Jennifer James 101
A class of her own
If I had to choose one person in Albuquerque who has earned the right to be called a chef, I would adamantly, and without hesitation, say Jennifer James. If there’s still anyone left in town who wishes to argue, allow me to present my case.
I’d read more than enough to know that as far as local diners were concerned, JJ could do no wrong, and I’d eaten at Graze. Sure, the food was great. In fact, her blueberry pie was a life-altering experience.
But is it possible for a chef in Albuquerque to be as infallible as all the hoopla suggests? Other kitchen-dwelling hometown heroes had managed to disappoint in rather inexplicable ways, so I braced myself for a similar performance from Burque’s patron saint of culinary excellence.
A surprising location—in a Menaul strip mall next to a hot dog joint—seems to suggest that JJ is separating herself from the Nob Hill gang in more than just geography. It’s almost as if she’s distancing herself from the trend-driven atmosphere that permeates the whole district. Décor-wise, the separation between “church and state” is less obvious. Minimalist and contemporary, the small dining room/open kitchen is almost like a subdued Target commercial. It’s not bad, and perhaps suggests that cleanness and simplicity is a priority.
I’m going to knock out the negative stuff first. Hmm. I ordered Pouilly-Fumé (a dry, Loire Valley white wine) and was presented with stemless goblets. I requested appropriate glassware, and it was delivered—
The menu is short and sweet: A smattering of primary and secondary courses followed by dessert. While perusing JJ’s offerings, a small bowl filled with ever-so-thin pickled cucumbers gives a hint of what’s to come. Sweet with a nuanced tartness, they’re an instant pick-me-up. Each meal is also served with warm bread that sent me back to my childhood. Growing up in Germany, my daily bread was a crusty roll called brötchen that I’d crack open and eat inside-out. JJ’s tasted exactly like the bread I remembered. And it gets better. There was no simple butter, but rather a compound curry butter. Brilliant in color, flavor and idea.
Primary courses ranged from salads to fried stuff to, of course, foie gras. The foie gras was sliced so thick I was amazed it came with a meager price tag of $14. Accompanied by arugula and tart cherries, it was perfection. An order of fried oysters concealed a briny creaminess inside a light, crunchy batter.
Screw black bean burgers; this dish doesn’t treat herbivores as an afterthought.
Over the course of two visits, I was able to try each entrée on her current menu. Fish, poultry, beef and vegetarian dishes were all prepared equally well. Try as I might, I can’t settle on a favorite.
A breaded chicken fillet, pounded thin, was juicy, tender and more, well, chicken-y than any bird I’ve eaten in a long time. A New York strip similarly displayed a true beef flavor. Oceanside, tuna simply melted in my mouth, and served with wet-earth tasting beets, “surf and turf” was redefined.
I need to make special mention of the vegetarian dish, which normally I avoid like Spam and Velveeta. Three garbanzo bean cakes, each dressed with its own salad and brought together by a pool of yogurt, left me speechless. A scant crust encased the silky-smooth center of the cakes, bringing just a touch of toastiness to the plate. Each salad lent uniqueness to the cakes. Walnuts tossed with pea shoots were earthy and rich, marinated peppers and olives brought taste buds to attention and shredded carrots with minced cilantro shocked with unexpected fire. Screw black bean burgers; this dish doesn’t treat herbivores as an afterthought.
Dessert continued JJ’s education in sincerity. Most notably, a strawberry rhubarb crisp, served in a miniature crock, approached divinity. Sweet, juicy strawberries that softened the astringent rhubarb and a crumbly top all come together in a frolicking flavor and texture voyage.
I could wax ecstatic indefinitely about the taste and quality of JJ’s food, but more importantly, I’d like to point out what truly sets her apart. There is a lack of pretension and deception in her food. She avoids distracting diners with fanciful platings—though the dishes are immaculately presented—and instead focuses on delivering purity. Flavors aren’t hidden; they’re coaxed out and put on display. Beets taste like God intended and rhubarb like it only can in the hands of someone who loves and respects it.
Jennifer James, along with sister Kelly Burton, partner Nelle Bauer and a dedicated staff, has definitely set the bar high. The question is, will Albuquerque’s other chefs step up to the plate?