch whose animals are “naturally raised” and are guaranteed high in protein, vitamins and minerals and low in fat and cholesterol.  All seafood (sole, trout, salmon, shrimp and scallops) come from Whole Food Market.   The desserts are made on the premises and are guaranteed absolutely delicious.

Tomatoes / mozzarella salad – Lettuce, basil, olive oil, croutons.

A basket of thinly sliced French bread and herbed butter arrives at your table shortly after you’ve placed your order.  The exterior is crusty while the insides are soft.  It’s a bit of a challenge to spread the cold butter, but once you do, it’s a bigger challenge not to eat two or more baskets full of the staff of life.  You’ll want to save a slice or two to dredge up the soup or an entree in which a magnificent entree with rich, delicious broth is showcased.

Culinary history is rife with examples of “rags to riches” foods–items writers often refer to as “peasant foods” by virtue of their humble, economically borne origins which rise to the level of sought after gourmet favorites.  One such food is French onion soup which is, at its essence, simply onions, a scrap of old bread, grated cheese and veal stock. Chez Axel’s French onion soup is amazing–a brown-and-tan crock brimming with thick, stringy cheese bubbling on top; perfectly caramelized onions; croutons softened by a rich, delicious beef broth; and the herbaceous hint of parsley, basil and bay leaf.  This is one of the most fragrant and delicious French onion soups in Albuquerque.

My favorite French Onion Soup in Albuquerque

Julia Child once said, “When beef stew is in the oven, all’s right with the world, and Beef Bouruignon is the best beef stew known to man.”   She loved this stew so much that in her first episode of The French Chef in 1963, that’s what she prepared.  Because of the time and care required to prepare it correctly, Julia’s recipe for this hearty stew may have been filed away in a recipe book, but it wasn’t endeavored often save for by the most intrepid of cooks.  It wasn’t until after the movie Julie and Julia that the home cook began to attempt it. 

Chez Axel’s rendition of Beef Bourguignon has that deep, rich flavor made possible only when it is carefully prepared in a slow and loving manner and with excellent ingredients and good wine.  It’s a version which might even be better the next day when the flavors have melded even more fully.  It’s a deep, rich flavor combining slowly braised, fork-tender beef with a very good wine and fresh, perfectly prepared carrots.  The entree is served with two sides, chef’s discretion.  Count your blessings if it’s the peppery snap pea pods and the buttery long-grained rice.

Beef Bourguignon a l’orange: pieces of beef loin sautéed in olive oil with garlic, herbs, orange zest, carrot, onion & grilled mushrooms, stewed in red wine

In the process of making cooking a national pastime (back in the days before most women entered the workforce), Julia Child introduced the American television audience to quiche in the early 1960s.  Two decades later, an American author named Bruce Feirstein wrote a best-selling book called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche which lampooned masculine stereotypes.  Men who were all too conscious of fashion and who followed all the trends were referred to as “quiche eaters.” 

My friend Señor Plata is one man confident enough in his masculinity to admit his love for quiche, especially if it’s nearly as good as the  mushroom and spinach quiche at Chez Axel.  The base for this quiche is a light, delicate and flaky crust that would be the envy of any blue-ribbon award-winning pie.  Atop that fabulous crust is more than an inch of fluffy eggs topped with mushrooms and spinach under a blanket of molten Gruyere cheese.  All quiche should be this good. 

Mushroom and spinach quiche with carrots

Julia Child wrote in The French Chef Cookbook that cassoulet can be prepared in one day, but “two or even three days of leisurely on-and-off cooking makes it easier.”  In his Les Halles Cookbook, celebrity travel host Anthony Bourdain was more definitive, calling for three days of preparation time.  One thing is for certain–if you want to prepare a cassoulet dish, you should have the patience of a saint.  Kate Hopkins, who writes as The Accidental Hedonist, puts it best: “you have to want to make this dish, as it is an all day affair. A person doesn’t casually make a cassoulet. This dish is best made with an obsessive desire.” 

