For you San Franciscans with kindergarten-aged children, you know what a pain it is to find them the right elementary school. Whether you looked at the independent schools or the public schools, either way, the process is unnecessarily tortuous, as you navigate school tours, ponder who you want your child to be at 12 or 14, and try to press the flesh with the right school representatives. My husband and I decided to circumvent this process by focusing on the one school that we really wanted for our children. Gratefully and thankfully, our son was accepted and so I now have a new reason to frequent Hayes Valley, where the school is located.
After a “New Family Orientation” at my son’s new school, my husband and I rounded the corner to go to Absinthe Brasserie & Bar. Absinthe has been around the block for a while, but gained recent notoriety because Jamie Lauren, a contestant on the fifth season of Top Chef, was the Executive Chef there. Lauren eventually left (amidst a bit of controversy, as she didn’t appear to have left her heart in San Francisco), and in July 2010, Adam Keough took the Absinthe helm. Keough, who has worked with Michael Mina and Joshua Skenes (Saison), refreshed the previously stagnant Absinthe — so much so that he brought the restaurant back to the forefront, notably garnering a place on Bauer’s Top 100 list this year.
Absinthe’s dining room is cloaked in darkness, perhaps an homage to its hallucinogenic namesake. With equal space devoted to the bar and the restaurant, the space is lively and comfortable. The dining room away from the bar offers plush banquettes to seat couples, offering a nice opportunity to both sit next to, but still be able to see, your date. Watching over your date and your meal is a mural with an ominous green devil, clearly a nod to the Bohemian spirit embodied by the Absinthe elixir. Another notable in the dining room? Tourists. Tons of tourists. I don’t know if they have a double decker that drops them off in front of Absinthe, or if Absinthe is prominently featured in a San Francisco guide book, but the evening I went, the dining room was overrun with them. I was glad to see them because they ate like they were on vacation, which meant that I got to see the entire menu if I just looked at the tables to my left and right.
Not being on vacation, I suppressed my desire for the soft pretzels and Vermont Mornay cheddar cheese, and opted to start with the healthier hamachi crudo. The hamachi is marinated and grilled, and topped with pickled strawberries, jalapeño, orange oil, and mint. I’m not sure what the hamachi was marinated in, exactly, as there was no distinct added taste to the fish. The dish overall was lovely. The strawberries and mint struck provided a sweet lightness, especially since someone in the kitchen had a heavy hand with the salt. The only real misstep was the grill on the fish, an idea I liked in concept but not in execution as the fish was grilled rather unevenly. Incidentally, the menu is divided into snacks, salads & soups, raw bar, share plates, entrees, and cheeses. I chose simply, getting the hamachi (share plate) and the trout (entree); my husband decided to opt for a soup and two share plates (pictured below).
Husband’s classic french onion soup
Husband’s roasted German sausage, with marble potatoes, pearl onions, fines herbs, and grain mustard sauce
Husband’s beef tartar with violet mustard, green apple, red onion, cornichons, quail egg yolk, and crostini (my taste of this was fabulous; there’s a surprising spiciness to the tartar, which was a great foil to the decadence of the dish)
My entree was the whole roasted trout with lemon-buerre noisette, braised artichokes, haricots verts, and king trumpet mushrooms. The fish, although hard to see in my picture, was roasted perfectly. The skin crisped up without affecting the juicy flesh of the fish. Capers were abound, giving acidic saltiness against the backdrop of the more meager, mild artichokes. The Absinthe website makes mention of Keough’s dedication to culinary simplicity, and I think this trout is a perfect example. It’s not “simple” in the dictionary meaning of the word, since this is not a dish that’s necessarily easy to just whip up. But it is pure. The elements are distinct and pronounced, and the star of the show — the trout — is not gussied up with unnecessary accessories. Reminds me of Chanel…When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on…I don’t know if Keough likes fashion, but he certainly knows how to dress a trout.
I am so happy and relieved to have Absinthe be all it can be (no, I’m not an Army recruiter). Seriously, I’ve been to Absinthe a few times over the past years and never left impressed (I don’t think my visits overlapped with the Lauren years, but I’m not quite sure). And frankly, it bummed me out. Hayes Valley is a great neighborhood, perhaps previously known best for more casual fare like Frjtz and Suppenküche. But with additions like Bar Jules and Sebo, Hayes Valley should be on the culinary radar. Absinthe is one of those blinking red lights on that screen. Keough completely honors the brasserie & bar concept of Absinthe, but at the same time, manages to advance his own culinary concepts.
And on this “Dirt” note, my husband dared to get dirty with me…By telling me that he would entertain moving back to New Jersey. He hails from the Garden State; I do not. When I pushed about this ever so gently (“What the hell do you mean you’d move back to New Jersey???”), he revealed to me that if any of our children went to college in his hometown — where he also happened to go to college (in where else? New Jersey!!) — he’d move back there because, as he said, “it’d be nice to be close to the kids.” Um, I’m sorry. But who do you think I am? I already stay at home with 3 boys now. And seriously, it’s shaving years off my life while adding grey hairs by the tenfold. When the last one is off to college, the last thing I want to do is move to New Jersey to be near them. The shackles will be off, and you can find me roaming the streets of Italy, with either pizza, cheese, gelato or salumi shoved in my mouth. Please start a college fund for that, sir.
(P.S. My dear sons, when you are able to read and happen upon this post, I do, in fact, love you. I love you so much that when you are off for summer break from college, I will fly you to meet me in Italy. And yes, I will let you drink wine even if you’re under 21 while we’re there and I’ll get you a pair of Prada loafers. Don’t tell Dad.)
Bauer’s two cents here.