Walking up the stairs to the bar inside the new Gaspar Brasserie feels a little like stepping through a portal into early 20th century France. If the polish of the brass and newness of the surfaces didn't gleam so bright, you might believe yourself transported to the bohemian era in Montmartre.
What could be more fitting to those surroundings than one of barman Kevin Diedrich's Absinthe Frappé ($12, absinthe, aloe liquor, lime, mint, soda)? The Frappé, a classic drink that combines absinthe, sugar, and crushed ice is herbaceous and powerfully flavored. "I was determined to put an absinthe drink on the menu, but wanted to make it really approachable," says Diedrich.
His version is a wonderful cross between a classic Absinthe Frappé and a Mint Julep, equally refreshing yet somehow more delicious than either.
No other spirit carries the same kind of mystical allure that absinthe does: tales of addiction, hallucination, and the narcotic effects of wormwood gave this elixir a formidable reputation.
In 2007, when it finally became legal in the U.S. again after being banned for nearly a century, the mania surrounding it was out of control. Absinthe drinks were on every list and people were buying it in hopes of attaining the same kind of high that artists in the early 20th century like Picasso, Van Gough, and Toulouse-Lautrec were reputed to have enjoyed. The hangover taught us two things: There are safer, cheaper, more effective ways to hallucinate, and that Americans don't like the taste of anise seed's black licorice flavor. The absinthe craze died down.
Making an absinthe drink that is both French and classic, yet so easy going that you could drink them all night is quite a feat. "The cucumber, melon and mint flavors [of Chareau Aloe Vera Liqueur] go so well with absinthe I felt it was the perfect pairing," says Diedrich. "I added a touch of citrus to balance the sweetness and a splash of soda water to give it a nice refreshing quality. The end result was an approachable absinthe cocktail with familiar flavors of cucumber, melon and mint."
Other drinks on the list also balance the line of being exotic, classic, and extremely friendly. Drawing much of his inspiration from Louis Fouquet's 1896 French cocktail book, Bariana, Diedrich used the flavor combinations and techniques as starting points.
His aperitif Pyrenees Crossing ($10, sherry, crème de noyaux, curacao, bitters) has all the richness you'd want, yet without the heft and kick to flatten you before dinner. Don't miss out on another standout drink, the Banane ($12, French single malt whisky, banana, lemon, orange, bitters), a cocktail designed to enhance the tropical notes of the whisky. A tiki drink this isn't -- rather a smart, refreshing tipple that isn't too sweet and treks more into the Riviera than in the tropics.
The menu will evolve over time with the bar staff contributing new cocktails, as Diedrich moves away from daily duties behind the bar to overseeing the operations as a consultant. For the time being, this is your chance to experience Diedrich's menu as a solo exhibition -- just think of Gaspar's bar as a cocktail salon, where you're encouraged to touch and taste the art.
¾ oz. Absinthe (Gaspar uses Vieux Pontarlier)
¾ oz. Chareau Aloe Liqueur
¾ oz. Lime juice
¾ oz. Simple syrup
3-4 mint leaves
Mint spring to garnish
In a footed highball glass, like the kind typically used for absinthe, place the mint leaves and lightly press mint into the bottom of the glass. Add the absinthe, Chareu, lime, simple syrup, and then top with crushed ice at the end.
Using a spoon or swizzle stick, mix the ingredients by twirling the handle. Top with soda water and garnish with mint sprig.
Gaspar Brasserie, 185 Sutter (at Kearny), 576-8800