Said to date back to the Hundred Years’ War during the 14th century, history and legend tell of a communal dish so hearty, it revitalized war-weary soldiers who promptly dispatched the invading forces.  As with French onion soup, cassoulet is an archetypal peasant dish–an earthy, rich, slow-cooked casserole of beans, meat and herbs meant to be shared.  Chef Springer’s version is made with pork, lamb, bacon, tomato, garlic, herbs and white beans.  It is absolutely the perfect dish for a blustery winter day when its comforting qualities embrace you in a soul-warming embrace.  The pork, lamb and bacon penetrate deeply to flavor the broth with fat, flavor and utter deliciousness.

Cassoulet – Pork, lamb, bacon, tomato, garlic, herbs, beans stew

Even as the captivating voice of Edith Piaf resonates over the restaurant’s sound system with Les Trois Cloches, Chez Axel seems woefully out-of-place in the timeworn shopping center that houses an international menagerie of restaurants in Ho Ho Chinese, Viet Q and Wings N Things.  It frankly would be a better fit for the countryside in Provence.  Duke City gourmets are thankful it’s here and not there.

Chez Axel Restaurant
6209 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2011
1st VISIT:  28 October 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Bourguignon, Mushroom and Spinach Quiche, French Onion Soup, Cassoulet

Chez Axel on Urbanspoon

9 thoughts on “Chez Axel – Albuquerque, New Mexico

  1. Thank you for reviewing Chez Axel. It reminded me to try it again. Back in ’04 and ’05 we used to go all the time but when Stefan Springer took it over he kept the old menu and seemingly made minor modifications to the recipes. As an example he appeared to kick up the orange zest in the Beef Bourguignon a l’orange to a level we didn’t care for. We had not been there in 5-years so based on you review we returned last night-I wish that it had been much sooner. I had the onion soup and the Beef Bourguignon a l’orange which were much changed and wonderful. The Child Bride opted for the Veal Cordon Bleu and was equally happy.

  2. I tried Chez Axel’s Beef Bourguignon a l’orange last night and was not at all impressed. There was no Orange zest or flavor present (only the Orange Carrots). There were no mushrooms or onions. There were a lot of what tasted to be chopped canned supermarket black olives, which I did not feel went well with the dish. Also the beef was very chewy and tough. The chef visited our table, and I asked about the dish. I was told that it was cooked for 5 hours, and that the olives were intentionally added Calamata olives (though no olives are listed on the menu description), and that the nonexistent mushrooms were actually in the pot and perhaps I was just unlucky to get none on my plate. The bread, salads service and atmosphere were great, as was my spouses entree of pork pinet. So we will likely return.

    Still it was disconcerting to get a poorly made entree, and a questionable story from the Chef.

  3. Is it just me or are a lotta places of late saying variants of “Nice to see ya back!”? I’m suspect when I’ve never been before so I was a bit leery after only one visit when Dawn noted that. Alas, I’m thinking she caught my look of surprise as she casually noted the table where she served me Two weekends ago! Eh! she gets the Bob Hope Theme Award*!!!
    This venture, I tried the Carrot Soup somewhat expecting it to be akin to a thickish tomato soup. Whoa, never had a soup with such an ‘aerated feel’ to it! The flavor is subtle and nothing like a carrot cake.
    Ah ha…..never had (blush) Cassoulet before. If ya think of “stews” as peasant-like food and ya wonder if you’ll be getting your money’s worth, this is chock full of tender chunks of lamb pork loin so much so you might ‘complain’ you can’t find the broth and beans…LOL. Hmmm, what provided a little ‘kick’/tang…sausage?
    Bottom line: am actually thinking of going out to hustle a “date” so as to experience the added enjoyment of the understated romantic ambiance of this niche along with its great service and preparation of its Yum-Yums!
    PS: ‘pairing’ a soup appetizer with Cassoulet is not one’s best move….LOL. Glad to see more places bringing back Rose (from the ’60s?)

