“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2011
1st VISIT: 28 October 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Beef Bourguignon, Mushroom and Spinach Quiche, French Onion Soup, Cassoulet