I imagine that before 2007, many people in the United States had never tried absinthe. That year, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau made it legal to buy and sell in America, provided it was free of thujones, the chemical compound in wormwood that was long thought to produce the libation's psychedelic effects.
These days, absinthe is as harmless as whiskey, but there's still a mystique surrounding the preferred drink of turn-of-the-century European bohemians. Regardless of whether you believe in the green fairy and the purported harmful effects of consumption, the taste can be a difficult demon to get past.
The flavor is often described as medicinal due to the combination of green anise, sweet fennel and wormwood that makes up the spirit. It can be difficult to pair with a mixer -- let alone food -- but Genevieve Guy, chef/owner of Bistro Provence, has created a dinner menu in which absinthe is the star.
The idea was to celebrate National Absinthe Day on March 5, but Guy had so many recipe ideas that it was turned into a weeklong event at Bistro Provence. Through Friday, guests can order off a special menu that incorporates absinthe into every dish.
I ate at Bistro Provence on Monday evening and was able to try some of the unique items coming out of the kitchen. I admit I was skeptical, because I've had absinthe before, and I didn't recall being very fond of it. Guy's recipes make use of absinthe in the best possible way, though; rather than highlighting the spirit outright, it's used like one might use herbs or spices. It delicately flavors dishes, adding a hint of star anise and something vaguely foreign and mysterious. And thank goodness, nothing Guy created was green.
I started the meal with an escargot cassoulet that was less like the traditional cassoulets with white beans and more like a stew. Tender snails, carrots and chunks of sausage were swimming in an absinthe-scented broth that was neither overwhelming nor understated. It was alluring, because I couldn't quite put my finger on the various elements that comprised the broth. I dipped freshly baked French bread in it and finished the entire little pot.
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Next, I ordered the grouper à la nage, or grouper swimming in a broth. This broth brought out the fennel flavor of the absinthe by incorporating stewed fennel bulbs into the dish. Grouper is a hearty white fish, and it easily stood up to the strong broth and root vegetables surrounding it, whereas a fish like tilapia would not. The fish itself seemed to have been lightly salted, then pan-seared, giving it a wonderful crunchy crust that played nicely against the slightly sweet fennel and anise broth.
My dining companion ordered the rack of lamb flambéed with absinthe, which was also very good. We couldn't taste the spirit very much in that dish, but the delicate lamb lollipops and golden potato rounds made for a wonderful cold-weather meal.
For dessert, I had the absinthe crème brûlée, which was quite possibly my favorite dish of the evening. Absinthe and cream doesn't seem like a logical combination to me because the spirit is so herbal, but in this instance it worked wonderfully. The crème brûlée was prepared perfectly, with a thin layer of browned sugar on top that cracked when I first dug into it. The custard beneath it was slightly chilled, and tasted just enough like star anise to remind me that the green fairy had indeed had a hand in its preparation.