L’Absinthe – That’s the Spirit

L’Absinthe
40 Chalcot Road
London NW1 8LS
Website
Map
Reservations: +44 (0)20 7483 4848

  • Starters from £5-9, Mains from £9-16, Desserts £5-6, plus at lunchtime from Tuesday-Friday, 2 courses are £9.50 and 3 courses are £12.50
  • For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal; you can also click on any of the images below for high-resolution versions of the images

L’Absinthe is a pleasant little bistrot on a lovely street in Primrose Hill. The simple food is executed well and is very reasonably priced. Their wine, which they also sell on a retail basis, is only marked up £10 when you order it during your meal, and they have a short but interesting selection to choose from. But the main thing about L’Absinthe is that their passion and joie de vivre shine through, and they have made it into the type of neighborhood restaurant you wished you had just around the corner from your home. I will certainly be returning.

Paris in Primrose

I am not sure why I’ve suddenly decided to review a pair of places in Primrose Hill – but alliteration aside, they are both worth it. My last review of Lanka, the cafe serving French pâtisserie with a Japanese twist, is about a five minute walk away from L’Absinthe, which is just off Regents Park Road (which functions as the High Street of the neighborhood).

L’Absinthe’s pleasant corner position on the street

Located on an attractive, wide intersection on Chalcot Road, L’Absinthe is a French bistrot-style restaurant and retail wine shop. It was set up in November 2007 by a group of Frenchmen, all with impressive backgrounds.

Some amusing shots of the bosses

The proprietor is Chef Jean-Christophe Slowik, and he worked in the front-of-house under Marco Pierre White for roughly 20 years at many of his well-known ventures. When Slowik decided to go solo, he enlisted help in the form of well-respected chef Christophe Favre, who has worked with Michel Rostang in France and also at the Bleeding Hart in London. At the Bleeding Hart, Christophe met Jean-Marc Charre, who was recruited to L’Absinthe’s front-of-house, along with Jena-Marc’s colleague Laurent Valentino. Laurent was running the floor on our visit, and he is one of the most pleasant hosts I’ve come across in London.

Upstairs dining space

The restaurant has both upstairs and downstairs dining rooms. Upstairs is light and airy, with a motif of green – presumably a reference to its namesake. There are a total of 30 covers, with one long rectangular communal table as you enter, a few shelves of wine, and then a number of simple wood tables on a slightly raised level, with a little window to the kitchen at the back. There is also terrace seating available outside – I believe about five tables – when the weather is nice enough to warrant it.

Downstairs dining space

The downstairs room was not open when we were there for our Saturday lunch, but seemed perfectly pleasant and houses another 34 covers. The bar also resides below, and there is direct access from the kitchen as well.

Making a meal of it

We had walked past the place earlier in the week, when it was unfortunately closed, and I recalled some foodie friends of mine going here about a year ago and saying it was good, so I made a mental note to keep it in mind next time we were in the area. That just happened to be a few days later, so we took another look at the menu posted outside and decided that the bistrot fare looked appetizing and reasonably priced, plus it looked like everyone there was having a good time.

Freshly Toasted Bread & Homemade Butter

Upon being seated, some bread was brought to our table to keep us occupied. It was of the basic sliced variety (which seemed store-bought, but I didn’t ask) and was freshly toasted for each table, a nice touch. The butter was particularly good, and it is homemade on the premises according to one of the waitresses.

Champagne Thiénot Brut NV

As I perused the wine list, I noticed that they seem to have a strong relationship with (or affinity for) the champagne house Thiénot, as the brand features on the cover of their wine list and also on the awning of the restaurant. Alain Thiénot is quite a well-regarded figure in the Champagne region, and also runs a number of other brands besides the one bearing his name, including Canard-Duchêne.

Check out that sparkling action & the branded crystal

I decided to sample a glass of the Thiénot Brut NV, which is the house champagne (£6.95), and thought it was very nice. It had a good citrus kick to it, without being overly harsh, and also displayed a pleasant creaminess and fairly elegant mousse. The bubbles did not seem particularly fine, but I thought it functioned well as a house champagne and was not overly expensive.

