A few years ago when France was the target of xenophobic sentiment and some political commentators even advocated boycotting all things French, my vivacious friend Janet Resnik remained a fervent Francophile. With the simple retort, “ah, but the food,” she found it easy to diffuse dour diatribes in which not a single good thing was said about France. Not even the most ardent anti-French could argue that French food isn’t among the very best in the world.
In Albuquerque, chef Jean-Pierre Gozard has been more instrumental than anyone in providing fine French alternatives to the ubiquitous chile laden cuisine that seems to define the city. Chef Gozard started it all in 1975 with the launch of La Crepe Michel, a hugely popular restaurant that’s still going strong nearly four decades later. In 1979 he opened Le Marmiton, one of the four or five restaurants I’ve missed most from among all those which have closed since we returned to Albuquerque. From 1987 through 1995, Chef Gozard plied his talents in Casa Vieja, a Corrales landmark.
After leaving Casa Vieja, it looked for a while as if Albuquerque had seen the last of the über chef, but in 2008 he turned up at La Crepe Pierre, a highly regarded restaurant which has since evolved into Chez Bob, another excellent French restaurant. By year’s end, Chef Gozard had launched Cafe Jean-Pierre in the space once occupied by two restaurant instantiations both called The Cup. Cafe Jean-Pierre is within easy walking distance of the Century 24 theater. It is clustered amid several local independent and chain restaurants, all of which have seen varying degrees of success.
With all due humility, Chef Gozard will tell you he offers simple dishes at good value and while that may be the case, he prepares them so extraordinarily well that every meal is a sublime experience. In an age of larger-than-life celebrity chefs, he is a breath of fresh air, a modest man who buses tables, greets his guests personally and does whatever it takes to ensure a great meal.
The high ceiling, exposed ductwork and concrete floors might give the restaurant an uncharacteristically industrial feel if it wasn’t softened by homey touches. Faux French windows with shutters, their sills adorned with potted plants, hang high against one wall, giving the appearance of a second story abode. French movie and art posters festoon the walls. Linen tablecloth drapes over every table with the appropriate place settings and stemware at the ready. You’ll know you’re in the presence of French food greatness when you first peruse the menu, or better yet, then its aromas waft toward you.
Rather than being a compendium of every possible French dish possible, the menu focuses on a select–and if our choices are any indication–delicious few. Only two soups grace the menu–soupe a l’oignon gratinee (French onion soup) and a soup du jour. Traditional French onion soup is said to have healing properties, but what it is best at remedying is hunger. Blanketed with melted Gruyere cheese melted to a golden sheen over toasted slabs of French bread and steaming with rich, hearty stock and caramelized onion, it is indeed a fabulous cure-all for mealtime blues–when made well. Chef Gozard’s version is among the very best I have ever had.
Ironically, it may not be the best soup on the menu–if the soup du jour is cream of mushroom soup. If your benchmark for cream of mushroom comes from a red-labeled can, you’ll be amazed at how wonderful the real thing is. Rich, creamy and steaming hot, it is the essence of French comfort. It has the flavor of heady wild mushrooms, perhaps portobello and shiitake and (maybe solely in my imagination) a hint of sherry. With any luck Chef Gozard will someday prepare a soup for an upcoming Souper Bowl, Albuquerque’s premier tasting competition. It will be even more fortuitous if I’m honored to judge the event again.
You’ll want plenty of the restaurant’s French bread, a lean, airy hard-crusted bread to sop up any remnants of the soup, but also to slather on the real French butter. French bread is the essence of simplicity–flour, water and yeast– but it is the essence of a French meal. Cafe Jean Pierre procures its bread from the incomparable Fano Bakery, an Albuquerque institution for the staff of life. While many restaurants throughout the Duke City area also offer Fano bread, they tend to slice it envelope thin. Not so at Cafe Jean Pierre where each slice is wonderfully thick.