  4. Wifey and I too love this place. Last time we were there I had the Lamb, she had the Trout Amadine. I was blown away by the flavor of her fish and sorry I didn’t order it- not that the lamb was bad, i’d never had that dish before…. yum. The side of snails was great as was the bananna thingy we had for desert. As previously mentioned, everything from the bread to the desert is top notch. Nice bottle of wine with some great food and sharing good times with your honey in a great atmosphere mm mm mm, doesn’t get much better. Go Stevie!

  5. Yo Senor P!
    Oooeee, I forgot to make note that Axel’s is one of the rare, fine dining settings which honors the Albuquerque Journal’s Press Pass garnering Y’all 20% off!!! How can one NOT dine there even if you don’t use the PP each time!?
    RE Concerns of increasing one’s belt size: Tip ‘O the Day: I’ve heard that one can allay such concerns by eating an item standing; eating in dimlit lit restaurants cuts calories by a quarter; instead of wine, brownbag a bottle of prune juice; unlike using odd numbers as in doing ikebana, always use even ones, e.g. 2 not 1 chocolate truffles, 4 not 3 oreos, etc.; and, just as a matter of principle, IMHO, don’t get gravy or salad dressing “on the side”.
    Pardon me now while I go munch the left-over half (from last night while watching TV) of a cannoli which are getting hard to find. Keep up the good work La Dolce Vida Bakery on Lomas !

  6. I see Sr. Bob made it to the review station before I did. Good job Sr. Bob. I joined Sensei last Friday for lunch at this excellent restaurant in a desert of a parking lot not believing there could be an excellent French restaurant not too far from a Bagelry once in my neighborhood.

    As Sensei said, I am not afraid to say Quiche is a power food with lots of balanced food items that fits a little closer to making my belt a bit bigger but I have to say it was delicious! This is my first French restaurant here and it was delightful–very romantic and I found the need to bring Senorena Plata here one of the days when we have a celebration. The lunch, at a very reasonable price came with the bread you see pictured above, then I ordered some awesome French onion soup with a ton of cheese on that small piece of bread; it was one of the thickest soups i have had and I was well pleased.

    I normally don’t go for the cooked carrots but they had a special herb in it that was very good. I so much wanted dessert but i was too full. We had a couple baskets of bread and we had some hot coffee with our meal which was very good. We were the 1st to be there and as lunch time proceeded more and more people arrived. I still am so surprised I see such an elegant restaurant sitting in this parking lot and am glad to hear from Sr. Bob that its highly crowed in the evenings and thus has a following…

  7. Axellent!!! (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) How embarrassing living here so many years and I hadn’t been. Saving the best things for last? Oooee that’s spooky to say, but it is the weekend of the Great Harvest Festival (shh Halloween).
    Went as a last minute thing so got there about 5:30; several ‘unreserveds’ also followed in so by 6:45 I’d recommend reservations per its just right sized for intimacy setting. There was some recorded mellow jazz and a chanteuse before the live piano accompaniment arrived at that time as well.
    Had the Veal Cordon Blue. Some nice clear, herbed concoction that I can’t specify, but was embedded in this creation to delight my palate…you know, the kind ya keep wanting more of, but has a luscious richness where ya know you have to stop? Fortunately, the serving size was made for me and, as such, a semi-sated ending. The ‘cubettes’ of red spuds and baby carrots were an axellent compliment to the entree.
    Due to some miscommunication on my part, the French Onion soup did not preceed the veal and I chose to have it after…Alas! it made for a delicious dessert and I think I might adopt this as a habit to forestall an often slightly stuffy feeling getting into an entree.
    Possible clarification….the quiche is a luncheon item.
    Bottom line: check out the menu Some might say at those prices they have to be selling stuff out the back alley door to stay open…. LOL. Nope…I checked. Bon ‘Bon Appetit’

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