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 good friend and 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. 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. You’ll also see more than just a perfunctory tribute to the Land of Enchantment’s red and green chile, starting with posole which is often the “soup” of the day. Almost all the entrees on the lunch menu are also available for dinner. It’s a very diverse menu which 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.
More than half of Nick & Jimmy’s 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, jumbo steamed artichoke, chicken quesadilla, dolmades avgolemono and Saganaki, flaming Kasseri cheese, also served with toasted pita wedges.
14 November 2009: 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.
30 October 2010: 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.
16 May 2015: Finding scallops on an appetizer menu is as rare as a “good hair day” for Kelly Osbourne. In fact, Nick and Jimmy’s might be the only restaurant in the metropolitan area to do so. Best of all, an order of pan-seared scallops won’t break the bank…and we’re not talking the smallish bay scallops here. This appetizer features three large scallops served over a single grilled tomato and topped with bay shrimp in a lemon-caper butter sauce. Usually “fruity” sauces, especially tart-tangy sauces detract from the natural sweet brininess of scallops, but not so at Nick and Jimmy’s where the lemon-caper butter sauce is so rich, so delicious and so complementary of the scallops that you’ll sop up any remaining sauce with bread.
The soup of the day rotates frequently and as noted previously, is served complementary 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.
14 November 2009: 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.
30 October 2010: 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.
16 May 2015: Menus at New Mexican restaurants don’t usually offer soups unless they involve green or red chile and more often than not, they’re more along the lines of a stew than they are a soup. At Nick and Jimmy’s, the soup-of-the-day might also include posole, a Land of Enchantment standard. Though this rendition is more akin to hominy than to true posole, it does include a generous amount of cubed pork and a chile sauce that livens things up quite a bit.
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.
14 November 2009: 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.
16 May 2015: New Mexicans have been known to incorporate red and green chile into virtually every savory entree. Intrepid cooks will even add a smidgeon or more to various dessert dishes. It makes good sense then that green chile be part and parcel of an American comfort food standard. Nick and Jimmy’s green chile meatloaf is an amalgam of two great tasting items that taste even better together. A thick slab of dense, moist meatloaf punctuated with a discernibly piquant green chile and slathered with a peppery red gravy goes very well with mashed potatoes in which a well has been dug out for even more gravy. These are real mashed potatoes, not out-of-a-box. During our inaugural visit to Nick and Jimmy’s in 2009, my sole complaint was about the uninspired vegetable medley. How things have changed! The vegetable medley is reminiscent of the French preparation style for vegetables. Carrots, pea pods, zucchini and red peppers all are redolent with sweet freshness. All vegetables should taste this good!
14 November 2009: 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.
16 May 2015: A half dozen pizzas fired on the restaurant’s wood oven are a popular draw. if the Athenian Pizza (spinach, roasted garlic and feta) is any indication, Nick and Jimmy’s could compete with the city’s pizzerias. This thin-crusted beauty is generously endowed with ingredients: enough roasted garlic cloves to ward off a werewolf or two, enough feta to wreck your breath for a day and a nice blanket of spinach over a crusty canvas lightly slathered with tomato sauce. It’s not always the case that a pizza will taste even better cold than it does warm, but this one does. Thankfully we took half the pizza home and enjoyed it for breakfast the following day.
30 October 2010: 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.
30 October 2010: 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.
10 April 2019: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver can certainly relate to a comment made by former Arkansas governor turned conservative television host Mike Huckabee: “God help us if I had a minibar stocked with cheesecake and chicken-fried steak.” Since such a minibar wouldn’t be feasible, Sr. Plata and I have made it our quest to find the best chicken fried steak in the Albuquerque metropolitan area. After staggering contentedly out of Nick & Jimmy’s, our bellies protruding like expectant mother bears in their third trimester, we agreed that taken into totality, we had just enjoyed the very best chicken fried steak meal we’ve had since he conceived the Chicken Fried Steak Trail. In totality, of course, means not just the chicken fried steak, but all the sides and the coffee, too. Every aspect of this meal was superb—and not just because we’re getting tired of the seemingly de rigueur eggs and papas other restaurants serve. At Nick and Jimmy’s, the chicken fried steak is served with your choice of soup or salad, roasted Mediterranean vegetables and one of the following: oven roasted potatoes, rice pilaf, au gratin, or old fashioned mashed potatoes.
Nick & Jimmy’s cinnamon spiced coffee is a delightful accompaniment to a chicken fried steak meal, imparting cozy, warm notes without adding the cloying quality of artificial sweeteners. Sr. Plata started his meal with a salad replete with blue cheese dressing and lots of luscious crumbles while my choice was the classic, silky, satisfying avgolemono soup with its rich-savory combination of lemon, eggs and chicken. Our accommodating server allowed us to have both the oven-roasted potatoes and au gratin, both of which are better than any papas we’ve had. The oven-roasted potatoes are seasoned magnificently with lemon juice, garlic, rosemary, pepper and other flavor-imparting additives. The au gratin potatoes were creamy, cheesy and buttery with a crispy top layer that seals in other flavors.
It took only one bite to discern this was no ordinary chicken fried steak. This one is special: a thick slab of pounded steak breaded in panko breadcrumbs seasoned with traditional Greek spices as well as Lawry’s seasoned salt and garlic. Those spices tempered the grittiness of the panko while imparting flavor notes we had not previously experienced in Sr. Plata’s favorite dish. The accompanying gravy is a rich, delicious complement to the wonderfully seasoned, absolutely delicious chicken fried steak…and you can have your choice of rich brown or cream gravy (both meatless). As might be expected, the price point for our meal was a bit higher than we typically pay at diners listed on Sr. Plata’s trail, but you get what you pay for…and you get a lot at Nick & Jimmy’s, all of it superb.
Annamarie Kapnasis, the stunning restaurant manager, visited us twice and each time caught us with our mouths full. After she waited to make sure projectile food particles weren’t coming her way, she happily shared her thoughts about Nick & Jimmy’s chicken fried steak. Understandably, she’s very proud of it and it’s easy to see why. This one is in rarefied “best of the city” air along with the chicken fried steak at The Kitchen by 135 Degrees.
14 November 2009: 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.
30 October 2010: 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.
16 May 2015: Not even Gilligan’s crew enjoyed coconut cream pie as good as prepared at Nick and Jimmy’s. From its frothy whipped cream top sprinkled with shreds of toasted coconut to its flaky Graham cracker crust, this thick pie served cold is an absolute delight. Texturally, it’s thicker than most puddings though not quite as thick as a cheesecake. It’s the type of dessert for which you’d risk your svelte figure.
Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill is owned by Albuquerque’s dynamic partnership duo of Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos, restaurant impresarios with a small empire of restaurants throughout the Duke City. A hallmark of their restaurants is great service. You can’t do better than Michelle, one of the best servers in town. Ask for her.
Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill
5021 S Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2019
1st VISIT: 14 November 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
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, Coconut Cream Pie, Athenian Pizza, Green Chile Meatloaf, Chicken Fried Steak