A quadrumvirate of salads– Nicoise, Endive, Caesar and Maison–are available, and not just for smaller appetites. These are main course sized salads, plates brimming with garden fresh ingredients plated like fine art. Appetizers are similarly generous–a smoked salmon plate garnished with capers, red onions, cream cheese and toasts; escargots served the traditional way; La Friture D’Eperlans (smelts, dredged in flour and deep-fried; and the house pate, a housemade pate served with cornichons, moutarde and garnish.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking at the mention of pate in a French restaurant–some expensive gourmet duck or goose liver, maybe chopped pork liver. Cafe Jean-Pierre’s version is a mixture of minced ham, pork, fat and spices. It’s not easily spreadable, but it cut can be sliced thinly and laid atop toasted bruschetta. It’s an excellent pate, as good as any we’ve had in Chicago (where some chefs seem to believe you can’t ever have enough garlic on pate).
The BBC calls mustard the “unsung hero of the kitchen cupboard, adding a lick of heat and a depth of flavour to a huge range of dishes.” That is an apt description for the dollop of grainy yellow mustard served with the pate. It’s one of several items on the plate providing complementary and contrasting taste sensations that take the pate to another level. Thinly sliced red onions, tangy capers, tart pickled cornichons, meaty olives and ripe tomatoes all seem to enhance and enliven the pate. You can have them on their own or with the pate. Either way, this is a plateful of deliciousness.
If you ever happen upon Cafe Jean Pierre on an evening in which fried oysters are a featured appetizer special, don’t dally. In fact, consider having more than one order. Only at Jennifer James 101 have we had fried oysters comparable to these pearlescent beauties and JJ’s fried oysters are better than at all but a handful of restaurants we frequented on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One of the secrets to great oysters is breading them lightly and frying them to a light, golden sheen. When you bite into them, you should be able to discern a slight crunch followed by the incomparable, sensuously gooey texture. The best description of how they should taste I’ve read is, “they taste as if God prepared them.” These qualities all define the fried oysters at Cafe Jean Pierre. A half-dozen oysters are served with a rich-tangy tartar sauce, a seared lemon and capons, none of which can improve on perfection.
The menu features six crepes, including a Ratatouille (stewed zucchinis, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, onions and fine herbs) which should be very popular following the success of the animated movie by that name. Lunch only items include sandwiches and quiches as well as a lunch portion of Moules Marinieres (fresh steamed mussels served with French fries) and the ever popular Steak Frites (a seven-ounce sirloin charbroiled to order, French fries and garnish). Crepes are not the name on the marquee, but they’re among many reasons for visiting Cafe Jean-Pierre.
My love affair with crepes began in 1978 when my dear friend Paul Venne’s mom made them for breakfast one Sunday morning in Pelham, New Hampshire (near the childhood stomping grounds of Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos). Until then, the most exotic breakfast entree I’d ever had were French toast. In my review of La Crepe Michel, I share my tale of exasperation, woe, despair and agony in my futile attempts to master the crepe. I’ve since given up and have decided to leave it to the masters–chefs such as Jean-Pierre Gozard. The world (and my wrist) is better off for that.
Seafood aficionados will fall in love with the Fruits de Mer, literally fruits of the sea. This crepe entree has a depth of flavor and richness matched only by the seas in which the seafood bounties–shrimp and scallops– were caught. Bounty is also a good description for the portion size. You’ll count five to six sizable scallops, each perfectly prepared and remarkably sweet with none of the “fishy” taste Duke City diners seem destined for when having seafood in our landlocked heaven. The briny sweetness of the shrimp and scallops is balanced by the earthiness of mushrooms and an ultra-rich sauce. The crepes are perfectly prepared and sheath the seafood so that each forkful includes the light, airy crepe along with either seafood or fleshy fungi all luxuriating neath a rich cream sauce.
Landlubbers will love the Jambon Fromage, a crepe enveloping ham and Gruyere cheese adorned by a rich, creamy Béchamel. It’s like having a Croque Monsieur sandwich substituting a crepe for the crustless sandwich bread. French ham is perhaps a bit saltier than American ham with little of the American ham’s characteristic (and often overstated) sweetness. It’s a perfect complement to the sweet and only slightly salty Gruyere. Crepes are accompanied by a vegetable medley that includes perfectly prepared carrots and zucchini with a sprig of florid rosemary.
The sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, influences our ability to recall past events and experience. Fragrance is considered one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up a memory. True enough, one of my most enduring sensory memories is associated with the amazing aromas that greeted me the first time I had Beef Wellington in Chicago. It’s a memory rekindled instantly as the Boeuf en Croute at Cafe Jean Pierre approached our table. For all intents and purposes, Beef Wellington and Boeuf En Croute are the same dish, but you’d never get anyone from England and France to agree on that point. In any event, both feature tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry. From there, creative chefs may indulge themselves with any number of sauces.
