With Albuquerque Rapid Transit construction finally out of the way, a sense of optimism has returned to Nob Hill. On a recent Saturday night, the sidewalks were busy with couples and groups braving the cold weather to explore the neighborhood’s numerous dining and entertainment options.
The energy persisted at frenchish, Jennifer James’ 3-year-old restaurant on the north side of Central. By 7 p.m., the place was full, music thudding underneath a bed of conversation.
James, perhaps the city’s foremost chef, picked a challenging time to open the successor to her previous restaurant, Jennifer James 101 on Menaul. It was 2016, and work on the dedicated bus line was just getting underway. Businesses suffered greatly over the next three years of construction stops and starts, and some, including the upscale restaurant Elaine’s just a few doors down from frenchish, didn’t make it.
The survival of frenchish is a testament to James’ cooking skills and ability to run a restaurant. It’s a high-end but hardly pretentious scene, the menus offered on pieces of paper and most of the diners dressed casually. There are a variety of seating options in the small space, including a wine bar and a chef’s counter facing the open kitchen where James and her partner, Nelle Bauer, work. Tables are spaced a comfortable distance from one another. A banquette along one wall has a pad placed at midback level that does no favors for your lower spine.
James tweaks her menu to suit the season; for instance, during winter she tops her devilish egg starter ($2) with a swatch of scorching-hot pickled jalapeños. The vivid red peppers, whipped yolk filling and rubbery white make a great bite that does exactly what a starter should do: activate your taste buds for what’s to come.
Along with the usual rib-eye steak and burgers, James is serving a version of cassoulet ($29), a classic French winter stew made with white beans and slow-cooked meat. Under a crisp bread crumb topping are succulent morsels of lamb, beef and duck. Rich and hearty, it’s a great cold-weather dish, although I found it a little too much on the soupy side.
The wine recommended by the server – a generous pour of fruity red Domaine du Pesquier Côtes du Rhône ($12 a glass/$48 a bottle) in a stemless glass – was emphatic enough to stand up to the cassoulet.
Upscale dining often means a long slog marked by all-too-fleeting encounters with waitstaff. There is no such problem at frenchish. It’s exceptionally well-staffed, and things move briskly, with different people pitching in to serve the food, fill the water and deliver the check.
The only glitch occurred when an order of the vegetable of the day, roasted butternut squash ($6), didn’t show up with the entree. The server apologized, and the squash materialized quickly; perhaps too quickly, as parts of the flesh were undercooked. It’s unfortunate, because the sufficiently cooked parts were sublime when dragged through the pool of maple butter and burned bits of squash at the bottom of the bowl.
For a more affordable option, frenchish offers a three-course fixed price dinner with a salad, filet and dessert for $27. It’s a bit of a bare-bones proposition. The salad was a pile of bibb lettuce with a sweet red dressing that comes from an old James family recipe. The 4-ounce petit filet, striped with grill marks, was well seasoned and cooked to medium-rare specifications, and the thin-cut french fries alongside it were well executed. Plated together with garlic aioli, it all looked drab and colorless. The chocolate pot de crème served in a small cup was excellent, but it’s more of a chaser than a full-fledged dessert.
The housemade ice creams provide a more interesting exploration of the sweet side. The server seemed less than enthusiastic about the balsamic vinegar option, so we got a scoop of roasted banana instead. The roasting gives the ice cream a pleasing banana bread flavor, but it’s overpriced, at $5 for one scoop.