a lot of Gaul
Adding an “ish” to a statement of intention almost always sounds like you’re hedging your bets. “I’ll be there at 6-ish,” for example, doesn’t exactly scream determination to be on time. Jennifer James, sometime James Beard Award semifinalist and one of Albuquerque’s most popular and highly lauded chefs, may have chosen Frenchish as the name for her new foray into the dining scene to avoid the judgment of purist Francophiles, but she needn’t have worried. Her versions of French classics can withstand the scrutiny, and her more whimsical twists might even win over les grincheux.
The chef’s previous restaurants — Jennifer James Contemporary Cuisine, Jennifer James 101, and Graze — earned nigh-legendary status around the Duke City over the years. She opened Frenchish last fall in the heart of Nob Hill, in the Central Avenue space formerly occupied by the women’s clothing boutique Elsa Ross, seemingly unconcerned by the launch of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project along that corridor and the ensuing kerfuffle.
The backbone of her cooking — clean, modern, and local — remains intact. In her previous establishments, James was known for somewhat unexpected signature dishes including deviled eggs and chickpea fritters. A variation on one of these standbys materializes at Frenchish, this time a halved soft-boiled egg topped with a frilly slaw of Dijon and celery root accented with micro-greens. A new curiosity, the “carrot dog,” adds its name to the roster, too. Rather than chopped or processed carrot formed into a dog shape, the dish is as straightforward as it sounds: a hefty sausage-sized carrot, par-cooked, given a quick smoky blackening on the grill, and swaddled in a brioche bun with relish.
Cheesy gift-shop cocktail napkins ask, “Why limit happy to an hour?” Frenchish answers by extending it from 5 to 6:30 p.m. This means six-dollar glasses of white wine, red wine — unnamed but identified on the menu as French — and bubbles as well as a few cheap beer choices. Six or eight discounted snacks are offered, including the carrot dog, the egg, and crispy pig ears with a mild sweetness and pleasurably fatty mouth feel. Fried pickles, practically a delicacy in the American South, become fried cornichons, briny two-bite tidbits with roughand-tumble cornmeal “batter” and a satisfying sweetand-saltiness.
There’s a well-manicured wine list — the 2016 Bieler Père & Fils rosé is a standout — along with a shorter list of limited-availability bottles. Anyone at your table intrigued by the Unicorn Frappuccino should instead opt for the “prickled pink” French soda — a combination of prickly pear nectar, cream, and soda water that arrives stratified but, when stirred, turns into a delightfully fizzy and filling pink drink.
The single-page main menu, which changes often, includes starters, salads, cheeses, sides, and plats
principaux (a three-course prix-fixe option is mentioned for those paralyzed by decisions). Only the bread service struck me as a tad fussy — a small plate of puffy Parker House-style rolls and sweet cream butter for three dollars. But the motivation became clear: endless baskets of bread will only lead to a belly full of bread, leaving you with less room for the truly good stuff — of which there’s quite a bit here.
The rabbit terrine is rugged and rustic, served with crisp slices of golden-toasted baguette and sprightly, snappy pickled carrots. Aficionados of oddball vegetables will rejoice, with sides like salsify, hearts of palm, and on a recent visit, sunchokes, each treated minimally to respect its natural goodness — cooked