San Francisco, California – Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

Restaurant: Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
Cuisine: French/Californian/Mediterranean/Eclectic/Fusion
Last visited: November 10, 2010
Location: San Francisco, California (Hayes Valley)
Address: 398 Hayes St
Price Range: $20-30, 30-50+

1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!

Food: 4
Service: 5 (I had a knowledgeable server)
Ambiance: 5 (although a bit pretentious)
Overall: 4
Additional comments:

  • Upscale French bistro & bar
  • Casual fine dining
  • American-European cuisine (fusion)
  • Popular to locals
  • Ages 30-50 hot spot
  • Very eclectic/creative menu
  • Lively/cosmopolitan atmosphere
  • Extensive wine/cocktail/beer list
  • Seasonal menu
  • Oyster bar
  • Busy/reservations recommended
  • Tues-Wed: 11:30 am – midnight
  • Thur-Fri: 11:30 am – midnight (bar open til 2 am)
  • Sat: Brunch: 11:00 am – 3pm; 3:00 pm – midnight (bar open til 2 am)
  • Sun: Brunch: 11:00 am – 3pm; 3:00 pm – 10:00 pm
  • Closed Monday

**Recommendations: French Onion Soup, Beef Tartar, Broccoli Risotto

With the red traffic light it really looks like the Red Light District too… where’s the green fairy?!

I was in San Francisco for the Food Buzz Food Bloggers Food Festival and had decided to stay a few extra days to partake on my own dining adventures. My foodie experiences pretty much peaked when my cousin and I took a day trip out to Yountville and Napa Valley. I have to mention Redd once again, because after that experience, nothing seemed to be as impressive.

All completely different restaurants and not comparable, but of the casual fine dining restaurants I covered on this trip I would have to say my overall favourite was Redd, followed by Incanto, Absinthe and then Morimoto Napa, which doesn’t really count considering I didn’t try enough.

The thing that caught my attention with Absinthe was Executive Chef Adam Keough’s creative menu that fuses European and American cuisine. The menu is seasonal with a few staple French bistro items, but for the most part it is French food with contemporary Californian and West Coast influences. The ingredients and flavours were innovative, but the techniques traditional.

The food is intricate and eclectic and I have to give credit to the chef for taking chances and experimenting. Although a few of the items sounded better on the menu and some things were just trying too hard, I can at least say it was original and unique to the restaurant.

I actually spent half a year living in The Netherlands and exploring Europe, and Absinthe Brasserie & Bar brought me back to those times. Absinthe breathes old European feel with new traditions. It was very reminiscent of the late night European cafes tucked away in alley ways in Amsterdam, or even the late night hot spots and French Bistros in France. I truly loved the experience and atmosphere probably more than the food, although the food was very good overall. On this occasion I was with my cousin again and thank goodness we have similar tastes which made the ordering easier.

On the table:

Complimentary Bread

  • It was cold, but they do serve it cold in France.
  • It tasted like a sourdough Rye bread, but it was just okay.
  • I would have liked a classic French baguette, but being in San Francisco it’s about the sourdough.

Spicy Fried Chick Peas - 4/6 (Very good)

  • Berbere spicy, parsley $4
  • I enjoyed the Crispy Ceci at Vancouver’s very own Campagnolo more.
  • This was a good bar snack to start off with.
  • These weren’t that crispy but they had a great smoky and spicy flavour with whole toasted cumin seeds and cayenne chili spice.
  • It tasted very Indian (Moroccan to be specific) to me and the fresh parsley was a nice addition to freshen up the flavours a bit.

**French Onion Soup Gratinee - 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)

  • $4/7
  • I can’t say I order French Onion soup too often, but I do enjoy it.
  • Our server was a huge fan of French Onion soup and highly recommended this as the best in the city. She was honest and didn’t say everything on the menu was good either, so I trusted her. I’m glad I did too!
  • For French Onion soup it was probably the most perfect I’ve had, but not my most memorable dish from this dinner.
  • There was so much flavour in this French Onion soup and it was nice and sweet with lots of stringy caramelized onions and ooey gooey stringy Gruyere cheese on top.
  • I could taste caramelized sliced garlic and it was made with incredible veal stock and had the perfect balance of savoury and sweet.
  • There was also a crispy crouton that had absorbed all the oils of the soup and cheese which was delicious!