A funny and charming touch was that Laurent left the rest of the bottle on the table once he had poured my glass, and said nonchalantly that I could have the rest of it if I wanted (the bottle was more than half full). I think he was sort of serious and it was this warm and slightly cheeky attitude that helped to make it an enjoyable afternoon – it was as if we were already very old and loyal customers, when he’d only met us in the last ten minutes.

Hareng Mariné, Salade de Trevise aux Herbs

Mrs. LF opted to have two starters for her lunch. First up was the marinated herring (£4.95), which was certainly a generous portion and attractively presented. The marinade was good and not overly sweet or strong (we asked if it was marinated on the premises, and the waitress said it wasn’t), and the texture of the herring was pleasantly soft and firm enough. It worked very well with the slightly sour radicchio and herb salad, and was a very satisfying starter. 7/10.

Salade de Tomates & Onions de Printemps

The second half of Mrs. LF’s meal was a simple salad of tomatoes and spring onions (£5.25), which also came very prettily presented. The tomatoes were nice and sweet and the spring onions were very mild. What made the dish, and tied it all together, was the very good vinaigrette, which Mrs. LF said reminded her of France – in a good way. 7/10.

Chèvre Chaud, Salad Melangée, Vinaigrette au Miel

I ordered the goats cheese on toast with a honey dressing (£6.25) and really enjoyed it. I suppose it doesn’t get much simpler than this, but it was well executed and the produce itself was good. The ever-so-slight sourness and saltiness of the cheese was lifted by the light sweetness of the honey dressing and the vinaigrette added a nice streak of acidity, so everything was well balanced. I would order it again if I was in the mood for this kind of dish. 8/10.

Côte de Porc, Pommes Purée, Sauce aux Pruneaux

My pork chop with prune sauce (£10.95) was also plated up nicely. We noticed almost immediately that the crackling looked very crisp (always a good sign) and inferred that it was probably slow-cooked. The pork chop itself was well cooked, retaining enough moisture and having a nice clean flavor (it wasn’t overly ‘porky’ – even in the crackling, which can sometimes have too harsh of a taste for me). The prune sauce was a natural flavor combination, and this was very nicely carried out, with bits of the macerated prunes strewn throughout the purée, providing good texture.

Côte de Porc, Pommes Purée, Sauce aux Pruneaux (Crackling Side Facing)

As we had anticipated, the crackling was indeed very crispy (so much so I couldn’t cut it with my normal knife), and I really enjoyed it, as well as the dish as a whole. The only let-down on the plate was the mash, which tasted okay but was too dry and grainy – we expected more from the French kitchen as, when we dine in France, the mash tends to be more rich and creamy. I’m not saying I expect Robuchon standards everywhere. Well, yes I suppose I do actually – after all, it’s only potatoes, butter, milk/cream and seasoning whisked up to be very light and airy, and a French bistrot should be able to pull that off well. 7/10 (it would have been an 8/10 if a bit more effort had gone into the potatoes).

2006 Les Grimaudes, Vallée du Rhône

Laurent had recommended a glass of the 2006 Les Grimaudes (£4.95), a biodynamic wine from the Vallée du Rhône (Costières de Nîmes to be exact) to go with my pork chop. It is a blend of Grenache, Carrignan and Cinsault grapes and has a very small production of some 26,000 bottles per year. I thought was a lovely little table wine. It was less heavy than I expected it might be, and I thought the Grenache provided a nice fragrance and lightness to wine. It was just fruity enough, very fresh and had ripe and fairly supple tannins. Laurent also poured way more than a normal-size glass without a second thought – I was beginning to like this guy.

Also of note, and as I briefly mentioned earlier, is the fact that L’Absinthe has a dual function as a retail wine shop. They sell all of the wines on offer at retail price and simply charge a £10 corkage fee on all of the wines when you order them at the restaurant. There is a very interesting if short selection. It is French-focused, though there are offerings from elsewhere in the world – from Chile to Italy. It is a list made up of interesting producers, many of which I was not familiar with, which is always fun.

After the savory business was out of the way, we decided we still had a bit more room left for dessert, especially as we had spied one that we definitely liked the look of at another table.

