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

absinthe

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

Not the City-Boy I Once Was (Or Thought I Was)

Three days in San Francisco were slightly jolting, given that my life (for better or for worse) has become increasingly reclusive in the past few years. All was well because it ended well, but I am mad with joy to be back home in the coastal woodlands, communing with the freakin’ abject silence. I was partially worried about Li’l Girl (my feral-turned-huggable cat) because this was the first time I left her for a few days since “adopting” her officially before Christmas. She apparently conducted herself like a lady and was happy to see me.

One of the interviews in the city was quite particularly a success, I thought, but you never truly know until something is printed or delineated. The young journalist, Cara, was refreshingly well-prepared and talented. That was nice to encounter. I tend to presume that people are going to be scattered and unreliable (because they usually ARE) but Cara was one of those sparkling sapphires that proved me wrong. YES! Many cheers for Cara but, again, I will have to see her write-up. Suffice it to say that the interview about the new books went well and that a great many ghosts were roused, rattled, and riddled. I’ll share Cara’s article when she completes it. She did send me a photo I have permission to use; hopefully I will be able to post it, given my neophyte status with WordPress. Anyway, I am home, it was not really a good day (I’m rather grumpy) and I am so ready for bed it is actually painful. Physically. Give me the weekend to exhale.

Would You Like the Anti-Angst IV Drip with Your Facial?

This is a most inauspicious beginning for my newborn blog, but it will simply have to do. Or, it will have to do, simply. I’m sequestered (like a belligerent budget-cut) in a business hotel in San Francisco, and it is not the hotel I usually prefer to grace with my dubious dollars. Oh no.That hotel was booked and this trip was a bit on the short-notice side of things. I’ll tell you more about what I’m doing in the city in a day or two, though I fear tens of people may be forced to swoon from unreasonable levels of anticipation and breathless curiosity. Suffice it to say that, for the moment, my current lodging, in the Civic Center district near Hayes Valley, provides “courtesy internet service” that is comparable to a slime-exuding garden snail with a thyroid problem, in terms of speed. I shall have to have a word with someone eager to serve at the front desk–a word that shall doubtless be received with the same interest and enthusiasm as might be expected of the aforementioned snail.

Never the less, perhaps it is poignant, even apropos, that we begin our journey together in humble surroundings, you and I. No slick photos, no snappy design upgrades, no sizzlin’ jpegs or widgets. None of these things will upload (and yes, I’m using Chrome), so we must count ourselves fortunate that I am even able to post this introductory message. The razzle-dazzle will come, I assure you, once I return to my cave-like (but Wi-FINE) existence in the mist-shrouded wilds near Big Sur. The purpose of this blog shall become apparent over the days, weeks, months, and centuries–like a grand unfolding, or a gruesome unraveling. Who can say? The title of the blog ought to give you a faint idea of the nature of what I’ll term the blog’s general “tone trajectory,” and my various projects (current and forthcoming) will be discussed at opportune times, because G-d forbid I avoid shameless self-promotion in this age of multimedia wallfowerism. I’ll be rolling a critical eye at virtually everything that can be critiqued, as well: books; films; prominent figures; obscure amusements; disturbing global events; potential signs of the zombie apocalypse; flotsam; jetsam. All commentary will be rendered with utmost delicacy, so feel free to bask in the revelatory exfoliation of our beloved society. I shall be promoting things with which I am inordinately impressed, too. Look your best, friends.

The title for this inaugural post is a swift kiss on the cheek, a riff on the title of the blog, to be certain, but it is also related to a new enthusiasm raging through the spas of America like fungus through the foot-bath of an especially disreputable pedicurist. Indeed, media reports are filtering-in about health resorts, fat farms, spas, and other self-improvement hubs that feature upgrade options involving IV-drips purported to rid patrons of those residual sunburn, hangover, and In & Out Burger discomforts that come with good ol’ American excess. I am making an appointment today for the “Bases Loaded” IV today and shall report back concerning its efficacy with remarkable urgency. Shall we meet by moonlight on the morrow? Let’s do. ~JK