Have a Little ABSINTHE to Stave-Off the Cultural Malaise …


This is the potato-encrusted Arctic Char I enjoyed at Absinthe. Stop drooling, now.

This is the potato-encrusted Arctic Char I enjoyed at Absinthe. Stop drooling, now.

Of course, I could be referring to the bewildering beverage of Yore in all its wormwood-infused notoriety. Absinthe (or updated, watered-down versions of the drink) has indeed been making a considerable comeback in Europe and North America over the past fifteen years. My first encounter with the enchanted tonic came in 2004 during a visit to Paris. A group of chatty expatriates were mingling in a particularly cramped hotel lobby and one of them whisked-out a bottle of the stuff, which could be purchased in a delightfully grimy market across the street. I forget the actual hallucinogen-content of that afternoon’s favored conversation-piece, but the liquid does have its meditative benefits. Moreover, I am first-in-line for anything exotic that boasts a hint of anise flavor (Sambuca, ouzo, Twizzlers, etc.) and it was a rainy day in the City of Light.

Absinthe the Brain-Rotting Elixir is not, however, the chief subject of today’s blog installment. Rather, I am going to render well-deserved props to Absinthe, the Brasserie and Bar located at 398 Hayes St. in San Francisco, on the corner of Hayes and Gough.

When I lived on Hayes Street in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, the area was just on the cusp of a determined revitalization that would gradually transform the district from a slightly more ambitious and well-dressed, blowsy “drag-queen sister of the Tenderloin” into a teeming cultural hub replete with art galleries, smart bistros, fashion boutiques, and specialty markets. Absinthe proved to be one of the neighborhood’s most enduring gastronomic upgrades, though it did not open until 1998. While visiting San Francisco last week, I found myself in Hayes Valley and eager to reinvestigate the delectable offerings at the still-popular (and packed-out) brasserie. The menu, which is the brainchild of executive chef Adam Keough, is still a winner in every way. We popped-in at 6PM on a Tuesday without a reservation and were lucky to get a spot, since the joint filled-up swiftly right after our seating. I started out with a big bottle of sparkling water (gaseuse, merci beaucoup!) and ordered a triple-combo from their cheese menu. It was $24 and worth every cent. My selections were the Humboldt Fog with white-wine-poached apricots, the Blythedale Camembert with Marcona almonds and Fuji apples, and the Fourme d’Ambert, from Auvergne, France, served with acacia honey. Yes, you may commence drooling, Gracious Reader. The cheese selections were portioned perfectly and served with gently toasted slices of the house-made walnut-bread. Talk about ringing my particular bell.

I moved directly into a main course that was almost miraculously light yet satisfyingly substantial: the Potato-Crusted Artic Char, served with Little Gem lettuce salad, blue lake beans, red radish, and Niçoise olives, for only $27. Yes, I am featuring a photo of this resplendent dish above. The textures and flavors were Hallelujah-worthy, with the Alaskan char boasting a delicate, somewhat buttery cleanliness on the palate that was the perfect foil for Keough’s layer of golden brown, immaculately pan-fried Yukon Gold potato-slices layering the top of the fish like edible scales. The Little Gem salad was perfect, too, spun into simplistic greatness by a light vinaigrette and perfectly poached half-egg that tasted like a little nibble of dappled sunlight on some hallowed meadow in the Loire Valley. Yeah, it was that good. My dining partner hit the jackpot, as well, reveling in the Liberty Farms duck breast, which was ginger-soy marinated and served with roasted peanuts, fried black rice, Napa cabbage salad, and a citrus-soy duck jus. This, friends, was melt-in-your-mouth duck to savor amid a symphony of fabulous flavors, and you had better believe I got to try a bite (or three). A 2010 Brooks pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley was the earthy accompaniment the little duck would have been begging/quacking for, were he alive and not on the plate.

I took a big chance on dessert and ordered something I was not at all certain I would like, only to discover I had selected THE MOST FABULOUS DESERT I HAVE EVER INHALED IN MY LIFE. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was a worthy piece de resistance to the entire meal: a yogurt Panna Cotta with Tarragon Meringue. That’s right, tarragon. Served parfait-style in a glass, this offering is just one of the six tantalizing creations of pastry chef Bill Corbett, and the flavors of this masterpiece were by turns delicate and explosive. The panna cotta was rich and silky-smooth while being nudged perfectly by the fresh acid-sweetness of a layer of Red-Rio grapefruit, all of that deliciousness being topped by White Chocolate crumbles and then the subtly spectacular tarragon meringue. Deliriously compelling was this dessert, and it was scarfed-down more quickly than it deserved, given the complexity of character to be savored. But I couldn’t help myself!

The service was outstanding in every regard, as usual. A gent named Josh took excellent care of us and the bill for two ended-up being a mere $85 (before tip), which I considered a bargain, given the sterling quality of the fare. I have certainly paid far more for meals I have enjoyed much less. The ambience is classic, bustling “San Francisco brasserie” with a dark, cozy Parisian boite-type interior but plenty of elbow room and opportunity to peek at the goodies everyone else decides to order from the admirable kitchen of Chef Keough.

There was no hallucinating the still-sturdy, even spellbinding quality and character of Absinthe. The next time you’re in the city for business or for pleasure, taking meetings or catching a show in the nearby theater district or at the symphony, make a beeline for Absinthe and settle-in for an evening of relentless culinary contentment. In fact, invite me. I’ll guide you through that menu and maybe even perform a little song & dance. All you have to do is pay. ~JK

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