The uni and cauliflower pizza at Cotogna.
Time to flip on those afterburners. Do I really have three parties I’m going to on Sunday? The calendar says, “Yes, Marcia, you sure as hell do.” And one on Saturday. And one tonight. I also managed to sneak in one a swell holiday lunch at Cotogna yesterday—two words for you, friends: uni pizza. Oh yeah, and a little bubbling crock of housemade ricotta topped with wild mushrooms that you slather onto crostini is gonna throw you into a dungeon and make you its personal slave (bring out the gimp!). I look forward to writing it up soon.
So there’s something I am personally celebrating today: Marcilary Liberation Day, the day when my creative partner Hilary and I (hence Marcilary) were laid off from our ad agency jobs, 10 years ago! Good times (well, not at that particular moment). So yeah, today I’m gonna raise a glass to being boss of me for a decade, and I can say I am so very grateful I got laid off, otherwise I may have failed to discover the joy I have with my current profession. When people say to me, “You have the best job ever,” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s why I made it.”
And so I thank you, my fabulous readers, for all your support and keeping me truckin’. And for today’s review, I’m including Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, a lively place that’s built for celebrations and holiday cheer.
Lastly, here’s a quick reminder about my “buy three of my books before December 31st and get entered in a drawing to have dinner with me in January” special offer! We have added priority shipping as an option for those of you who want to insure the tablehopper book makes it into someone’s stocking this holiday season!
I think I’ve found my new favorite bar snack. And it’s a good thing it’s at one of the best bars in the city, ABSINTHE BRASSERIE & BAR, because really, it would be a crying shame if it was at a crappy bar, but I’d probably still go for these little buggers. Imagine warm, soft, plump pretzel bites—about the size of a Vienna sausage on steroids—that you dip into a decadent, smooth, Vermont cheddar Mornay sauce (basically a cheesy béchamel—yeah, the kind of thing you want to pour directly into your mouth, or mainline). What a wicked way to take something German, and Frenchify it. $7 for five one-way hot tickets to bar bite bliss, baby. And don’t let the word “garlic” deter you—it’s subtle.
Also on the cheese, please list: Absinthe is known for their French onion soup, and it’s only gotten better with their latest executive chef, Adam Keough. It comes in two sizes ($4 and $7), topped with a creamy combo of Gruyère and Emmenthaler. The edge of the bowl didn’t have enough of the little crispy, cheesy, cooked-on bits we all love so much (it’s when you want the chef to be sloppy), but the flavor was rich and fulfilling. Next time I’m getting a large. And not sharing.
More cheese? Okay. (Although you really should watch your cholesterol.) The spicy rabbit meatballs ($8) came with a surprise trio of cheesy crostini on the side (with a swipe of garlic oil)—I love it when a menu item overdelivers. The meatballs were well-seasoned and just fluffy enough, but the San Marzano tomatoes in the cast iron skillet tasted too much like something fresh out of the can, with nothing really done to them (which, I discovered, there wasn’t); I’d actually like a light tomato sauce on the side to do justice to these savory meatballs.
You a fan of beef tartare? Fortunately Absinthe keeps its brasserie cred with their version ($14) that is plenty for three to share. It had a few ingredient twists, like violet mustard, cornichons, and the unexpected addition of green apple. Great texture, and I liked being able to break the quail egg yolk on top myself (the chef understands it’s something tartare lovers like this one want to do). There was a flurry of Espelette pepper on the yolk, but the final mixed combo was just a touch muted (I think I like mine with a punchier mustard).
The heirloom beet and quince salad ($15) was downright pretty, topped with brioche croutons, frisée, and peppercress. There were also hits of flavor from the small crumbles of Stilton, and the beets marinated in a port and pistachio vinaigrette. It was nicely composed, elegant, and so balanced, but I do think the price felt a bit “ouch.” (Then again, it’s Absinthe—I think we all want it to be $$, but sometimes I forget that it mostly hovers around $$$.)
Perhaps a better deal was the scallops ($15), three sweet beauties from Maine, on a colorful bed of butternut squash and torn Brussels sprouts leaves, crowned with three hearty dollops of a brown butter Hollandaise and fried capers (no, not a dish for those on a diet). They were a wee bit salty, but cooked at that exact scallop texture you want.
When I think brasserie, I think beef. The Niman Ranch skirt steak ($24) is a winner, perfectly cooked and so juicy, with a perky green peppercorn jus. Great accompaniments as well: braised artichokes, mushrooms, Bloomsdale spinach, and a side of black garlic mashed potatoes (don’t let their muddy color put you off—they’re rich and flavorful, and whoa, is there really a Brie cheese purée in there?).
Char ($27). You a fan? I am. Here it’s served like a deconstructed Niçoise salad: the fish is layered in thin slices of potato like fish scales, browned and buttery. The plate is divided by a row of chopped Niçoise olives, like the fattest line of cocaine Pablo Escobar ever dared himself to do. On one side is a pile of dressed Little Gem lettuce leaves, with thinly cut radishes, yellow wax beans, and a half of a creamy, soft-boiled egg (another surprise you didn’t expect from the menu description).
Wow, the pork rib eye ($26) is quite the porky excursion. It’s slow-roasted Kurobuta, thickly cut, and meaty for sure—you better not be expecting some lean pork with this bad boy. The smooth jalapeño-cheddar Anson Mills grits added to the hearty factor. There was also a deep, roasted pork jus on the plate, along with tangy braised red cabbage.
One constant I’ve always depended on Absinthe for was their burger ($13). But based on my recent experience, it wouldn’t be the burger I’d ring up as my one phone call from the drunk tank. The Marin Sun Farms beef patty was well-formed, with a good grind (they do it in house), but was really underseasoned—only the exterior had any salt. The two that our table ordered were cooked as requested but weren’t very juicy—glad I had them put an egg on mine. And wah, the spicy caramelized onions were not the promised spicy. I’m sending the burger back to charm school. And the French fries ($6) seemed to have misplaced their manners—they came out undercooked and wan.
The mushroom pot pie ($25) was another delinquent—the top layer was beautifully browned, but underneath it separated, and became a murky and pasty layer of dough. And why were there shiitakes in there? I thought its Asian flavor was a clang in the wild mushroom medley.
As for desserts, the talented pastry chef Bill Corbett is now on board, but it was too soon for me to be able to report on his additions to the menu.
I appreciate having a place you can swing by all day and late into the night… Oysters on the half shell in the afternoon with a selection off their lengthy list of Champagnes, no problem. Or a cheese plate ($23 for three hefty portions) at 11:30pm with—depending on what cheeses your order—accompaniments like a lovely honeycomb, fig cake, and maple walnuts? Sign me up. Oh yeah, and those damned garlic pretzels.
It almost always feels busy—and before or after a performance at the symphony or opera? Crazytown. But the skilled servers here act quickly, keeping things going at a swift yet smooth clip. I was also surprised to discover how manageable the volume of the adjoining dining room was for dinner—well, until a rather loud (and hard of hearing) gentleman at a neighboring table got his heat on. Speaking of getting your heat on, with bar manager Carlos Yturria now running the show, the legacy of this kickass bar continues in excellent hands. I raise a Ginger Rogers and say cheers to this neighborhood classic (which is incidentally turning lucky 13 in January, 2011).
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar - 398 Hayes St. San Francisco - 415-551-1590