When Basil Meringue feels like Absinthe

After the first glass of absinthe,
You see things as you wish they were.
After the second,
You see them as they are not.
Finally you see things as they really are,
And that is the most horrible thing.

Oscar Wilde was so right with his psychological prediction of the effects of absinthe. Only, while he was speaking of the envy tinged drink with hopeless addiction, I dived straight into a dark tavern of desserts, cocktails and nibbles that was as addictive as its namesake. Absinthe Brasserie and Bar was a staple in my favorite shopping neighborhood of San Francisco, Hayes Valley. Where one surprising ingredient was to remind me of absinthe.

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Poised for nightlife, we entered an understated glittering tavern, where walls were draped with heavy velvet curtains concealing parts of retro paintings, with shadows of creepy birds of paradise dancing off dimly lit walls. Short of a cabaret but too much for a fine dining joint, the mahogany tables with votives were nonetheless enough to cast shadows on faces that were thankful for late night luxe dining.

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For starters was a humble looking cheese and jam plate, which packed a powerful surprise. Cana de Oveja of Spain was a rind cheese that reminded me of brie or a French log, with a scent of unmistakable sheep cheese (factoid: sheep’s milk is also used to make brie, hence the connection). Funnily enough, the cheese was not immediately sheepy, but a lighter, creamier flavor, that matched well with the tartness of the Medjool date jam, another surprise. Paired with a non-exemplary raisin nut toast, which was nonetheless not a strong enough distraction from the sumptuousness of the cheese.

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Going healthy owing to a promise of nightlife, I got the roasted beet salad, expecting my favorite deep red hue on a plate. Instead what arrived was a crown-like plate with Port poached Asian pears forming the steeply of a plate of carefully cut yellow beets, which looked more orange in the enchanting light. Alongside the greens were mixed chicories, lightly roasted pistachios and whipped fromage blanc. The salad was more crunchy that chewy, a texture profile that I have come to adore. And the tartness of beets were a gracious offset to the sweetness of the pears and bitterness of the greens.

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The first dessert was coffee ice cream with a nutty chocolate cake, topped with poached pears. Having already had the latter in a salad, its sweeter counterpart was a welcome surprise. With an open distaste for coffee, I love it in frozen dairy format, especially with a cacao nib and chocolate brittle. Collectively however, the dessert rung too sweet for me, despite having my favorite components. Which is why I was thrilled that another dessert was en route.

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A whimsical dessert was the chocolate mousse cake, tiled like a long cuboid, over a swirl of sunny hued apricot jam, and embellished with strangely green hued basil meringue and candied hazelnuts. The sheer colors threw me off, like an upside down landscape with suns below earths below grassy hues. And then I realized, that the basil meringue was in fact an ode to absinthe. For plating alone, akin to architecture on a plate, this dessert took all the merits. The meringue definitely had a basil flavor, and if I tried to test my palette strictly enough, could sense an undertone of the divine potion itself. The cake was a notch too sweet, but well supplemented by the fibrous apricot taste and the crunch of my favorite type of nut.

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They say you sip absinthe to shut your body down. But a night in this namesake cave did quite the opposite. With a mouthful of sugar and eyes full of opulence, it was time to paint San Francisco green.

Green for Absinthe.

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