Elegant, Old-School Dining Sets Absinthe Brunch Apart

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Dining at Absinthe is a reminder of what eating out used to be like, perhaps before good food became available to the masses. Hostesses offer to take your coat upon walking in the door, classic cocktails are part of every meal and waiters refill water glasses almost obsessively. In the Hayes Valley brasserie, you are always the guest of honor -- and excellent service is the specialty.

That's not to say the food isn't equally impressive. The brunch menu (served Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), contains few surprises for a traditional French restaurant; French Onion Soup Gratinee ($5/8.50) is the house favorite first course, while entrees include Steak Frites ($26), Brioche French Toast ($14) and of course, a Croque Monsieur ($14).

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However, it's clear the restaurant is in a different league, even at brunch, than the city's other French cafes. Take, for example, the raw bar menu; oysters and oyster shooters, chilled dungeness crab and even caviar -- served with creme fraiche on blinis -- are presented on a bed of crushed ice. Almost half of the brunch menu is devoted to cheese, domestic and imported, served with accompaniments like honeycomb, quince paste and marcona almonds. The traditional French dishes have just the right amount of "California" sneaking in (read: huckleberry compote and Tabasco aioli). And the entire back of the menu exclusively lists cocktails.

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Kir Royale and Buck's Fizz

Surrounded by round copper-topped tables, plush velvet booths and shelves of fine liquor, it's almost impossible to resist a cocktail at Absinthe. Do as the French do and enjoy a dry sparkling Kir Royale, made from Champagne and creme de cassis, or Buck's Fizz (both $9). The latter joins Champagne with orange juice and grenadine for a fruity but not overly sweet concoction, elevated by the obvious pulp from freshly squeezed citrus. And those just cover the bubbly. A selection of Bloody Marys and a lengthy list of various other drinks, both classic and original, would keep cocktail enthusiasts busy for many visits.

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Smoked salmon, citrus-fennel salad, Meyer lemon creme fraiche & crostini

Small plates are perfect to share among the table, with items ranging from House-Made Granola ($7) to Deviled Eggs ($16). Do yourself a favor and order the Smoked Salmon ($16), which comes with a salad of red onions, fennel and blood orange and grapefruit segments, in addition to a Meyer lemon creme fraiche and toasted crostini. The thinly sliced salmon perfectly balances smoky and savory flavors, while the creme fraiche is impossibly light and mildly sweet.

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Omelette with pancetta, wild mushrooms, spinach & fontina

For entrees, the Omelette ($15) isn't breaking any new ground, but it's delicious, delivering exactly what it promises. Wilted spinach and sauteed wild mushrooms are folded into soft eggs, then topped with mild Fontina cheese and dotted with tiny cubes of pancetta. It's simple but fresh and well executed -- mushrooms still with a small bite and spinach, voluminous.

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Roasted potatoes with caramelized onions

Thick rounds of roasted potatoes accompany the omelette, standing alone instead of forming a hash. Their texture is nearly perfect -- crispy skins, creamy interior -- and the flavor is nice, too, featuring herbs and fennel seed. They might be bland if not for a spoonful of caramelized onions draped across the surface, which taste deliciously sweet and buttery. Another spoonful would be welcome here, especially when you get down to the last few bare potatoes. Same goes with the two slices of toast lying on the edge of the plate: they're nice for portion size, but not doing much in the flavor department.

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Croque Monsieur with Black Forest ham, Gruyere, Dijon mustard, toasted levain, bechamel & mixed greens

It's hard to go wrong with a Croque Monsieur ($14), and Absinthe's is particularly good. Sourdough bread is sliced and toasted with a substantial amount of oil, then Black Forest ham, Gruyere, Dijon mustard and bechamel sauce are sandwiched between (and topped with a fried egg, if you like). The flavors are just about perfect. The ham and Gruyere are mouthwatering and savory without being too salty, a balance that's hard to strike. The filling isn't as creamy as some other croques we've enjoyed (see also: Butler and the Chef), but instead it's all about that crusty bread, in typical French fashion. Lightly dressed mixed greens complement the ham and cheese goodness, with fresh herbs tucked into the mesclun mix for a unique flavor combination.

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Of course, the food is delicious, but it's the mood that makes Absinthe feel like a special occasion. There's just something so civilized about sitting in front of those broad restaurant windows, sipping a sparkling cocktail, spreading simple butter onto bread and people-watching in a lively city -- with raw oysters, fine cheese and chocolate pot de creme at your fingertips. Every now and then, an experience like this one can trump any pork belly-confit-bourbon-maple-black pepper-hash out there. At least until next week.


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Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

398 Hayes, San Francisco, CA

Category: Restaurant

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