A Toast to Absinthe
No matter how long you’ve lived in the Bay Area, it’s impossible to get to every restaurant you’d like to try.
There are just too many of them. With more opening each and every week, too.
Such is the reason why it took me this long to finally visit the 15-year-old Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco.
When an invitation to dine as a guest at the restaurant presented itself a couple of weeks ago, it was the needed nudge that finally got me in the doors.
And boy, have I been missing out.
The lively restaurant in Hayes Valley is almost always packed, especially before nearby theater performances with folks grabbing a most civilized meal before racing off to the ballet or symphony.
Executive Chef Adam Keogh, who has cooked at Chez TJ in Mountain View and at a couple of Michael Mina Group restaurants, infuses classic French brasserie sensibilities with California flair to come up with menu items such as Atkins Ranch lamb sugo over papardelle ($22); spicy fried chickpeas ($4); and beef tartare ($16) with violet mustard, green apple and red onion.
The restaurant is made up of several plush rooms, done up with burgundy walls sporting gold trim. There’s a large mural in one, depicting the inside of a dining room restaurant complete with servers and tables of diners. At the entrance to the kitchen, there’s even a small toque painted above, appropriately enough.
When a restaurant is named for a once illegal spirit, you’ve just got to order a cocktail, don’t you? Absinthe has long been famed for its well-executed cocktails.
Complex and balanced, the ones we had did not disappoint. Maybe we were in a poetic mood, but my husband chose “Inner Peace” (Rye whiskey, Cynar, El Maestro Sierra Olorosso sherry; $11), while I was swept away with “Wonderlust” (Bols Genever, Small Hand Foods Pineapple Gum, creme de violette, lemon juice and a dash of absinthe; $12). The touch of absinthe gave my cocktail that characteristic slightly cloudy, gray-green hue that results when the spirit comes in contact with ice.
Whatever else piques your fancy, do order the soft garlic pretzels ($8). In fact, even if you’re just walking by the restaurant on your way to somewhere else, stop immediately, and go inside to order the pretzels. At least one order. If not two. You’ll thank me later, I guarantee it.
These are soft pretzel nubbins that arrive warm on the plate, with crunchy rock salt on top. Even better, they are drizzled with garlic butter. And best yet, there’s a ramekin of Vermont cheddar Mornay sauce to dunk them in. The pretzels have that golden toothsome crust and a lovely chewy interior that’s just irresistible.
A popular starter is the Hawaiian hamachi sashimi ($17), as judged from the many plates I saw go by. It’s easy to see why. Slivers of the sweet tasting raw fish are arrayed down the length of a rectangular plate. Atop each morsel is a bit of salmon roe for lushness, slices of watermelon radish for crunch, a bit of basil for herbal brightness, and a drizzle of spicy-lemongrass ponzu that’s far more delicate than soy sauce would be. What really makes the dish, though, are the small segments of Pixie mandarin that burst with sweet juice when you take a bite with the fish.
Oysters on the half shell are a must at a brasserie. Beau Soleil from New Brunswick, Marin Miyagi from Tomales Bay and Kumomoto from Washington state are offered at $3.50 each. Cold and bracing with a spoonful of sparkling rose mignonette, they’re a fine way to whet your appetite for the rest of the meal.
You can’t go wrong with coq au vin ($27). This particular version of the classic Red-wine braised chicken stew has a very intense, velvety sauce that clings to every morsel of moist chicken. You’ll want to lap up every drop with some bread — or thin, crisp French fries ($6), as my husband did.
My Arctic Char ($27) is the perfect summer dish. The rich, salmon-like fish is covered in “scales” of thinly cut potato circles that end up as crisp as potato chips after cooked. On the side is a mound of Little Gem leaves, tossed with wax beans and red radishes. A thin line, formed out of finely chopped Nicoise olives, divides the two, so that you can add a bit of salty goodness to either the salad or the fish, depending upon your mood and taste.
Don’t skip dessert, not when they are by the talented Pastry Chef Bill Corbett. His creations offer restraint in the sugar department, which is always welcome. Trained as a savory chef, too, he often likes to incorporate savory ingredients into his desserts. He also has a great eye for plating, managing to assemble simple shapes into mesmerizing designs.
His “Black Forest Cake” ($10) is an example. It’s not your usual tall wedge of layer cake. Instead, it’s a rectangular bar of dark chocolate mousse that looks air brushed-smooth. It sits atop a crackling crisp bottom of feutilleine. Coins of chocolate cake are arranged just so, along with plump poached cherries. Instead of the expected dollop of whipped cream, there is whipped yogurt, which lends a creamy, subtle, welcome tang.
His pavola ($9) is hauntingly beautiful. Like a gift from the sea, the seafoam green meringue gets its dazzling color from the addition of tarragon. The licorice-y herb also can be found in the ice cream that takes on an almost avocado-hue. Cocoa curd and pistachio crumble add a play of textures. Roasted strawberries add a burst of bright color and just enough sweetness.
It’ll give New Yorkers a chance to see what they’ve been missing — just like I had.