Cauliflower-Roasted Almond Soup (Seasonal special) - 2.5/6 (Okay-Good)

  • Celery, micro mint, brioche croutons $6/10
  • This was one of my reasons for coming to Absinthe, all the ingredients are right up my alley and I was super excited to try it, but it sounded more creative than it tasted.
  • It was quite normal and tasted like a standard semi creamy cauliflower soup.
  • It was a bit tart from what I believe was creme fraiche to make it a bit richer.
  • It was almost foamy and there was a very small hint of almond, but no mint flavours, besides it being used in the decor.
  • There were little cauliflower florets and I was expecting them to be more caramelized and sweet rather than tangy.
  • The almonds weren’t used as much as the cauliflower and I missed their aroma.
  • It wasn’t really sweet, savoury or nutty and it fell flat from being a bit under seasoned and one dimensional in flavour.

**Beef Tartare5.5/6 (Excellent!)

  • Violet mustard, green apple, red onion, cornichons, quail egg yolk, crostini $14
  • This was a memorable dish for sure. It lived up to the description!
  • It was a beautiful build up of flavours and I could taste every ingredient listed.
  • This was a very unique interpretation of beef tartare, but it wasn’t typical.
  • It was not the overdone modern-day beef tartare with truffle aioli, capers and balsamic vinaigrette… still good but it gets tiresome.
  • The beef tartare had a nice spice, but it wasn’t spicy, although it did have heat.
  • The beef was very fresh and buttery and the egg yolk gave it a creamy richness. It’s traditional to have the egg in it too.
  • It was nutty and smoky from paprika and cumin seeds and I could taste a hint of mustard when I looked for it.
  • There was some nutty deep fried garlic chips and salty bites of capers and tangy minced pickles that kept the flavours interesting.
  • The apples gave it a tart and refreshing crunch although I could have used more of them to contrast the capers and pickles.
  • It was very aromatic and floral tasting and I could actually taste the violet even under all those sharp flavours.
  • It made it almost delicate and I’ve never experienced violet used in this way and it was beautiful.
  • The violet enhanced the fruitiness and sweetness of the apples in a very natural way and I loved it!
  • There was a ton of tartar and I could have used more crunchy crostini, but overall it was well worth it. It’s an absolutely lovely and innovative dish!
  • Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie in Vancouver actually does a Euro-Asian version with the quail egg as well – see here.

Main Scallops - 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)

  • Butternut squash, brussels sprouts, caper-brown-butter hollandaise $15
  • This was my third scallop dish of the trip.
  • I had the Seared Scallops with Bonny Doon Vineyard Verjus Beurre Blanc on Day 2 of the Food Blogger Food Festival and the Caramelized Diver Scallops at Redd Restaurant, which were the best I’ve had in my life to date! I was almost on a scallop hunt so I continued with the theme here.
  • The scallops were nicely caramelized, tender and juicy with a crispy seared crust on both sides.
  • The capers were deep fried, which took the salty edge off so it wouldn’t overpower the scallops.
  • The rich, buttery, ultra thick and creamy hollandaise was more like a tangy aioli that could have been more salted, but it was well balanced with the milder capers.
  • My issue was that the dish didn’t go together. The scallops were an item and then the sauteed vegetables were another.
  • I don’t want the “side” to overwhelm the scallops but at the same time I want it to compliment them.
  • The butternut squash was mixed with apples which intensified it’s sweetness, but it was very basic and simply sauteed in butter with brussel sprout leaves and a few broken capers.
  • Unfortunately, I didn’t see the value in this dish.

