August 2015 - The Cut - Jennifer James 101
Steve Fye, Food Editor
Thursday Night Prix Fixe
The prix fixe sounds like a good deal; and it is. There are few restaurants in Albuquerque where one can go and eat three amazing courses for less. Just know that the menu is deep enough (and changes frequently enough) that it is unlikely that a guest will have the self-control to just eat the $25 offering.
From the outside, the restaurant is pretty unassuming; it sits between a local burger joint and a hydroponic supply store. However, just step inside and it’s a snazzy bistro with a completely open kitchen. The night we visited, Chef Jennifer was in plain sight, running the kitchen in humble dress. That sort of explains the whole gestalt of the restaurant. There are no gimmicks, no trendy B.S. Chef Jennifer cooks food using a minimum of ingredients, letting them speak for themselves. Most of the dishes we ate had only a few ingredients, but they were treated with respect and allowed to stand with their compatriots to create deep flavor without the muddying that so many modern chefs present.
Our server, Bianca, offered us specials and appetizers from the menu. She has a depth of knowledge that is rare in this town. She spent years at some of the top Santa Fe eateries before joining the 101 staff, and it showed. Our 8:30 p.m. reservation on a Thursday night meant that she had enough time to chat with us while taking care of her other tables. The site was classy, yet understated; no effort was made to put on airs. Yet, the moment we were seated, we were presented with an amuse bouche. This is a tiny appetizer found in the finest restaurants to let the chef brag on his or her skills. We received a tiny plate with a half of a baby carrot for each of us. The carrots were tender and just glazed on the cut side. That signaled the class we were about to be witness to.
The prix fixe menu consisted of three hefty courses:
Crispy pork belly, arugula, Dijon aioli and pickled cherries.
Cherry-braised pork, mascarpone polenta and fennel.
Brown sugar cherry cakes with maple crema.
We began with the grilled foie gras over arugula with cherry vinaigrette and toast with foie butter. If you have ever tried to cook foie at home, you’ll know that it is a touchy ingredient at best. Too much heat and it fries to a nasty crisp; too little heat and it gets tough and oily. The foie was perfectly cooked with deep grill marks and a tender, medium center. The cherry garnish and vinaigrette were just acidic and sweet enough to cut the unctuousness of the foie. Since my wife refuses to eat any type of liver, I was happy to devour her share. The whole table was excited about the chickpea fries. I envisioned tubes of falafel, but when the fries arrived, with mango-something sauce and chipotle ketchup, I was proven wrong. These crispy, delicate morsels appeared to be made of pureed chickpeas bolstered with dairy and gram flour. Think of the ideal fish-stick from your youth, then take away the filthy seafood and replace it with clean, smooth garbanzo flavor. The crust was perfect; the inside had a custardy texture. They made me want to deconstruct the recipe and make them at home for every meal.
We had a lovely German, yes German, Pinot Noir Rosé with the apps. I was stationed on the Rhine during the Cold War and believed that German Red = Bad; German White = Pretty good. This rosé rivaled Austrian and Alsatian rosés, and, at $34 for a bottle, was a deal as well. It was smooth and tart, and paired with the apps like a wine twice the price.
On to the prix fixe meal. What can I say about the pork belly? Pork belly cooked properly is one of the finest tastes in cuisine. However, it is easy to ruin it by the improper preparation, preservation or cooking technique. I would have liked the pork belly to have been rendered just a touch more, but the deep, savory flavor and tenderness was just perfect when paired with peppery arugula and pickled cherries. My buddy, who despises mayonnaise and aioli, actually gave a thumbs up to the Dijon mustard aioli when he mixed on his fork with the pork belly and cherries. The cherry-braised pork was the dish in which I was not sure there were even any cherries. The sauce was deeply savory, with only a hint of fruit tartness. Big chunks of pork fell apart under the fork. What looked like potatoes was a white-corn polenta, heavily dosed with mascarpone and silky smooth. A Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir ($44) went well with the main course.
Since my wife is no fan of fennel or anything remotely resembling licorice, I was gifted with extra fennel. Trust me, I’m not complaining. As I was beginning to get full, I considered taking part of my main course home for later. There were joking threats of fisticuffs as to who got to eat it at midnight.
By this time, most of us were completely full, but there was the dessert course on the way. I’m not a sweet-tooth, but the brown sugar cherry cake with maple crema was very nice. No single element of the dessert was too sweet, but the whole was a wonderful blend of subtle flavors. (Hang on, I’m going to get my leftover dessert out of the fridge)
For four people, we spent $25 apiece on the prix fixe, about $20 on additional appetizers and $80 on wine. Add in a tip, and it came to about $260. For four people, it is hard to beat that price for the quality of food and service in this town. Have I had better food? Yes, but at far higher prices. Have I had a good time for less? Yes, but not as delicious or with better service. Jennifer James 101 goes straight into the rotation for a special night out every month or two. Trust me; it’s worth it.
It’s a shame (for you, my readers) that the Thursday night prix fixe menus are so ephemeral. By the time you read this, cherries might be out of season. Fear not. Chef Jennifer plans her menus months in advance. I might not be able to make “Garlic Thursday,” but I bet you’ll see me there on “Basil Thursday.”
Jennifer James 101
4615 Menaul Blvd. NE 87110
Reservation strongly recommended