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Friday, November 25, 2011

Elegant, Old-School Dining Sets Absinthe Brunch Apart

Posted By on Fri, Nov 25, 2011 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge absinthe2.jpg

Dining at Absinthe is a reminder of what eating out used to be like,

perhaps before good food became available to the masses. Hostesses offer

to take your coat upon walking in the door, classic cocktails are part

of every meal and waiters refill water glasses almost obsessively. In

the Hayes Valley brasserie, you are always the guest of honor -- and

excellent service is the specialty.

That's not to say the food isn't equally impressive. The brunch menu

(served Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), contains few surprises

for a traditional French restaurant; French Onion Soup Gratinee

($5/8.50) is the house favorite first course, while entrees include

Steak Frites ($26), Brioche French Toast ($14) and of course, a Croque

Monsieur ($14).

click to enlarge absinthe3.jpg

However, it's clear the restaurant is in a different league, even at

brunch, than the city's other French cafes. Take, for example, the raw

bar menu; oysters and oyster shooters, chilled dungeness crab and even

caviar -- served with creme fraiche on blinis -- are presented on a bed

of crushed ice. Almost half of the brunch menu is devoted to cheese,

domestic and imported, served with accompaniments like honeycomb, quince

paste and marcona almonds. The traditional French dishes have just the

right amount of "California" sneaking in (read: huckleberry compote and

Tabasco aioli). And the entire back of the menu exclusively lists


click to enlarge Kir Royale and Buck's Fizz
  • Kir Royale and Buck's Fizz

Surrounded by round copper-topped tables, plush velvet booths and

shelves of fine liquor, it's almost impossible to resist a cocktail at

Absinthe. Do as the French do and enjoy a dry sparkling Kir Royale,

made from Champagne and creme de cassis, or Buck's Fizz (both $9). The latter

joins Champagne with orange juice and grenadine for a fruity but not

overly sweet concoction, elevated by the obvious pulp from freshly

squeezed citrus. And those just cover the bubbly. A selection of Bloody

Marys and a lengthy list of various other drinks, both classic and

original, would keep cocktail enthusiasts busy for many visits.

click to enlarge Smoked salmon, citrus-fennel salad, Meyer lemon creme fraiche & crostini
  • Smoked salmon, citrus-fennel salad, Meyer lemon creme fraiche & crostini

Small plates are perfect to share among the table, with items

ranging from House-Made Granola ($7) to Deviled Eggs ($16). Do yourself a

favor and order the Smoked Salmon ($16), which comes with a salad of

red onions, fennel and blood orange and grapefruit segments, in addition

to a Meyer lemon creme fraiche and toasted crostini. The thinly sliced

salmon perfectly balances smoky and savory flavors, while the creme

fraiche is impossibly light and mildly sweet.

click to enlarge Omelette with pancetta, wild mushrooms, spinach & fontina
  • Omelette with pancetta, wild mushrooms, spinach & fontina

For entrees, the Omelette ($15) isn't breaking any new ground, but

it's delicious, delivering exactly what it promises. Wilted spinach and

sauteed wild mushrooms are folded into soft eggs, then topped with mild

Fontina cheese and dotted with tiny cubes of pancetta. It's simple but

fresh and well executed -- mushrooms still with a small bite and

spinach, voluminous.

click to enlarge Roasted potatoes with caramelized onions
  • Roasted potatoes with caramelized onions

Thick rounds of roasted potatoes accompany the omelette, standing

alone instead of forming a hash. Their texture is nearly perfect --

crispy skins, creamy interior -- and the flavor is nice, too, featuring

herbs and fennel seed. They might be bland if not for a spoonful of

caramelized onions draped across the surface, which taste deliciously

sweet and buttery. Another spoonful would be welcome here, especially

when you get down to the last few bare potatoes. Same goes with the two

slices of toast lying on the edge of the plate: they're nice for portion

size, but not doing much in the flavor department.

click to enlarge Croque Monsieur with Black Forest ham, Gruyere, Dijon mustard, toasted levain, bechamel & mixed greens
  • Croque Monsieur with Black Forest ham, Gruyere, Dijon mustard, toasted levain, bechamel & mixed greens

It's hard to go wrong with a Croque Monsieur ($14), and Absinthe's

is particularly good. Sourdough bread is sliced and toasted with a

substantial amount of oil, then Black Forest ham, Gruyere, Dijon mustard

and bechamel sauce are sandwiched between (and topped with a fried egg,

if you like). The flavors are just about perfect. The ham and Gruyere

are mouthwatering and savory without being too salty, a balance that's

hard to strike. The filling isn't as creamy as some other croques we've

enjoyed (see also: Butler and the Chef), but instead it's all about that

crusty bread, in typical French fashion. Lightly dressed mixed greens

complement the ham and cheese goodness, with fresh herbs tucked into the

mesclun mix for a unique flavor combination.

click to enlarge absinthe1.jpg

Of course, the food is delicious, but it's the mood that makes

Absinthe feel like a special occasion. There's just something so

civilized about sitting in front of those broad restaurant windows,

sipping a sparkling cocktail, spreading simple butter onto bread and

people-watching in a lively city -- with raw oysters, fine cheese and

chocolate pot de creme at your fingertips. Every now and then, an

experience like this one can trump any pork belly-confit-bourbon-maple-black pepper-hash out there. At least until next week.

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About The Author

Olivia Ware


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