Delightful Northeast Heights eatery evokes cozy meals on the River Seine
By Lindsey Maestes
Photo by Wes Naman
I visited Paris in the summer of 2010, and while the gorgeous sights and
enticing people captivated my heart, the flavors alone were enough to
set fire to my nostalgia the moment I departed. I still cling to the
memories of the sweet crepes, the creamy chocolate éclairs sold at the
colorful bakeries and the luscious French onion soup.
But one craving exceeds them all — the deliciously rustic, slow-cooked stew cassoulet. I devoured a bowl on a chilly day in May at a small eatery nestled on a cobblestone street lining the Seine. I’ve been wanting to duplicate the experience ever since.
It’s almost possible in Albuquerque. No, there are no cobblestone streets and cozy eateries lining the Rio Grande. But Chez Axel in the Northeast Heights has nearly perfectly replicated this momentous culinary occasion with their big, warm bowl of cassoulet.
Photo by Wes Naman
On a recent visit I could hardly contain my excitement as I delved into the bowl and tasted the meaty pieces of leg of lamb, mouth-watering garlic sausage and chunks of salty bacon that filled the broth with fat and exquisite flavor.
It’s one of those hearty meals that warms the body and soul on a chilly day. Tomatoes and white beans add to the medley of textures, and the chef adds herbs and small pieces of brazen onion that pop with flavor. And you can’t forget the garlic. Oh my, the garlic.
If you fear garlic breath, you may want to save Chez Axel for a second date. But be sure to do so — with dim lighting and a piano playing romantically in the background, Chez Axel is the ideal restaurant for a special occasion or romantic evening, as I shared with my husband on this visit.
Garlic is a key ingredient in French cuisine and is perfectly executed in this menu. It is tangy, yet never overpowering, and the Snails a l’Aixoise are the perfect selection to gain familiarity with this incredible taste and aroma. Snails are not typically my first choice on a menu, but when in France, do as the French. This appetizer is baked in butter alongside minced garlic and shallots with Pernot liquor and walnut crumbs, creating a hint of nuttiness and crunch to the slightly chewy texture. To add just a bit more garlic to this dish, the snails are served alongside two rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes.
Photo by Wes Naman
These perfectly executed roasted potatoes also accompany the trout amandine, which is one of Chez Axel’s top sellers. A king ruby red trout filet is sautéed in butter with lemon and parsley and served with roasted almonds. The brilliant combination of fish and nuts created a wonderful flavor which compensated for the slightly overcooked trout.
Alongside the trout, we tried the quintessential Soupe a l’Oignon au Fromage. Although it’s a seemingly simple dish, I’ve had many bland experiences with French onion soup. Chez Axel’s is far from tasteless, and I will go so far as to say that it is my absolute favorite in Albuquerque. Beef broth is infused with delicious herbs, the onions are plentiful and tastefully caramelized, and the softened croutons add great texture. As soon as I plunged into the stringy, melted cheese atop the sea of flavor, I immediately remembered exactly why my palette is head over heels in love with French food.
As a restaurant with an award-winning chef, enticing atmosphere and extraordinary food, I plan to return to Chez Axel again and again. This hole-in-the-wall eatery will leave your stomach and heart fulfilled and satisfied. And be sure to end your meal with the flambéed bananas sautéed in butter and sugar, topped with whipped cream and almonds — you won’t be sorry.
6209 Montgomery NE, 505.881.8104
Hours: 11a-2p, Tue.-Fri.; 5-9p, Tue.-Sat.