Absinthe is one of those classic San Francisco restaurants which have been here forever but still attract a loyal and enthusiastic crowd. It's been on my list of restaurants to try forever, but now that I have kids, I seldom go to San Francisco for dinner anymore. It had been recently featured on Check Please, a KQED series, and Parker and the other girls were eager to try it. So we headed there one Sunday night in mid-February 2008.
The restaurant was as nice as expected. Its main dining room is small and dark, painted with muted colors and a large mural of a restaurant that makes it look bigger. There is also a room which doubles as a bar/cafe, where you can hang out to your heart's content. Indeed, our friend Eddie was there a couple of hours early, as she had been in San Francisco for lunch, and the staff was more than accommodating. I would say that Absinthe has the atmosphere of a Parisian neighborhood bistro - though I must admit that I never understood the difference between a bistro and a brasserie.
The menu has a French flair. It changes monthly and includes soups and salads, as well as appetizers to share. Main dishes are in the mid to high twenties.
We all decided to share the pistachio crusted goat cheese, and while it was good and we all enjoyed it, it wasn't particularly original. I think it would have been even better if served with some high-quality balsamic vinegar (as it's done in other places, and I, myself, served for Christmas dinner). Eddie and Parker shared the caramelized brussels sprouts ($8), a novel concoction which they seem to enjoy. I got the fries ($6) to accompany our main dishes, and they were very thin and crispy. They were very tasty but cut too short to really dip in the dips provided (Dijon mustard, thyme infused-malt vinegar & rouille).
Eddie wasn't in the mood for dinner per se, and instead she got soup and salad (they served both together). I don't remember which salad she had, but she raved at the potato, leek and grana pureed soup ($8). It wasn't to my taste, but I'm not big on soups.
Parker got the Shellfish stew ($28), and she liked it a lot. She found it similar to a cioppino, but not as spicy or heavy. Indeed, its lightness was a big plus for her.
I went with the pork confit ($24), and was all in all happy with it. The pork was very tender and had a wonderful texture, though it was a little bit oversalted. I hadn't planned to eat the accompanying braised red cabbage, but it was mixed in with the tiny mustard spatzle, which I did want to try. A taste of the combination was enough to make me a convert. The cabbage was tender and sweet, and provided a great contrast to the salty pork. I must not have been very hungry - or had filled up in too much bread - because I couldn't finish the portion. I took it home for Mike, but ate it myself a couple of days later when I was starving and had nothing else for lunch. It reheated quite well (though of course, without the atmosphere of the restaurant, it wasn't quite as good).
Absinthe is also known for its drinks and Parker enjoyed whatever she ordered, which I thought was absinthe itself, but as I don't see it in the menu, it must have been something else. Eddie had a glass of wine, and I think I had a rose champagne. I had meant to order a citron presse, but I think the waiter misheard me. Anyway, the result was a bubbly drink that tasted very much like a rose sparkling wine; it was very, very good.
Neither Parker or Eddie were tempted by the dessert list at Absinthe, and while I would have ordered the chocolate bread pudding (remembering just how good it was at Adagia), I wanted to share it. Still, we decided to go elsewhere for dessert. Unfortunately all the nearby restaurants were closed (it was about 9:30 PM by then), so that was not to be.
In all we had a wonderful dinner experience. The bill came to about $55 per person, after tax and tip - not bad at all for that quality of meal.
Very unfortunately, this was our last dinner with Eddie, who is moving away. I hope she finds as many good dining experiences in Austin, as we have here in the Bay Area.
398 Hayes St
San Francisco, CA