Absinthe Friends

Luxurious provender before a performance -- or instead of one

My friend Glenn, who lives in Santa Barbara but has season tickets to both the San Francisco and Los Angeles operas, called before coming up to see The Damnation of Faust with a request: "Is there anywhere to eat near the Opera House besides Jardinière and the Hayes Street Grill?"

"Oh, honey," I said, "one way in which San Francisco has got both L.A. and N.Y. beat all hollow is in the dining-with-culture area. There are several places we could try. But let's start with Absinthe."

You'll notice that I neatly invited myself along. Indeed, if he'd asked me where to eat before going to the opera in L.A. or N.Y., I would have offered a couple of ideas but not felt compelled to join him at table. In fact, I think that one of the so-far-unstated reasons that both the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Opera have announced their intention to leave Lincoln Center is their desire to be closer to some good restaurants, the proximate area to both being a well-known wasteland when it comes to gastronomic opportunities. I remember the time Warren and I tried to have supper after a rather long opera at the Met, and found restaurant after restaurant in the process of closing its doors. We felt like Joseph and Mary -- that is, if Joseph and Mary had taken cabs. We finally found shelter and sustenance at Odeon, all the way south in Tribeca, which will be in the new neighborhood of the NYCO, if it has its way.

The Green Fairy: Though you can't 
get absinthe at Absinthe, the rest of 
its drinks (and its food) are dreamy.
Anthony Pidgeon
The Green Fairy: Though you can't get absinthe at Absinthe, the rest of its drinks (and its food) are dreamy.

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Dungeness crab half $16

Ricotta dumplings $12

Coq au vin $21

Confit of pork ribs $20

Poached beef tenderloin $26

Lemon pudding cake $8

Torta de la Serena $4.50

551-1590

Open Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Monday

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 21

Noise level: moderate

398 Hayes (at Gough)

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But we've got no such problem when it comes to the Civic Center: The restaurants that dot Hayes Valley, just west of the Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall, do land-office business before and after concerts and operas, not just because they're convenient, but because they're good.

I was early for our early dinner, browsing in a little store stuffed full of French antiques across the street from Absinthe, when I saw Glenn and his friend Bill peering in at the window. They joined me; poking around among the faience asparagus plates and bistro match strikers seemed appropriate. There was even a small stash of the slender slotted spoons that are part of the ritual of drinking absinthe: The spoon, holding a sugar cube, balances across the lip of the glass, and water is dripped carefully through the sugar, turning the brilliant green drink a cloudy chartreuse (unleashing what is fancifully known among absinthe drinkers as "the green fairy").

But not at Absinthe. Though the restaurant is named for the legendary, highly alcoholic herbal-and-wormwood liqueur beloved of fin de siècle bohemians and currently enjoying a renaissance in Europe, an Absinthe staffer says, "You can't sell it in a licensed establishment in the U.S." So we settle for excellent martinis and a sidecar; the restaurant's bar is justly famed for its carefully concocted cocktails (we remember a refreshing, minty Ginger Rogers, invented here, with pleasure).

Properly lubricated, we lean back on our comfy banquette and peruse the menu. There's a full page devoted to cold seafood: a variety of fresh oysters priced from $2 to $3 each; smoked salmon; a Spanish-inspired plate of pickled anchovies with roasted red peppers, pickled cherry pepper, manchego cheese, and arbequina olives; chilled Dungeness crab; and osetra caviar, temptingly served with chopped egg, green onion, crème fraîche, and toast points -- luxury! And there's a daily-changing page featuring seven appetizers, seven main courses, and a few vegetable side dishes.

Glenn and I each start with an oyster shooter: We're surprised that the shot glass filled with spicy sauce comes alongside an oyster in its shell (we expected a shelled oyster swimming in sauce in the glass), but this way works, too -- it even adds a touch of swank to the ritual. Glenn continues with an impeccably assembled salad of radicchio, arugula, endive, meticulously trimmed fresh baby artichokes, and a dusting of sharp manchego. Bill's smoked salmon is beautifully presented with crème fraîche, smoky grilled levain toast points, and the nice touch of fried capers. I'm thrilled with my silky Dungeness crab, with a small crock of white-truffle-scented butter and the witty addition of crisp, briny, house-pickled sea bean.

Everybody is tempted by the coq au vin: Bill wins, and it turns out to be a real prize -- tender chunks of chicken, with mushrooms, pearl onions, and bacon in a dark brown Burgundy wine sauce, a classic rendition of the dish. Glenn's impressive herb-roasted whole black bass is a trifle dry, but improves when a bit of the buttery sauce served alongside is applied; we love its salad of fresh garbanzo beans and sea bean with flaked salt cod. I have a lovely hunk of still-moist roasted pork loin, whose pan-juices sauce contains morsels of roasted black mission fig. It happens that this plate of pig falls between meals featuring two others, ordered in German restaurants that are virtual porcine shrines, but this is by far the canniest use of the meat. It tastes sweet and true.

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