Mousse au Chocolat Noir & Café

Mrs. LF’s chocolate and coffee mousse (£4.95) was very good, with the coffee flavor coming through just enough. It was rich as a result of the dark chocolate base, but this is the type of mousse I prefer as I often find chocolate mousses to be too lightweight to my taste. The shortbread served on the side was nice, and I enjoyed dunking it into the mousse, although Mrs. LF would never contaminate her mousse with foreign particles of any kind ;-). 7/10.

Crème Brûlée à l'Absinthe

I loved my dessert, which was the house crème brûlée (£5.50). The little spin here is that the custard is actually infused with a bit of the lethal absinthe spirit. I thought it was a stroke of genius as it had been injected very subtly but consistently throughout so that you detected just a little hint of anise in the background. It also created a gentle heat in the middle of the mouth, alluding to the power of this spirit, which Van Gogh and his drinking buddy Gaugin knew all too well. It was a highly satisfying and delicious dessert. Given the quite large portion, I am pleased to say I didn’t get bored of it either – often, I get sick of something which has the same consistency, texture and flavor throughout when there’s a lot of it – and enjoyed every last bite. (Oh, the carmelized crust was perfectly crispy as well). 9/10.

Espresso

I decided to finish off our lingering affair with a single espresso, courtesy of Musetti beans, which was very good.

Chocolate-covered Espresso Beans

A nice little touch was the fact that they served some chocolate-covered coffee beans (also Musetti) alongside the coffee. I always enjoy these, and even if it seems rather Italian to me (rather than French), it was appreciated.

Green with envy yet?

The bill, presented in that now-familiar green shade, came to a reasonable £58.05 including wine, service and VAT.

I’m glad we didn’t dine the night before!

As we exited, I was glad that we had decided to come for lunch and not for dinner the previous night (just check out that chalkboard)! 🙂

This could become a habit

We had a really enjoyable long lunch at L’Absinthe. The food was simple and tasty throughout (with a few memorable dishes and no sour notes), but what made it such a memorable afternoon was the atmosphere, service and spirit of the place. They clearly have passion and seem adept at the art of customer interaction – and it’s nice that this hasn’t been lost after being in business for well over two years now.

As we sat inside the little corner restaurant, it almost really felt like we weren’t in England anymore and had been transported to France. It had the same acoustics as a good bistrot and the feeling of a place to which you’d want to return. Mrs. LF said she was sure that this is the kind of place where regulars would be welcomed, recognized and rewarded by the staff, and I am sure if I lived in Primrose Hill, I would certainly be one of them. Luckily, we don’t live too far away, so I may still become one anyway.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10 (it was a particularly busy lunch period so things dragged a bit towards the end when we wanted to get the bill and go)

Food: 7/10

Wine: as mentioned previously, L’Absinthe has a dual function as a retail wine shop. They sell all of the wines on offer at retail price and simply charge a £10 corkage fee on all of the wines when you order them at the restaurant. There is a very interesting if rather short selection. It is French-focused, though there are offerings from elsewhere in the world – from Chile to Italy. It is a list made up of interesting producers, many of which I was not familiar with, which is always fun.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at L’Absinthe once, and it was for Saturday lunch.*

L'Absinthe on Urbanspoon

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Galvin at Windows – Flying High & Deservedly So

Galvin at Windows
The London Hilton
22 Park Lane, 28th Floor
London W1K 1BE
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Dinner: Menu Dégustation at £75, £110 or £130 (depending on wines & courses selected); Menu Prestige at £58 for 3 courses; or À La Carte Menu at £33 for 3 courses
  • Lunch: 2 courses at £19.50; 3 courses at £25; or 3 courses + ½ bottle of wine, water & coffee at £39.50 (through toptable) + Bar Lunch Express dishes for £4-12

Galvin at Windows seems to have achieved a winning combination. The views and setting are stunning, the menu consists of the kind of food you want to eat quite often, and it is executed precisely with a subtle flair. The food we had at our Sunday lunch was delicious and reasonably priced for this type of venue, and I am now eager to try out their other establishments.

