Restaurant Jennifer James is one of the hottest new gourmet finds in town. Ms. James owns the place and does all the critical cooking with one assistant. She has worked at a couple other of my top-five Albuquerque Restaurants: Chef du Jour and Le Cafe Miche.
This is a smallish place in a converted house on the west side of San Mateo (2813 San Mateo NE, ABQ 87110, 505-884-3665), about three blocks north of Menaul. This building was formerly occupied by the late, lamented Cafe Spoleto.
There is an extensive wine list, but I can't address this, since I don't drink ethanol.
On February 23, 2002, I took my girlfriend out for a special delayed Valentine's Day dinner.
The lagniappe arrived immediately: two strips of smoked bacon, drizzled with molasses and dusted with ground chipotles. I love bacon, but this was a step beyond. It was great bacon to start with, but it had a slight sweetness and a little smokiness (and chile glow) from the chipotles.
The bread, a nice fresh white dinner roll with some body to it, came with edible-flower butter. The flower parts were a bit subtle, perceptible to me only as a slight floral aroma and only on a heavily buttered piece of bread.
Appetizer was pistachio-crusted salmon paté with a bit of pureed apricot and baby greens, and four crostini. Wonderfully delicate fish flavor set off by the clean crunchy texture of the crushed pistachios.
Her salad was mesclun with cranberry vinaigrette, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts. My salad was raddichio and with Reggiano Parmesano shreds and balsamic vinaigrette. Both wonderful, with perfect greens.
Her entree was a magnificent chunk of mushroom-dusted venison with whipped potatoes and wilted spinach. I wish I'd had it. Spoon-tender, lean, with plenty of flavor.
My entree was a half duck, marinated, roasted, and served over fried polenta cakes with cranberries in them, and wilted chard. I am usually reluctant to order duck since it is so seldom done correctly, so that the greasiness is rendered out and the meat is still moist. This was close to perfection.
Her dessert was a vanilla-bean poached pear served with lavender syrup. I'm fond of lavender in desserts, and this was nicely done without too heavy a lavender flavor.
Mine was a standard ramekin filled with one of those liquid-center chocolate cakes that are so popular nowadays. Light crust on top, dusted with just enough red chile powder to linger on the edge of perception, center of pure sin.
Bottom line: This is one of the finest restaurants I've known, in a long career of restaurant-crawling. The Albuquerque restaurant scene is really competitive, with upwards of ten places that can be depended on to knock your socks off. Even against that background, Jennifer James stands out for their ability to innovate while never abandoning the bedrock principles: start with the best fresh ingredients, do everything in-house, never overcook vegetables, make the meats tender, and balance complex blends of ingredients so nothing sticks out.
Specials on my visit somewhere around September: