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Rekindled cuisine
Friday, 13 April 2012
Photos by Wes Naman
A familiar chef returns to elevate the fare at Brasserie La Provence
By Justin De La Rosa
If you had asked me a year ago to go to dinner at Brasserie La Provence, I probably would have only accompanied you for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Something just wasn’t on point with the food. Last summer, however, things took a turn for the better. Chef Claus Hjortkjaer has taken the wheel in the kitchen at La Provence and turned around the once lackluster cuisine.

Hjortkjaer is no stranger to the French dining scene in Albuquerque. He was co-owner and executive chef at the now-demised Le Café Miche, which was once regarded as the best French restaurant in New Mexico by a Zagat survey. Though it was heartbreaking to see Le Café Miche go, it is heartwarming to see him back in the industry at one of the most well-known French eateries in New Mexico.

As it goes with any restaurant, a major change in staff like this will take a little time to work out the kinks, so I decided to wait a while before giving La Provence another shot. My dining partner and I stopped in on a Thursday night in the early days of April. Though it was patio weather, we opted to sit in the dining room for our meal. We were warmly received at the entrance by Hjortkjaer’s wife, Linda, who seated us in the small-but-cozy dining room. The décor of the restaurant isn’t exactly the greatest. It feels a little ‘90s, as it is a carpeted room with blue and white walls and low lighting. However, the close quarters did remind me of several cafes and restaurants I went to in Paris last summer.

ImageWe took some time to carefully look over the dinner and wine menus, and it seemed that our server took more time than we. It was understandable, though — there was not an empty seat in the house. After about seven minutes of waiting, Linda noticed the lack of a beverage or bread on our table and was kind enough to treat us to two glasses of rose cremant, which we gladly accepted. Shortly thereafter, our server greeted us and kindly took our wine and appetizer order.

We chose the Crab Cakes ($10) and paired them with glasses of Chateau Briot Sauvignon Blanc ($10/glass). The crab cakes came as an order of two, served atop a bed of mixed greens tossed in a Dijon mustard vinaigrette with a garnish of tomatoes and lemons. The cakes were light and perfectly moist. Unlike most crab cakes I’ve had, they were not overbearingly rich. They paired nicely with our wine choice and did not linger heavily on my palate.

Moving on to the entrée was a tough decision, but we decided to go with two French classics — Moules Frites ($18) and Boeuf Bourguignon ($17). Both dishes were a delight. The mussels were flawlessly steamed in white wine with garlic and thyme — simple, yet sensational. Each mussel was perfectly tender and not a single one was chewy, as I’ve experienced with mussels before. I wanted to love the truffle pommes frites, but they were over-salted, making it hard to eat more than just a few.

ImageThe boeuf bourguignon was some of the best I’ve had. Chef Claus did it right on this particular evening. The beef was immaculately braised in burgundy wine and beef broth, making each bite a succulent surprise. The sauce didn’t have that overwhelming red wine flavor to it that often happens with this dish. There was a nice balance of mushrooms, beef, pearl onions and mashed potatoes to be found with each spoonful. I found it hard to put down my spoon towards the end, but I simply could not finish the whole bowl.

Overall, my dining partner and I enjoyed the experience at Brasserie La Provence. We still agreed that the ambiance and decor could use a makeover, but I’m glad they started with the food on this one.

A toast to Chef Claus and the staff of La Provence for rekindling my love for New Mexico’s French cuisine.

Brasserie La Provence
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11a-3p
Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5-9p; Fri.-Sat., 5-10p
Brunch: Sun. 10:30a-2:30p
3001 Central NE, 505.254.7644
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