Becoming Galvinized

It was the dead of winter, the afternoons were drawing yet shorter, and there I was, still a veritable Galvin virgin. I thought to myself, I must be one of the only self-appointed ‘foodies’  in London who has not yet frequented one of the (then) two Galvin Brothers establishments in the London fog (they have since added the much-lauded and doted over Galvin La Chapelle and offshoot Cafe de Luxe in the City). So, when I discovered after a bit of research that you could get a 3-course lunch at their highest-flying venue for a mere £25/person – even on a Sunday – I decided I that I would finally lose my Galvinity and treat Mrs. LF to what I hoped would be a nice lunch with stunning views.

Perched atop the London Hilton hotel, with a commanding view of a good deal of London, lays Galvin at Windows. I had heard many good things from various friends and food bloggers, so the bar had been set pretty, erm, ‘high’. Upon taking the lift up to the top floor and soaking in the restaurant (and peeping into the nice and spacious bar), first impressions were certainly good. This place didn’t exude much of the cookie-cutter, drab ho-humness that is the global Hilton brand, but actually seemed to radiate with its own design, ambience and energy. The greeting was smooth and the waiters were friendly and professional.

Our beautiful sun bathed table overlooking Park Lane

Although we didn’t get a table right by the window, as I had requested through my toptable booking, we were given a lovely table on the lower floor that looked Northwest up Park Lane and beyond. There is also a raised rectangular dining area that stands about 4 or 5 feet above the ground-level tables. It was not that busy, probably due to the fact that our reservation was for 2pm.

These bros can cook

As we soaked in the view, our tummies were growing hungrier by the minute, so we quickly made up our minds, although all the 3 options for each of the courses did sound very appetizing.

Assortment of breads

With our starters and main courses selected, we were provided with two types of bread and a lovely little beehive of butter, all of which were fine but not stellar. 6/10.

Le Beurre et Le Mâcon Villages – how very French

As I was mainly having veggies and fish, I wanted to go for a white wine (Mrs. LF was not drinking as per usual since ‘the bump’ had appeared :)). I was looking at the wines by the glass, but the sommelier persuaded me that their other deal (3 courses, half a bottle of wine, water & coffee at £39.50) would probably be more economical and enjoyable, and that they had some very nice wines on the accompanying half-bottle selection. Like The Dude I am, I abided, and chose the 2008 Mâcon Villages Caves de L’aurore (Burgundy), which served its purpose very nicely throughout the first two courses. It had a nice golden color, a subtle nose of tropical fruit and a nicely integrated touch of oak. I’ve seen this on other restaurant lists for about £15 per half-bottle, so it was a decent deal given that the water and coffee were basically thrown in for free.

Starter 1: Slow Cooked Hens’ Egg, Warm Salad of Charlotte Potatoes & Smoked Haddock, Whole Grain Mustard Beurre Blanc

Simply put, my starter of slow cooked hens’ egg was as beautiful to look at as it was to taste. Everything here worked well together. When split, the egg yolk that oozed out was of a good thickness and orangey-golden hue. The sea of mustard beurre blanc was a perfect surface for the potatoes and haddock to float upon. The sauce itself was delicious – in fact, I spooned up a good deal of it on its own – and the potatoes were just warm, still firm and exhibited a note of sweetness. The taste of the smoked fish was not overpowering as not too much had been added, and as it all mingled together joyfully in my mouth I had the feeling that this was going to be a good meal. It was certainly an excellent beginning. 8/10.

Starter 2: Ravioli of Braised Beef Short Rib, Roast Red Onion Fondant, Horseradish Velouté

I thought that Mrs. LF’s was also presented in a beautiful and simple manner. Here’s what she thought: “The braised beef short rib inside the ravioli was moist and tender and the ravioli was not too filled (compared to the one I had in the York & Albany earlier in the year). The foam, or velouté, was exquisite: it kind of looked like a cream velouté and almost tasted like so, but was in fact horseradish. This was delicious and very innovative as it was a fusion of Italian and British cuisine.” 8/10.

Main Course 1: Fillet of Royal Bream, Gnocchi, Shellfish & Trompette

Okay, here was the deal-sealer. These boys can cook. Well, it is actually Head Chef André Garret presiding at Windows, but I am sure you get what I mean. This was a pretty flawless bit of cooking. Like my starter, it may not have been the most inventive or complex dish in the world, but it is the kind of thing I like to eat, and could do so quite often. The fish had been cooked to textbook perfection, still moist and soft yet adequately firm with a crispy skin. But, in a way, the real star here was the shellfish sauce, which was truly delectable. Its saltiness and sea flavors played off brilliantly against the slightly sweet and mild flavor of the Gilthead (‘Royal’) Bream. The mushrooms also worked well and the creaminess of the sauce admirably tied the whole dish together. Another 8/10 for me.

