I did not tell Absinthe Bistro‘s proprietors that I had recently spent four months “studying” in Lyon, France. What’s more, I was careful not to reveal to them that that entire semester’s “study” had consisted truly of a lavish tour of the town’s endless cafes and patisseries, bouchons and brasseries. You see, my extended visitation of the culinary capital of Europe had more to do with ratatouille than with Rousseau, but I made sure not to explain these motivations to them. And finally, I concealed that each of these three-course meat-and-cheese-intensive feasts had been accompanied by some of the world’s finest wine (produced not a half hour away), had left me nearly comatose in sated glee as I tried to walk them off with my new, newly fattened friends along the Rhone river and which had immediately earned a nostalgic home in my budding gastronomic memory, where they linger still like the warm wafting aromas of croissants, saucissons and melting brie.
A bit much eh? Well, when it comes to French food— c’est la vie. A cuisine delicate and elegant as much as it is intricate and luxuriant.
Overcooked wistfulness notwithstanding, my time in France did teach me some crucial tenets of their famous food culture: The French pride themselves on the authenticity of experience. Thus, the ingredients must be fresh and of the highest quality and their preparation and presentation must exhibit the utmost care and flare and awareness. Also, the meal must be eaten over a prolonged period during which you drink, discuss, and delight in the company of friends and in the splendor of the multi-sensuous event.
The meal I had at Absinthe Bistro was exemplary. Living in Lyon, I became familiar with the little bistros they called ‘bouchons,’ and which are celebrated particularly for serving inexpensive three-course meals. They offer them at various fixed prices depending on the choices proposed. One simply forgoes the option of ordering a la carte and instead announces, “I will get the menu.” (‘Menu’ pronounced the French way, with emphasis on the ‘U’). This was how my meal at Absinthe was structured. So, as I saw it, a modicum of Frenchness was thereby upheld. And, that the hostess and co-owner Juliana Pearson publicized the weekly adjustment of this limited menu’s dishes vouched also for the food’s freshness. Legitimacy: check and check.
I began with a salmon tartare; France reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The buttery sweetness of the raw fish found a suitable colleague in the chives for which it played host. And it set the stage for the heavier hot dish that followed. I chose braised pork cheeks while my plus-one ordered the seared scallops, which, together with a beef bourguignon I intend to go back to try, fully comprised the main courses offered. They looked stunning: sophisticated, yet simple. Both the meat and the seafood were accompanied by a delectable mashed potato puree, unmarred by intrusive garlic, cheesiness or bits of bacon. There came a moment near the end of this course when I knew my only recourse would be to ask for more bread (that Juliana brought to us hot!) with which to mop up all the rich sauce and polish my plate.
The wine list was admirable and thoroughly French; my usual Pinot Noir lived up to its recent vogue. Our desserts were first-rate. The crème brûlée was both true to form and also starkly surprising. Its composition juxtaposed a sugary and glasslike roof with a warm and velvety interior and its size more than sufficed. How often is it just not enough! The chocolate lava cake, which was also tremendous, tempted me to ask the cook and Juliana’s husband, Cory, how he made sure the gorgeous chocolaty lava would ooze out so perfectly around the raspberries. Timing, as it turns out. “30 seconds too short and it’s a soggy mess, 30 seconds too long and it’s hard as a rock.”
The Pearsons opened Absinthe Bistro, their first restaurant, exactly one month ago. They run the little place with big hearts and expertise exceeding their seeming experience. My plus-one is a celiac, meaning she cannot swallow even a trace of wheat. Juliana, who was serving us, and Cory, cooking close by, were fiercely accommodating. And were it not for my plus one’s blushing insistence that Cory not do anything out of the ordinary, he would have whipped up every last morsel from scratch to ensure her meal would be gluten-free. At any rate, they found lots she could eat and we felt cared for.
Two beautiful chandeliers hang in the centre of the little bistro. They suggest a palatial sophistication one seeks but never finds outside of French dining. Ornate emblems of superior taste. Yet, does this kind of uncompromising refinement really work on Commercial Drive? There is often something unapproachable or exclusive about a fine French restaurant, something that would clash with our blithely welcoming Vancouver disposition. Perhaps by dint of its brightening big front window or its unassuming decor or its open kitchen design (it used to be a café), somehow Absinthe Bistro seems to eschew the potential snobberies of a fine French restaurant, despite the lovely chandeliers. Finally, located at 1260 Commercial Drive, Absinthe Bistro felt urbane, yet casual: The spirit for which we all strive in this pearly city.
One need not imbibe Absinthe’s eponymous elixir to envision something out-of-this-world.