**Broccoli Risotto - 5/6 (Excellent)

  • Guanciale, matstake mushrooms, bottarga $15
  • Guanciale is unsmoked Italian bacon made from pork jowl (cheek) rather than pork belly.
  • Bottarga is a preserved and salted fish roe.
  • This was fantastic, and the texture was perfectly creamy with al dente risotto.
  • As creamy as it was, it actually wasn’t too rich because there was some lime juice and zest to break it up. It was an unexpected contrast that worked incredibly well.
  • The salty bits of guanciale weren’t crispy and they were almost like lean crumbs of bacon shavings, but held the flavour of pork.
  • The dish reminded me of a zesty broccoli, cheese and bacon cream soup without the smokiness.
  • It was very fragrant and had flavours of home made gourmet mac and cheese as odd as that sounds.
  • It was almost like a grainy puree of broccoli and cheddar cheese made into a sauce.
  • The only thing is that I don’t think I’ve tried Bottarga and I wanted to try it, but there was barely any and it was just used for garnish.
  • Also the Japanese Matstake Mushrooms weren’t used enough to make much of a difference, but mushroom flavours in this dish would have brought it up a notch for sure. Overall, still an excellent dish.

Dessert

I must say that every single item on the dessert menu made me salivate. Everything was so creative and intricate with a few desserts using very unexpected savoury ingredients. The dessert menu matched the philosophy of the savoury dishes very well.

These kind of desserts are incredibly appealing to my tastes and I was super impressed by the pastry chef at that time. However the new Executive Pastry Chef is Bill Corbett. He’s actually a Canadian native from Toronto (**see comment) and regarded as one of the best pastry chef’s in the nation. Unfortunately I did not get to try his desserts. On another note, on this trip, I really did get to try the desserts of the actual best pastry chef in the nation at Redd Restaurant – see her desserts here.

I knew which desserts I wanted to order from the start. I probably ordered the most unusual sounding desserts, but unfortunately they didn’t work out that well. I love savoury and sweet and unusual combinations, but the balance wasn’t well mastered here. It wasn’t really sweet and not really savoury and the flavours were too mild and they came off as “wimpy” desserts, for lack of better word. Our wonderful server warned us that the traditional desserts were better, but I didn’t listen again… :S

Pecan Puff Pastry - 2.5/6 (Okay-Good)

  • Shaved & brulee Asian pear, candy cap mushroom ice cream, mint $9
  • To me, that description sounds so exotic and exciting.It was the Candy Cap Mushroom Ice Cream that got me.
  • It was incredibly small, but considering the labour intensive execution, I had to see value in the $9.
  • There was way too much puff pastry and not enough pecans.
  • The pastry wasn’t layered and flaky but doughy and compressed so it was chewy.
  • There was very little creamy pecan filling but it was mushy and paste like and more buttery than sweet with no pecan pieces in it.
  • I did like the candied crunch of the sweet sugar crusted whole pecans on top though.
  • The ice cream was pretty good and it carried a piney and woody mushroom flavour with a slight hint of caramel.
  • It was quite aromatic but I think it should have been sweeter and they could have caramelized the mushrooms even more.
  • The brulee Asian pear was almost completely unnoticed since it was only a thin slice made more for presentation.
  • Overall it was all a little bland and although the mint did enhance the earthy flavours of the mushroom ice cream it didn’t do much for anything else.
  • The pecan puff pastry and ice cream didn’t really do anything for each other either.
  • I felt like the flavour was sacrificed for the intricate details, although I do appreciate the creativity behind the recipe.

Ode to the St. Honore Tart - 2.5/6 (Okay-Good)

  • Chocolate-pistachio crisp, pistachio mousse, chocolate profiteroles, pine ice cream $9
  • Again it was incredibly small, but the value is in the labour.
  • I love the combination of chocolate and pistachio, and I was hoping to get this delicious Mascarpone & Chocolate Brownie with Pistachio I had at Coast in Vancouver, but it was wishful thinking.
  • The pistachio mousse wasn’t sweet and almost tasted floury and doughy with hints of rose and pine. It had a mucky off taste and it was like putting floral accents in mud.
  • The chocolate pistachio crisp was a salty hazelnut and toffee chocolate wafer crisp which was quite enjoyable alone, but ruined with the pistachio mousse, which defeats the purpose of the whole dessert.
  • The chocolate profiteroles were the most enjoyable, but gone in a matter of seconds because it was so small.
  • The pine ice cream worked well in the context of a profiterole because with the chocolate it was actually sweet, and thus it became more like a dessert.
  • It gave an earthy flavour to the chocolate yet it was refreshing because it was ice cream and pine.
  • The profiteroles proved what I mean when I say “ingredients working together successfully”.

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