Chef Gozard certainly puts the tender in the tenderloin and he wraps it in a puff pastry more reminiscent of the thin crust of freshly baked bread and the cottony light bread just beneath it than it does the puff pastry which disintegrates when penetrated by a fork. It even looks, tastes and smells like a small, golden hued loaf of bread. It’s the heady bready aroma which so transported me back to the Windy City. The tenderloin is prepared in a traditional French manner which means it may appear more raw than rare. That’s the way it should be for optimum moistness and flavor. Also sheathed within the puff pastry is a mushroom duxelle, essentially sauteed and finely chopped mushrooms. The pastry swims in a wondrous Bordelaise sauce. Julia Child described French sauces as “the splendor and the glory of French cooking.” That’s a perfect description for Chef Gozard’s Bordelaise sauce, a flavorful accompaniment to the astoundingly wonderful boeuf.
Having lived both outside of Boston and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast heightened my appreciation of good seafood dishes in our landlocked state where truly outstanding seafood dishes are almost as limited as green chile enhanced entrees are outside New Mexico. For seafood lovers, few things are as satisfying as a rich, hearty seafood stew, whether it be cioppino or bouillabaisse. There are more similarities between the Italian-Portuguese cioppino and the French bouillabaisse, both of which have their genesis in the pots and cauldrons of the scions of ancient Mediterranean fishermen. When the wait staff recites the specials of the day, he or she need not go any further than cioppino or bouillabaisse. Invariably that’s what I’ll order.
Cafe Jean Pierre serves the very best bouillabaisse I’ve had in the Land of Enchantment. “That’s an easy feat,” you might think considering the relative dearth of seafood stews in New Mexico. Actually, in recent years, both bouillabaisse and cioppino have shown up on the specials menu at several outstanding restaurants throughout the state and all have prepared it very, very well. Chef Gozard’s rendition transported me back to the piers in San Francisco and Providence with a bouillabaisse so replete with seafood that it seemingly held all the treasures of the sea within a swimming pool sized bowl–shrimp, oysters, cod, mussels, clams and scallops, all perfectly prepared. At my request, the chef added a bit more heat (courtesy of cayenne) for my order, rendering the broth absolutely perfect for this fire-eater. The tomato-cayenne rich sauce ameliorated the sweet, succulent seafood, taking nothing away from its native flavor profile. The oversized (is that even possible) shrimp and scallops, in particular, were perfectly prepared.
Les crepes sucrees (dessert crepes) include the de rigueur Crepe Suzette, but for an adventure in taste and contrast, it’s hard to imagine anything better than the Belle Helene, a crepe playing host to poached pears and vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate sauce, toasted almonds and a housemade whipped cream. This dessert is the essence of richness, balancing flavor and texture in an island of deliciousness. The pear is a mellow, slightly tart counterpoint to the sweetness of the chocolate. The whipped cream is heaped on in plentiful amounts and is as light and frothy as air. The shaved, roasted almonds are, well, nutty. This is a dessert to savor slowly and enjoy immensely.
For sheer richness, however, it may not be possible to beat the four cream crepe, a light, thin crepe enveloping sour cream, cream cheese, whipped cream and Mascarpone. Unadorned, in fact, it might even be too rich. To cut into the richness, Chef Gozard tops the crepe with a tart and tangy lemon sauce then sprinkles powdered sugar. The result is a very well-balanced dessert that awakens your taste buds with explosions of flavor. If you enjoy the adventure of flavor discernment, you’ll appreciate the challenge of trying to figure out the flavor contributions of each of the four creams.
Janet would have loved Cafe Jean-Pierre, a restaurant reminiscent of the French countryside she loved so much. She probably would have shared a crepe or two with the anti-French xenophobes. It’s a good bet they’d be singing the praises of this fabulous crepe, perhaps even of the land of its origin.
Cafe Jean Pierre
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 March 2012
1st VISIT: 7 February 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: House Pate, Soupe a l’oignon Gratinee, Cream of Mushroom Soup, Fruits de Mer, Jambon Fromage, Belle Helene, Boeuf en Croute, Bouillabaisse, Four Cream Crepe, Fried Oysters