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Calculated Cuisine

[whitespace] Absinthe Themed Ambiance: Absinthe emanates the aura of a carefully planned corporate image.

David Fortin

Can it be that the decor and service at Absinthe were designed by one corporate team and the cuisine by another, and then grafted together?

By Paul Adams

Some restaurants are homey. Absinthe, the latest culinary addition to designer Hayes Valley, feels like a business. From the curvaceous entryway to the electric-eye-operated restroom fixtures, the restaurant emanates an aura of carefully planned corporate image, like a new hotel. The unfortunate waitstaff are packaged in little velour vests, and the curlicue furnishings look like salvage from the set of The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr. T.

All of which is acceptable. It's an inoffensive enough environment, with the possible exceptions of the disco-mirrored pillar and the too-small tables. Certainly it looks like a lot of money went into it. But what kind of food would one expect in such a theme ambiance? Flashy food, right?

That's not what you get. It's as though the decor and service were designed by one team and the cuisine by another, and then they were grafted together at the last minute. The menu consists of regular French/Italian fare. It's almost gimmicky, in fact, how just-plain-folks it is. The plates are studiously ungarnished, the flavors mild and harmonious. And in fact the bill bears the thermal-printed desideratum: "Simplicity is our design The changing seasons our inspirations. Our Fondest wish is to share with you, the food that is our health, our wealth, & our happiness." [punctuation and capitalization sic] Which would be charming at a cozy family-owned joint, but here it just calls to mind images of the committee meetings where it must have been cooked up.

But actually the restaurant's fine. There's an oyster menu; fresh cold oysters are served on one of those platters-on-stands with a champagne mignonette and Acme's walnut bread. There's a seafood platter, similarly presented. Appetizers include olives, mesclun salad, an onion soup gratinee and a soup of the day, among other things. Recently the soup of the day was a warming herb, white-bean and root-vegetable one, which was hearty but low on flavor and decidedly in need of salt. Also available were a pissaladiere and sauteed sweetbreads: the pissaladiere a little bland and overly cheesed; the sweetbreads very nice, not highly seasoned, served in a light, mild gravy with a wedge of crispy latke.

There are also a few side dishes available for snacking or variety; of these, the spinach is delicious. Sauteed with preserved lemon, roasted garlic and red chile, this dish shows off the chef's balancing skills in an uncomplicated and elegant way. Also available are narrow crisp pommes frites, served in a cone with a choice of condiments.

Entrees include a couple of pastas, a portobello mushroom dish, a risotto and a roasted rack of New Zealand lamb. The lamb is served with a fig sauce, on dark, plain greens, with a slice of roast squash and crispy, buttery potatoes Anna. The dish is sweet, subtle and somewhat fatty, but not overly so; all the flavors come through unadulteratedly and well synchronized. It's got a good wintry feel, without fireworks. The risotto is a little too al dente and bland, with a pleasing bitterness from the saffron and limas, and flavored but not creamy with pecorino. It does pass the test that many fail: It stays warm to the end even if eaten slowly. Nothing's as nasty as tepid risotto.

The dessert menu is pretty standard: sorbet duo, chocolate cake and pot de creme, house-made cookie plate, pecan tart. Also lavender creme brulee, and rice pudding en crepe served with a mixed-citrus salad. They are highly competent, but not dazzling.

In general, all the dishes seem to consist of good honest flavors, straightforwardly presented. No effort is made to jazz things up with unexpected reductions or coulis, which is a pleasant respite from the often unsuccessful experimenting of San Francisco's hyper chefs. It's possible that attempts to make Absinthe's pleasing dishes spectacular would work, and it's possible that they would not. Just as well not to try.

It's hard to tell what the Absinthe demographic is: It seems like a mixed bag. It's also hard to tell what they were aiming for; the restaurant's calculated appeal seems to straddle the opera crowd and the younger Hayes Valley types. The wine list is on the long side and has some very nice bottles, but there's also a cocktail list that seems to be shooting for some sort of retro authenticity with tawdry, ostentatious little blurbs about the historical provenance of each drink. (Of course absinthe is not offered; same story as blowfish--it's cool but illegal on account of toxicity.)

Absinthe is owned by a company called Mad Will's Food Company. According to them, the owner, William Russell Shapiro, is a Francophile who particularly loves the Belle Époque and "tried to bring something of that to the Bay Area."

So here's hoping Absinthe finds its niche. The simplicity of the cuisine is a good idea. Perhaps it could pervade the rest of the restaurant.

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From the April 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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