Alibi V.24 No.19 • May 7-13, 2015 

Restaurant Review

James, Jennifer James

Undercover at Jennifer James 101

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
During my foosball career, it was common among my fellow competitors to bestow the title of “James” upon whoever had the hot hand that evening. This tradition was a nod to James Bond, who was by definition flawless. Coincidentally, flawless is how I would describe two recent dinners at Jennifer James 101. It’s no surprise to me that owner/Chef Jennifer James has been nominated for six consecutive James Beard awards for Best Chef in the Southwest. But I wouldn’t call her cooking Southwestern by any means. I’d call it James.

My wife is generally skeptical of the value of a farm-to-table restaurant like this. “You’re a good cook,” she suggested. “Why not go to the farmers market, get some fresh, local, high-end ingredients, and cook me dinner yourself?” Halfway through the first course of our first meal, she changed her tune.

It was the roasted veggies atop a puddle of green hummus that did it. Green hummus. As in, hummus made from fresh garbanzo beans, a verdant purée sprinkled with black sesame seeds beneath a pile of veggies, each one of which was roasted to its own individual point of perfection. We used these veggies to mop up the green hummus. The plate was so clean afterwards, I worried we had removed a layer of glaze.

With one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, a dining experience at Jennifer James 101 does not come cheap. But value shoppers can take comfort in the fact that the restaurant’s inglorious location, inches away from bustling Menaul, and simple décor suggest that a good portion of the check isn’t going toward rent or gold-plated wallpaper. The service, attentive and professional without being obsequious, was worthy of a generous tip. A good portion of our check, however, went to bubbles.

Delicate, angelic pappardelle noodles were tossed in a brilliant parsley pesto, with extra parsley leaves for good measure, and thin slices of parsley root that could have easily been mistaken for noodle shards until you bit into one.

Hey, the wife wanted bubbles. On the drink menu was a list of “bubbles,” the cheapest of which, an Italian prosecco brut, cost $8 a glass, and was her favorite—she preferred it to the $16 Duval Leroy classic brut, bless her heart. The waiter gently suggested that the Ruinart blanc de blancs brut, at $25 a glass, had so many bubbles the liquid would barely touch her tongue, but we took his word for it.

Grilled pickle beats with raw goat feta, mache and pistachios.
Grilled pickle beats with raw goat feta, mache and pistachios.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The drink menu also includes a list of unnamed aperitifs that are only identified by their ingredients. The one with “Rocha white port, Fever Tree Indian tonic, fresh lime” was a splendid cross between a gin and tonic and a Caipirinha.

Electronic trance jazz was percolating softly through the dining room, giving a sophisticated yet groovily urban feel to the scene as we sipped our bubbles and whatnot. My wife, a nurse, counted three doctors she knew around the small dining room. I counted three James-like chefs in the kitchen, which was so open I felt like I was in it. I could hear the sizzle of my flash-fried morels being prepared (they were amazing). I watched my Painted Hills ribeye get grilled to an exact state of medium rareness. I then savored the meat, which was accompanied by a pile of lusty, tallow-roasted shiitakes, with a smooth red wine from the Italian Piedmont, and drifted steadily into a trance of my own.

We also enjoyed a pasta dish that was practically pure parsley. Delicate, angelic pappardelle noodles were tossed in a brilliant parsley pesto, with extra parsley leaves for good measure, and thin slices of parsley root that could have easily been mistaken for noodle shards until you bit into one. Every component of that glorious dish—garlic, black pepper, nuts, cheese and parsley—even the salt and olive oil—was as vivid as the dish’s neon green hue.

A lemony custard topped with berries and a French press of Michael Thomas coffee sealed the meal, and the deal. We made plans to return the following Thursday to try the $25 three-course prix fixe special.

Flash-fried soft shell crab with tabasco aioli, dill pickles and celery salt.
Flash-fried soft shell crab with tabasco aioli, dill pickles and celery salt.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Each of these Thursday night prix fixe meals has a theme, and it just so happened that on the Thursday we chose, a meal of supposed aphrodisiacs was to be served in honor of International Lovers Day. We ordered one of those meals and a few dishes off the menu.

The lover’s meal started off with a trio of fried oysters on a bed of minced lettuce and aioli. The oysters had a clean, non-fishy taste of the ocean. They were followed by a large slab of grilled chicken paillard with chive potato salad that wasn’t the highlight of my eating career. Nor did it get me all hot and bothered. But it was a solid, delicious dish, and a load-bearing part of a great meal at a great value, a meal that was probably a better use of one’s cash than a glass of blanc de blancs (but since I didn’t try it, I’ll never know). The three-course meal was capped by a rich, dense and basically orgasmic pot de crème. Seriously, if this dessert couldn’t get you in the mood, you might need to have your hormone levels checked.

But it was two other dishes we ordered that truly got my juices going that night (in addition, of course, to my lovely wife). One was a dungeness crab cake special that was easily the best crab cake I’ve tasted, and I’ve had my share. The damn thing was solid crab, with maybe the occasional kernel of corn or some such, and flanked with shredded parsley root dressed in aioli. We were sitting at the community table, as there were no intimate tables for two available that night. My apologies to the other diners who had to sit through my repeated attempts to say “wow wow wow” with my mouth full of crab lumps.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
And then there were the über-James-like chickpea fries. The good news is that, according to our server, they often appear on the ever-changing menu. The fries were long rectangular prisms of what I guessed were something of a buttermilk chickpea pancake batter, stacked like cordwood on the dish alongside two sauces: a chipotle ketchup and a feta-based cream sauce. Each sauce took the fries to a very different place—the feta cream made them decidedly Mediterranean, while the ketchup, thanks to the spices, took them to India. If you happen to visit Jennifer James 101 and see the chickpea fries on the menu, don’t let those fries get away.

Before and during our visits, we mused over the name Jennifer James 101. Obviously, it’s based on the universal code for an intro-level college course. We took the class. We learned a lot. And we have a question.

Where do we sign up for Jennifer James 201?

Jennifer James 101

4615 Menaul NE
884-3860
jenniferjames101.com

Hours: 5pm to 9pm, Tuesday-Saturday
Booze: uuurp

The Alibi recommends:
The menu changes regularly, so recs are tough. But those chickpea fries are apparently regulars, so order them.