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February 03, 2009

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

French Fries Dominic Armato

Holy restaurant writeups!

Every Top Chef season, I find myself telling people midway through that I wouldn't blame them for thinking this was a Top Chef blog, and given the limited blogging time I've had lately, that goes doubly so for season five. At any rate, some of Skillet Doux's more typical content is long overdue, and I have a seven or eight restaurant backlog from vacation that I need to get through soon or I'm going to start losing details. But hey, as long as the blog is still dominated by Top Chef season, I figured I'd better post about Absinthe now in case Jamie's a surprise elimination tonight and this one loses its topicality.

Spicy-Fried ChickpeasDominic Armato
This past week I was in San Francisco for work -- a whirlwind tour made more so by my host, an old friend and work associate I hadn't seen in many years who knows how to live well. Whilst pretending Monday night was Friday at Laïola (no camera, sadly, as the meal was fantastic) and exchanging food nerd credentials with excellent company, he asked if there was anyplace in the city I wanted to be sure to hit before skipping town. Naturally, in the throes of Top Chef insanity, I mentioned that it would be fun to check out Absinthe and get up close and personal with Jamie Lauren's cuisine, to which he excitedly responded that it was not only a great spot, but a scant few blocks from his home. Planning doesn't get much easier. So last Wednesday, he, his lovely new bride (new to me, anyway) and I sauntered on down for some seasonal French and modern Italian. My mind was -- if you can believe this -- more on the company than the food, so my thoughts are more general impressions and less of the typical obsessive overanalyzing, but I walked away a happy camper. Not that half a bottle of wine doesn't help in that regard.

French FriesDominic Armato
The room is appropriately Belle Époque, dim and buzzing with the energy of a neighborhood hotspot, but not without a certain romantic charm. A sizeable bar dominates the first of multiple rooms, and it turns out an impressive number of signature cocktails, which were highly regarded by my compatriots. While waiting for a table I had something whiskey-based, and while I don't recall its precise composition, I most certainly do recall its smooth character and wonderful balance. Cocktails are taken quite seriously at Absinthe, and it shows. Later, tucked into a cozy corner of the restaurant, we quickly jumped on a number of items from a menu that -- in increasingly common fashion -- was divided into "snacks", "share plates" and entrees, with a few soups and salads thrown in, as well as a section from the raw bar with items like oysters, crudi and caviar. As it was my first visit, we stuck largely to the basics.

Dried Apricot & Sage Country PâtéDominic Armato
The spicy-fried chickpeas had come highly recommended from a couple of sources, and while they weren't quite the showstoppers I'd been led to believe they'd be, they were exceptionally fine specimens of the legume. Deep-fried, I presume, pleasantly spicy and seasoned with herbs, their smooth and borderline volcanic interior was encased in a lightly crisped shell that merited their presence on the snack section of the menu. That they were served in a small cup was probably a good thing. Large volumes of these would be dangerously easy to munch into oblivion. French fries were enjoyable and well-executed, if precisely what you'd expect (not that there's anything wrong with that), and accompanied by a trio of dips -- Dijon mustard, thyme-scented malt vinegar and a rather red rouille.

Roasted BeetsDominic Armato
The country pâté, served with mustard, cornichons, toasted bread and watercress, was an exceptional little number that may have been my favorite of the evening. Lacking an organ component and composed solely of pork shoulder and another cut I missed, it was studded with sage and possessed of a fresh, porky sweetness that was further enhanced by the inclusion of diced dried apricots. Its composition was so exceptional, in fact, that this condiment fiend found the accompaniments to be largely superfluous. Meanwhile, the Jamie we've come to know and love on the show was on full display in the roasted beets, which were plated with a creamy burrata, toasted hazelnuts and pickled shallots, and buried under a pile of wild arugula that was dressed with a blood orange vinaigrette. Like the dishes we've seen on the show, this was fresh and seasonal, elevating exceptional ingredients with great care, but with enough of a personal spin -- the hazelnuts, shallots and meticulous dice on some of the beets -- to make it a little more than your typical roasted beet salad.

Saffron & Cinnamon Braised Lamb ShankDominic Armato
Much to my dismay, her collaboration with Radhika and Ariane, the now legendary lamb with vadouvan scented carrots and raita, was off the menu that night despite reportedly making frequent appearances as of late. But I recognized another dish that was almost a dead ringer for her Restaurant Wars lamb shank, and between already having lamb on the brain and not wanting to escape without giving at least one Top Chef dish a try, it took me all of 1.2 seconds to settle on my entree. The saffron and cinnamon braised lamb shank, as on the show, was beautifully cooked, moist and tender and almost lacquered with a deep, dark, meaty glaze. It sat atop a pile of Israeli cous cous, mixed with olives and swimming in jus. The Meyer lemon gremolata added some needed brightness, and I felt it was just a touch of acid away from being truly excellent. Interestingly, I think some preserved lemon -- present on the show but absent last week -- would have put it over the top. Still, though, a very, very good dish.

AbsintheDominic Armato
Irene Contreras' chocolate pot de crème and apple cake (the exact nature of which eludes my memory) were straightforward and on the mark, but my mind was, in typical fashion, stuck on the savories. After the notable if somewhat uneven competence of Perilla disappointed many a season one fan who expected brilliance from Top Chef's inaugural champion, I went into Absinthe with tempered expectations. And though my sample was relatively small, I received exactly what I anticipated. Jamie's cuisine is confident without being cocky. It has her signature, but puts the ingredients first. It's not the kind of look at me food that would be likely to garner national press were it not for her newfound reality show stardom, but rather the work of an up-and-comer who has been around the block a bit, is hitting her stride and serving great food that doesn't try to overreach but is still a reflection of its chef's style and personality. Top Chef has never been about identifying "the best" chefs in the nation, but rather fresh faces who have a mature style, are just hitting their prime and are deserving of more attention. Based on last week's dinner, I'd say Jamie's worthy of the title. Now we'll see if she can snag it.

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
398 Hayes St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Tue - Wed11:30 AM - 12:00 AM
Thu - Fri11:30 AM - 12:00 AM (Bar open until 2:00 AM)
Sat11:00 AM - 3:00 PM Brunch, 3:00 PM - 12:00 AM Dinner (Bar open until 2:00 AM)
Sun11:00 AM - 3:00 PM Brunch, 3:00 PM - 10:00 PM Dinner