Main Course 2: Risotto of Butternut Squash, Sage & Mozzarella

It had become quite bright in the airy dining room, and it turned out that none of the pictures of Mrs. LF’s main course really did it justice. It was a nice looking…risotto. Yes, risotto, an Italian dish if I ever saw one. And I was a little puzzled at what this and the earlier ravioli were doing at this very Anglo-French-seeming restaurant. But nonetheless, this is what the good lady ordered, so was it any good?

Mrs. LF recalls that, “The risotto was cooked perfectly, and the smooth taste of the butternut squash worked well, making the risotto creamy and unctuous – as it should be – although I would have liked some kind of kick coming from one of the remaining ingredients, in order to open my appetite and make me want to go back to the dish after each bite. The taste of the sage didn’t do it for me, but maybe that’s because I am sensitive to strong aroma at the moment (being pregnant). I didn’t taste the mozzarella that was listed on the menu description, but noticed and tasted some shaved parmesan in its place.” 6.5/10.

Shared Dessert: Hot Chocolate Fondant, Salted Caramel, Praline Ice Cream & Hazelnut

In the end, Mrs. LF decided to opt-out of dessert (so her 2-course lunch cost £19.50), and I eventually and reluctantly succeeded to sharing my dessert with her. I really wished we had both got our own portion of this though. After waiting for a long time, one of the waiters informed us that the kitchen had messed up the fondant and was making a new one from scratch – this was annoying but their honesty was appreciated. When it did arrive, it was pretty much the perfect chocolate fondant. A moist dark chocolate cake encased the hot chocolate which gently leached out from its shell upon being broken by my fork. The combination of salty caramel, praline and warm chocolate was divine and I truly enjoyed devouring this little piece of edible beauty. 9/10.

Petit Fours from L’Artisan du Chocolat

After all of the aforementioned lusciousness, I decided I definitely needed a coffee, and then realized that it was conveniently included in my upgraded lunch package. It was a high quality black filter coffee, and the petit fours consisted of two chocolates and two truffles from L’Artisan du Chocolat, which was a nice treat. We have had the pleasure of exploring their range thanks to my parent’s holiday gifts over the past two years, and these didn’t disappoint. I also noted the fact that they provided two of each, so that Mrs. LF could have one even though she hadn’t ordered tea or coffee.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

After relaxing for a bit more, we asked for the bill, and were pleasantly surprised when a glass jar of big, fluffy pink and yellow marshmallows were offered to us as well. They were really good and left us with a well-deserved sweet memory of our meal.

One down, three to go

We looped around the dining room on our way out and had a look at the fun fair down below, and really were on Cloud 9 at this point.

On top of the world – well, London at least!

It had been a smooth, leisurely, pleasant and delicious lunch. Service throughout had been attentive, thoughtful, friendly and efficient. The views and the setting were fairly unique for London and the prices were reasonable within this context. I don’t think I need to say it again, but the food was of a very high calibre: each dish was technically well-cooked and had the added bonus of delicious, tried and tested flavor combinations that we certainly both enjoyed. I can understand why they have just been elevated to 1 Michelin star status in the 2010 UK guide (they didn’t yet hold the star when we dined there).

I am now eager to try their less formal Marylebone Bistrot de Luxe and am meant to be hitting Galvin La Chapelle with some other food bloggers in about a month’s time. I just hope that Jeff and Chris Galvin heed the warning signs of other British chefs who have grown too fast and too furiously in recent years and are now paying the price. In Windows, they definitely seem to have found a winning combination. I hope their other restaurants do the same and that they keep their enterprise manageable and consistently infused with their obvious skill, know-how and cooking ability.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: a nice selection of half bottles for the 3-course lunch deal; I didn’t check out the larger list in too much detail

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Galvin at Windows once, and it was for Sunday lunch.*

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