I have lost count of the number of times I have eaten at Absinthe and I have never had a bad experience or been given a bum steer yet. Absinthe consistently delivers on all fronts. Whether it is a leisurely romantic supper, a hurried pre-ballet scoff or a one-hour business lunch, Absinthe has always risen to the challenge and delivered good food within my (at times) exact requirements.
The venue blossoms onto the sidewalk at the junction of Hayes and Gough. A sprinkling of diners on the pavement, the bar clinking with good cheer and the dining room warm and softly lit always lures both the inquisitive and the regulars in search of sophistication in food and comfort in surroundings. Absinthe is complex. From the bustle of the bar/cafĂ© as you walk in to the unhurried charm of the dining room beyond, Absinthe offers a menu of atmospheres as well as courses to choose from.
I generally prefer the dining room, as it allows for a degree of privacy without isolation. A table by the window allows you to observe and be a part of the Hayes Valley evening vibe without intrusion. The food at Absinthe is consistently great, and although I sometimes foray into unknown regions of the fare on offer, I find myself more often than not sitting in front of my favorites.
The complexity of the menu is the first thing that strikes you as you contemplate your selection. Here you can go for a traditional appetizer, main course, and/or dessert, or contemplate a four-course prix fixe ($70). Or perhaps a shellfish platter, or caviar, or oysters, or just some French onion soup and a Niman ranch New York Steak. The options are endless.
The selection of oysters available is superb, with shells from both coasts available. Elsewhere on the appetizer menu, the local Ohlone smoked salmon ($12.75) is chilled to the correct temperature and kippered to perfection; the Ricotta dumplings ($12) are bite sized parcels of yumminess afloat in a delicious black truffle-mushroom butter, but my favorite is the chicken liver patĂ© ($7.25). To merely call the chicken liver patĂ© they make here a â€śpatĂ©â€ť is an injustice. It is more akin to a mousse, light, creamy and packed with flavor. The levain toast points it is served with are crispy and can be loaded with generous helpings of the patĂ©, but they are impractical for mopping up the last remaining morsels in the ramekin in which the â€śpatĂ©â€ť is served. For that, I always use some of the house made sourdough bread.
The main courses though few in number are all outstanding examples of traditional French cuisine, refined with that California twist. The Coq au Vin ($20) is among the best I have ever experienced, the chicken braised until it is infused with the flavor of the pearl onions and bacon, yet still pull-away (not fallen away) from the bone. The Cassoulet ($25) is moist and tender and the grilled rib-eye ($26) never fails to disappoint. And it is well worth the extra investment of $5 for a side order of fries served with aioli.
All the portions are good-sized and leave room for dessert. The lavender crĂ¨me brulĂ©e served with shortbread cookies is to my mind a â€śmust-eatâ€ť. The crust is thin and fragile, the crĂ¨me light and frivolous and the lavender is used to enhance the combination rather than overwhelm it. I always have this with a cup of Earl Grey, and let the fragrance of each duet on my taste buds. The Scharffen Berger Pot de CrĂ¨me appear, upon first encounter to be tiny but is densely packed with the kind of chocolate crĂ¨me that will have chocoholics rolling their eyes in delirium. The cookie and confectionary plate (pecan shortbread, rum truffles, coconut macaroon, pistachio-almond nougat, cashew wedding cookie and fudge cookie) is a great one to share and fill up any empty corners with.
For drinkers, the wine list is both excellent and international with the best bargains to be found domestically or from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The French wines on offer tend to veer towards the pricey range and are best reserved for that very special occasion. The beverage list also sports an unusually extensive selection of Sherries, sweet wines and digestifs.
In addition to the usual menu items the availability of caviar on the one hand and a well chosen array of cheeses on the other afford the diner the option to take a detour into regions not normally accessible at many other restaurants, which while they may affect an accent are no more than faux-French. Here at Absinthe can be found the genuine article.
Absinthe can be discovered at 398 Hayes Street on the corner of Gough and is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Reservations can be made by calling 551-1590 or at www.opentable.com.