My favorite part about the city of San Francisco is that it’s confined to a 7×7 mile area. This makes it very accessible and easy to enjoy (unlike Los Angeles). A fitting example would be how I found Absinthe. It was a cold night in September, and my friend and I had hopped out of a cab in Hayes Valley. It felt close to zero degrees outside, and the wind wasn’t helping. A few blocks down, we saw Absinthe’s neon sign, and decided to stop in. I guess you could call it luck, but you’d have to conduct research to find a spot like this in LA. Adam Keough is the executive chef. His resume includes work with Michael Mina (XIV, Los Angeles) at Arcadia and Stonehill Tavern, and with Joshua Skenes at Chez TJ. I didn’t know this when I ate here, but it wasn’t surprising to find out. When it comes to Parisian diners outside of Paris, Absinthe is the real deal.
We walked through the door around 10pm, looking for cocktails and small plates. I always respect a restaurant just a little bit more for being open past 10pm. This is the kind of place where ordering a vodka tonic is like punching the bar tender in the face. And your drink could take a while, but it’s not due to lack of service–it’s because they’ve actually been working on your cocktail the whole time. The staff here even published a book called The Art of the Bar. After perusing the menu, I started with a French ’75. This consisted of gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup served over ice in a pilsner glass. Then they add Champagne, brandied cherries, and top it with a lemon twist. According to their menu, this drink “refers to a piece of artillery used in World War I. The recipe comes from Life in the Trenches (1919) by Harold Sanders.” It was really good. My friend got a 21 Hayes. Absinthe describes this drink as “Damrak gin muddled with cucumber, a healthy splash of Pimm’s No. 1, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Shaken and served up with a cucumber slice and a house-pickled onion. It was concocted by Dr. Schwartz to provide relief to those arriving at our door by way of San Francisco’s Municipal Railway.” Both were great drinks.
I was indecisive, so I had the waiter surprise me with an entrée. He brought out the Coq Au Vin–Red Burgundy-braised Mary’s chicken. There was bacon, and roasted crimini mushrooms, and crostini, and persillade…needless to say, I cleaned the plate. My friend ordered the Shellfish Stew: Blue prawns, manila clams, PEI mussels, cranberry beans, bell pepper-bacon broth, and crostini. This was gone before I had a chance to sample. I heard it was pretty great. The cocktails had depleted, so we decided to move to red. After looking over the wine list for about thirty seconds, we decided to share a 2006 bottle of Mongeard-Mugneret (Bourgogne). This was not a mistake.
Overall, Absinthe has great food and awesome service. But for myself, I think I’ll remember Absinthe for the atmosphere. It’s worth checking out, even if you’re just stopping in for a quick drink. Close seating, small tables and great decor give it a unique and intimate vibe–sort of feels like you’re eating in someone’s house. The chatter is pretty loud, but most consider it a good thing–there’s always a back room if you feel that you need to escape. On a side note, I hear they have an impressive brunch. We had a great experience, and will definitely be returning. I figured we couldn’t leave without tasting some Absinthe. It was an appropriate end to our late night adventure in San Francisco.