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.

I'm mildly sorry that we forget to order some green and white asparagus with green garlic aioli for the table (when I spy a plate on a neighboring table, it looks beautiful), but by now we've moved on to dessert. Glenn chooses two from a page of a half-dozen or so cheeses, each alluringly paired with fruit or nuts; Bill wants lemon pudding cake, and I, the made-to-order beignets. The Camembert, served warm with black-truffle butter, comes with big toasted walnuts, and the Italian Piave, a hard, sharp-flavored cheese, with plump Medjool dates. The fragrant pudding cake is lush, as are the three "condiments," as the menu has it, that come with my three tennis ball-sized doughnuts: whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and berry sauce. We are sated, luxuriously so: The men revive with tiny espressos before setting out for Berlioz's Faust, ready for anything, even a little stylish S/M.

I've had such a good meal that it hits me, while I'm walking to my car, that Absinthe is where I should take my parents and their houseguests Maurice and Helene for dinner on Father's Day. Absinthe is pleased that we want a prime-time rather than an early reservation on a night when performances are taking place right down the street. We settle into a comfortable round table, set into the window, and tuck into eight assorted oysters (Fanny Bay, Hog Island, and Miyagi, chosen when they prove to be out of our favorite Kumamotos), with a rosé mignonette; a plate of thin-sliced Serrano ham served with morel mushrooms carefully stuffed with truffled mashed potatoes, so good that my mother was loath to share them (but she did!); amazingly fragile, airy ricotta dumplings sauced with braised fava beans, sturdy chunks of pork cheek, and pecorino; and two excellent soups, lentil thick with tiny diced vegetables (served with toast slathered with a lusty olive tapenade) and a proper, cheesy French onion soup that for once rewarded the orderer of what so often turns out to be a pallid brew.

I allow both my father and Maurice to order the grilled rib-eye (it's Father's Day, after all, and they can claim eight progeny between them). The hunks of meat come out more blue than black-and-blue, as ordered ("charred rare"), but they are nice hunks, anointed with a petite pile of unusual bread-crumb salsa, good thin French fries, and grilled fennel. Helene's grilled King salmon, with grilled escarole in a fig-walnut vinaigrette and an interesting red-onion marmalade, is deliciously moist, and my mother loves her confit of pork ribs, the crackly-crusted meat falling off its tiny bones: It's pork candy! I am enthralled with my poached beef tenderloin: The thin slices of barely rosy meat are soft as meat can be, and I enjoy choosing whether to swish a small collop through the pearà sauce, creamy with marrow, or the sharp mustard, or the little bowl of sea salt, alternating with bites of velvety-soft poached baby turnips, carrots, and leeks. It's like the most delicate pot-au-feu imaginable, and goes very well with the '99 Gevrey-Chambertin I pick (when my father hands me the wine list, professing to be too shocked by the markups to make a choice) in homage to a '45 Gevrey-Chambertin I'd given Dad on another long-ago Father's Day.

After such a dazzling dish, dessert seems anti-climactic, but we linger over a crème brûlée pleasantly scented with lavender, a rich Scharffen Berger chocolate pot de crème, and big, crisp cranberry-pistachio biscotti, with a cappuccino for my father (Mr. Cappuccino) and, what the hell, a glass of 10-year-old Madeira and some Spanish Torta de la Serena sheep's-milk cheese with a delicious cherry compote for me. At every step of the dance of a meal, Absinthe offers a luxurious choice that not only entices, but also fulfills its promise, dreamily.

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