Review: Old friend Jens' Restaurant still delivers a pleasurable dining experience

Apr. 26—Catching up with old friends can be tricky. What if you don't have anything in common anymore? What if they're out of touch, or tell bad jokes, or complain about the weather? What if your old friend just isn't fun anymore?

This question came up when I realized it had been well over a decade since I last visited Jens' Restaurant, one of Anchorage's oldest establishments and one of my family's most beloved. I blame my job for this dining oversight as one of the very few downsides to food writing is that you rarely get to visit the same restaurant twice. And a lot has happened to this venerable institution since I was last there. The restaurant's beloved namesake passed away and its ownership was assumed by longtime executive chef Nancy Alip. I wondered, did Jens' still hit the mark? I have to admit, the question made me nervous. I had a lot of nostalgia riding on the answer.

Jens' was one of my earliest dining experiences in Alaska. My new-to-Alaska parents were Jens' devotees, in love with its classic fare and easy sophistication. Once in a while, I was lucky enough to tag along. The year was 1989. I may or may not have been wearing giant shoulder pads. Fast-forward to 1999, when my husband and I moved back to the state for the long haul. Jens' was as good as I remembered and we went often for a quick plate of oysters at the bar or a full-blown celebration punctuated by a sparkler-topped dessert. We even celebrated our daughter's christening there in their private dining room — a daughter who graduates college next week.

Happily, I needn't have worried. You know that friend who you can go for years without seeing and then when you do, it feels like no time has passed? Turns out, Jens' is that kind of friend.

In fact, it hasn't changed a bit. Walking into the lively, eclectic bar gave me a pleasant sense of déjà vu. It has the same jeroboams of Veuve Clicquot on the wall, the same copy of "The Epicurean" on the bookshelf, the same white linen tablecloths on the tables. Jens', founded in 1988, maintains what only the most established restaurants can achieve: lived-in elegance.

The bar is only a shade less formal than the open and airy dining room. It's a convivial space that proves that Jens' has not only retained their old regulars but has recruited some new ones. Diners, some dressed to the nines, some in jeans and baseball hats, greeted each other warmly with regularity, waving across tables or hugging at the front entrance. Others dined solo at the bar, head in a book. Clearly, this space is an extension of many people's living rooms. But Jens, the man, never met a stranger and Jens', the restaurant, carries on his tradition of welcome. We felt right at home.

The menu remains focused on classic European-inspired dishes with an emphasis on Danish cuisine and flavors. This is not a trendy menu, which is not to say that it lacks creativity. While the steelhead niçoise relies on traditional French flavors, the rockfish is served crusted with plantains and pineapple shrimp salsa. Alongside the fine-dining mainstays of filet mignon and ribeye steaks are options for veal liver and onions or a chicken fried steak.

A quick note about wine. Jens' has an impressive wine list and since we were celebrating, we ordered something swanky. But I appreciated the list of very reasonably priced wines by the bottle on the last page of their food menu.

The gravad lox — Danish-style, dill-marinated king salmon — was unavailable the night we were there, but we were reassured that the kitchen would be swimming in salmon soon and it would be back on the menu. So, we drowned our sorrows in frikadeller med rodkal, pan-fried veal and pork meatballs ($17.50) served with red cabbage and a small lake of creamy, velvety gravy. If anything was going to comfort us, these hearty meatballs would. Like bite-sized little meatloaves, these offer the same savory flavors with a little added panache. The cabbage is a perfectly bright, sweet and acidic foil to this homey dish. Our server, when presenting it, said, "This is my favorite way to eat cabbage." Mine too, friend.

My choice, an appetizer special of grilled tiger shrimp ($16), was a departure from the rich, stick-to-your-ribs Nordic dishes. This is a light, summery dish that made me forget the city's lingering snow for a moment. This dish came with a mango-habanero dipping sauce that I liked but barely used because the shrimp, with their beautiful smoky char, were so perfectly sweet.

For his entree, my husband opted for the fresh halibut sauteed with mushrooms and garlic in a lemon herb sauce. I took a trip down memory lane with an old favorite; the "by now almost world-famous" pepper steak, so-named on the Jens' menu for as long as I can remember. The perfectly cooked fish was tender, moist and flaky, and the mushrooms were meaty and earthy but still subtle enough to let the fish shine. This whole dish is blanketed in a silky lemon sauce that, while rich, is lively and herbaceous and lends bright, clean flavor. The one weak spot on the plate was in the side of rice, which was both bland and a tad undercooked. This did not take any wind out of my husband's sails, however. He reached for the rosemary and spent-grain breadbasket and sopped up the last of the sauce. Needs must.

My pepper steak and its sides were perfect. Perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned and perfectly plated. The meat was tender and flavorful with a beautiful hard sear and the rich sauce left a lovely peppery heat lingering on my tongue. This course came with a meltingly rich potato gratin that was worth the whole price of admission. I offered my husband a bite but gave him the side-eye while he took it.

I'm so glad I decided to look up this old friend. Dinner at Jens' allowed me to revisit some very happy memories. But more importantly, it allowed me to make some new ones.

If you go:

Jens' Restaurant

701 W. 36th Ave.




Dining room hours:

Tuesday-Saturday: 4-10 p.m.

Bodega hours:

Tuesday-Saturday: 2-10 p.m. (with limited menu from 2-4 p.m.)