A century ago, absinthe was the height of cocktail chic. The high-proof, mildly hallucinogenic green liqueur -- nicknamed "the green fairy" -- gained its flavor and a tantalizing touch of toxicity from tarragon's bitter gray cousin, wormwood. Oscar Wilde toyed with it, Rimbaud was inspired by it, poet Alfred de Musset was famously ruined by it. Suffering the usual fate of mind-altering substances embraced by bohemia, it was outlawed in most countries during World War I (when Europe lost its taste for feyness of any tint).
Last winter, Absinthe made quite a splash when it plopped down near Civic Center. Named after the poisonous pleasure of the past, with stunning period bistro decor to match, it's well-suited to a district where most entertainment comes in 19th-century genres. Chef Ross Browne and owner Billy Russell-Shapiro gained a high reputation at their late Laurel Heights restaurant, Rosmarino, raising expectations that Absinthe's cuisine would be as smart as its ambience. Even now, well past the first stir, it's popular: Calling three days ahead relegated us to a 9:30 slot. (Calling a week in advance got us a prime-time dinner reservation.)
Although you can't get liquid wormwood, the bar has revived other forgotten delights of the Belle ƒpoque. While Chet, TJ, and I nibbled toothsome walnut bread and pored over the menu, the mixologist poured me a Barbancourt Crusta ($5.25), an elegant, citric rum punch popular in New Orleans, circa 1880. The wine list has plenty of range, normal markups, and adequate choices by the glass.
Our table was in the main dining room, which evokes the plushy side of the Belle ƒpoque with red velvet, dark mahogany, and glints of gleaming brass, but a large, cheerful mural's Gallic cafe scene undercuts the formality (as does the spillover of fine vintage bebop and raucous yakking from the bar). The bewildering multiple menus of the restaurant's early days have been replaced by a brief "bar menu" featuring cold seafood, a list of the day's specials, and a regular menu -- which also changes daily, but includes a core offering (pissaladiere, rib-eye steak) continuing from month to month.
We began with smoked salmon ($9) with crisp little toasts and a pusillanimous portion of creme fra”che. "This is really fishy," said Chet. "Do you like it?" I asked. "I love it," he answered, "but a lot of people might find it too strong." We decided it was good but overpriced for a plate of lox. Pickled white anchovies ($7) had velvety-textured strips cut from the fillet, the sweet-sour brine lending them a flavor closer to pickled herring than, say, to typical tapas-bar anchovies. Alongside were lovely little batons of beets and carrots with fresh basil.
We also gambled on a soft-shell crab ($12). Our crab proved a mushy one, but worse yet was its vague, insipid seasoning. We did like its tasty bed of creamed corn scattered with a few fava beans. Grilled asparagus with fig vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan ($6) had very tender spears and good nutty cheese, but the dressing was too thin to cling and the finely minced figs were flavorless. "You wouldn't want these in your figgy pudding at Christmas," said TJ.
Entrees were ambitious. Classic lobster ravioli ($17) had plumply stuffed wonton skins in a rich sea of sauce nantua (lobster cream sauce). A risotto ($15) featured morels and black truffle butter. Typically used in tiny quantities (because they're exorbitantly costly), black truffles make a subtle contribution -- you can barely taste them, but they make you want to gobble down the whole dish. Even as I inhaled the risotto, my companions' truffle-resistance was raised by the melted fontina replacing the customary dry-aged (Parmesan-type) cheese element. "It looks like pizza topping," Chet declared icily, trying to dislodge a stringy blob from his fork. In our least favorite entree, a meaty grilled sturgeon fillet ($17) suffered from being treated like meat: Overpowering flavors of rosemary, capers, and vinegar, fit for a hunk of lamb, dissed the fish. Carrying through the shish kebab theme were thick, yummy slices of grilled red bell pepper and red onion, alongside a couple of white balls of existential potato-nothingness and some puckery-sour pickled golden beet wedgelets. "What a waste!" said Chet. "Pickled golden beets are fine in winter, but in season, they're best just cooked plainly." We all wished the kitchen would stop finicking with the good ingredients and ditch the flavorless ones.
I ordered an espresso, Chet a latte. Mine was a bare tablespoon of caffeine in a demitasse, while he got a big white cereal bowl, French-breakfast style. "Hey, look -- 'Bambi Meets Godzilla!' " I said. "This espresso's so precious, they need to dole it out with an eyedropper?" But dessert brought one triumph. Creme brulee (along with fancy mashed potatoes, though not on the same plate) seems to be the current coin of culinary creativity. Absinthe's lavender creme brulee ($5) turned out spectacular, from the crunchy candied lavender buds garnishing the top down to the velvet depths of its fascinating floral flavor. Warm lemon gratin with orange sauce ($6.50) was less arresting -- chess pie, hold the crust.
When TJ and I returned a few weeks later, we were seated at a comfortable leather banquette in a smaller dining room a few steps past the booming Paris bistro-style bar decorated with large framed antique absinthe ads. Compared to our dining room table, we heard more bebop and less bar-chat. We started with one of Absinthe's most popular offerings, a cold seafood platter ($18 per person) with three decent raw oysters, an OK hunk of past-season crab, a handful of manila clams, three mussels, and three prawns. Both the latter trios had one critter overcooked rubbery, one "normal," and one slightly undercooked (hence, perfect). The four dips of the apocalypse riding on a long-legged tray above the shellfish were aioli, horseradish cream, a Russian dressing variant, and a mean-tempered mignonette so sour, I caught it giving the oysters the finger. Next we tried a lovely soup ($6.50) billed as "English pea and morel." We couldn't see, smell, or taste any morel, but the delicate fresh pea puree was naturally sweet and of a brilliant emerald fit to gown a green fairy.
The house staple pissaladiere ($10), a Provencal version of pizza, had a fine thin crust and stylish garnishes -- kalamata olives, shreds of salty white anchovy, Meyer lemon shavings, and roasted garlic cloves -- but the thick sweet-sour impasto of caramelized onion with balsamic vinegar squashed them all. For our entree we shared braised rabbit ($17) with bacon, stewed prunes, and small green olives. "As rabbit goes," said TJ, "this is pretty good. The bacon keeps the meat moist." "Well, it's too bacony-tasting for me," I answered, "not that it's a flaw, it's just not to my taste." The best part of the dish was under the bunny -- a perfect crisp waffle-fan of rosti potatoes.
Both opera and symphony were holding forth a few blocks away, and early escaping culturati hit the restaurant in hordes. The waitress kept us posted on the disappearing desserts -- the chocolate pots de creme, the cookie assortment, and the hokey-pokey ice cream (whatever that is) serially vanished down post-Poppea gullets. The remaining "strawberry Napoleon with balsamic zabaglione" ($6.50) did include fresh strawberries and indeed boasted little puddles of balsamic vinegar, but otherwise scarcely exemplified truth in advertising. Instead of a Napoleon (classically, pastry cream sandwiched between ultrathin, buttery crisp pastry layers), the dessert was closer to a Sgt. Bilko -- a "Continental" shortcake with three pedestrian hunks of commercial-grade puff pastry (minus any butter taste) topped with berries. Swathing the strawbs was a cream sauce that, however tasty, bore little resemblance to an egg-based zabaglione. But this time, my espresso cup was filled all the way.
"If Absinthe were three blocks from my house," said Chet as our first meal ended, "I'd go often. And I will drop in after the opera. But to make a special trip -- no." I agreed. Unlike the ethereal green fairy, Absinthe is worldly, nonpoisonous -- and nonaddictive.