Absinthe is laid-back and unpretentious.
Absinthe is laid-back and unpretentious.
Larami Culbertson

Wormwood and Finger Quotes at Absinthe Lounge

Marlon Chen may be the finest finger-quoter who has ever lived. Wait. Let's back-track a bit.

"Finger quotes," the most inherently complicated of all hand-based conversation aides, refers to using one's hands to imitate quotation marks around a phrase or word during a spoken exchange. Snaps, claps and gestures all fall to the feet of finger quotes. With their inclusion, an other­wise innocuous statement immediately becomes rife with suspicious overtones.

For example, a sentence as seemingly banal as "I hung out with Jenny last night" becomes "I 'hung out' with Jenny last night," immediately eliciting multiple high-fives and exclamations of "all right!" from nearby friends. Proper finger-quote usage is an art form, and it should not be deployed haphazardly.

So back to Chen — once again, maybe the finest finger-quoter who has ever lived.

Nightfly met Chen at Absinthe Lounge (609 Richmond), the posh, contemporary Montrose/Museum District bar Chen's frequented since it opened in 2003. He cites the lounge's hip, laid-back atmosphere (true), personable staff (true) and varied patronage (not true; it's mostly filled with an established, artsy crowd) as the reasons behind his loyalty.

And when recounting the tale of how he came to learn of the barely advertised lounge, Chen employs an inordinate number of finger quotes, exhibiting the grace and know-how of a skilled surgeon, transforming his ostensibly mundane story into "anything but." It's majestic to watch, like a perfect sunset or a baby being delivered by some sort of magic OB-GYN unicorn.

"I used to 'go to' the Davenport and I saw Karen [Absinthe owner Racine] there a lot on 'Mondays,'" Chen 'explains.' "That was their 'Industry Night' thing they had. She 'told me' about Absinthe."

Alas, Chen's proficiency with his hands is hardly a happy coincidence, as he's the composer and conductor of Houston's Maggini String Orchestra, but it is indicative of Absinthe's own thoroughly studied genesis.

See, Absinthe Lounge is centered around a drink called — hold on to your hats, folks — absinthe, derived from the bitter European herb known as wormwood. (Absinthe itself is sometimes also called wormwood.) As far as beverages go, it's one of the more esoteric and misunderstood. Hell, up until last year it was still illegal to serve it in its authentic form because of its assumed hallucinogenic effects.

Absinthe the drink's past is as illustrious as that of any liqueur featured in a Johnny Depp film: Highlights include rheumatism, a mass murder, the French Revolution and a fall from grace stemming from an unfair social caste system. As recalled by Absinthe (the bar) co-owner Ralph Ragar (Karen's brother-in-law), this list is at least twice as interesting as anything in From Hell.

Ragar's establishment serves several variations of absinthe — none, of course, in the concentration required to induce any sort of hallucinations. A look around the lounge confirms that Ragar is as thorough in his business ventures as he is at reciting indiscriminate facts about alcohol.

Despite its locale, Absinthe manages to present itself without much in the way of pretension, which ultimately appears to be its greatest attribute. The non-bar seating (lounges, love seats and those backless wooden stool-things that serve a more aesthetic than functional purpose) has a certain understated classiness, while the brick accent wall behind the bar complements the room's wood- and ironwork and the nondescript lighting gives nearly everyone an undeserved mysterious sense of being.

However, the novelty behind absinthe's (the drink) legend and the complicated steps it takes to prepare it — pouring it over a sugar cube and whatnot — begin to inch towards irritating with each occurrence. The patio area is also an unexpected misstep.

The venue itself isn't quite as bohemianly cool as, say, Boheme (307 Fairview), but it does get an unexpected boost from a capable kitchen that pushes out handmade pizzas and panini (among other things) until 2 a.m.

The music at Absinthe Lounge, which falls into the "songs you know but can never remember the title of" category, usually operates more as a soundtrack to conversations than as a substitute for them, so those comfortable at more clubby spots may occasionally feel a bit out of place here.

Should you happen to be completely inept at talking, however, there is a small area that can sporadically function as a dance floor. Suspicions that this was established solely to make our Dallas and Austin transplants feel more at home could not be confirmed.

Hemingway, Wilde and Poe were all regular absinthe drinkers, so if you're looking to position yourself as a lauded, lettered Renaissance man, clearly, drinking absinthe is all it takes. Fair warning, though: Marilyn Manson also favors the anise-flavored beverage and even has his own brand, dubbed "Mansinthe."

So by that logic, we suppose there's a slight chance you might instead be regarded as the "lamest Goth shock-rocker of them all." No finger quotes necessary.

Last Call

Get your Kevlar, baby. This Saturday (October 4), there's a free outdoor concert and festival at Third Ward's Emancipation Park (3018 Dowling). The festival is dubbed "Why Vote Now?" and is aimed at encouraging Houston's inner-city youth to participate more in the electoral ­process.

Local rappers Trae, Slim Thug and the Boss Hawg Outlawz, Cory Mo and the G.R.I.T. Boys are all scheduled to appear, with a few more people sure to stop by. "The concert is the key element in drawing people for one last chance to register to vote in time for the November presidential election," says co-organizer Rosey Ruiz of nonprofit organization Angel by Nature.

The deadline to register to vote in the November election is Monday, October 6. Word.


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