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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Talking (& Eating) Turkey with Marco Pierre White

My first year is over, and a new one just begun

My first blogiversary

This week, Laissez Fare is one year old. When I first started the blog, I was already certainly a bit of a restaurant geek, but boy has that increased since I entered the world of food blogging and social media (well, twitter mostly). In the last 52 weeks, I have met many new friends, some of which remain virtual, but many of which have evolved into true and enjoyable real-life relationships. I have also broadened and honed my knowledge of food, wine and restaurants over the same period as the discipline of snapping and scribbling about my gustatory journeys has forced me to analyze and discern more about whatever it is I am eating or drinking, and the atmosphere and style in which it is presented.

I suppose my biggest embarrassment in the area of food is that although I perpetually pontificate about food (and occasionally wine), I am scarcely able to cook the most basic and humblest of meals myself. I would be the first to admit that it is a sad state of affairs when a (granted, self-proclaimed) food critic can’t even cook in his or her own right. But luckily my blog has begun to change that as well. ‘Year Two’ will be the year that Laissez learned to cook. So I look forward to keeping you informed about my progress in the kitchen, and any related nightmares.

Before I move on to the main part of this post (which incidentally is partly about me cooking), I would like to thank you for your interest and support over the last year. I hope you continue to find reason to return to my blog and that it keeps evolving into something better with each post. Thus, if you have any suggestions on how it can be improved, I am always open to ideas. I would like to thank Mrs. LF for helping me – indeed, she reads everything I write and contributes her own content on most posts – as without her fine(r) palate and judgement, the insights provided would not be nearly as interesting.

Before this turns into an Oscars acceptance speech, it just occurred to me that I would have never dreamed about sitting down and having lunch with Marco Pierre White a year ago when I was watching him grimace menacingly at a group of celebrities who revered him as a God as they attempted to learn how to cook in a professional atmosphere. But thanks to blogging, these kinds of experiences are happening more and more often. I am continually excited and inspired by learning more about food and wine, and the people who create it (of course, Marco would note that “Mother Nature is the true artist,” his favorite refrain), and I look forward to developing my knowledge, palate and horizons further in the coming year.

Stamford bridging

As many readers will know, Marco Pierre White was appointed the brand ambassador of Bernard Matthews Farms Ltd, a British farming business specializing in the farming of turkeys, in March of this year. Rightly or wrongly (and most food bloggers would say rightly), Marco has been criticized for ‘selling out’, as since retiring from the professional kitchen 10 years ago he has been using his name to support things which many foodies might deem down-market and even undesirable for a chef of his stature, including Knorr stock cubes and Bernard Matthews itself, which has had a series of high-profile issues in relation to the health of its birds and how humanely they’ve been treated, not to mention the fact that until 2005 they were the makers of Turkey Twizzlers, which were very publicly chastised by Jamie Oliver in his Jamie’s School Dinners television series.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the PR people behind the launch of a new campaign that is being sponsored by Bernard Matthews, in conjunction with Marco Pierre White, which is aimed at getting British people to eat turkey more than once a year at Christmas time. Matter-of-factly called ‘Change Your Meat Not Your Menu’, the campaign is aimed at inspiring all cooks, and in particular mothers, to begin using turkey in their weekly meal plans. They argue that “Turkey is high in protein and a great alternative to other meats. It’s versatile, tasty and perfect for everyday meals, and turkey breast meat is also low in saturated fat.” The campaign is also supported by Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a well-known nutritionist, and Rebecca Romera, an Olympic gold medallist in rowing.

The campaign’s logo & slightly laborious URL

They cite a recent survey showing that turkey can easily be substituted in eight of the UK’s favorite meals, and as such have come up with eight recipes for these classic dishes that Moms typically make, with the only difference being that the original meat is substituted with turkey. Thus, using spaghetti bolognese as an example, by simply switching from beef to turkey mince, you could reduce your saturated fat intake by up to two-thirds (11g) per portion. There is a well-researched and detailed saturated fat calculator on the site, as well as recipes focused on ‘slimming’ and ‘leftovers’. But most interestingly, Marco has created four recipes himself, all based on simple ways of preparing turkey steaks and bringing out their natural flavor.

Of course, this is simply a new front in the recently re-branded Bernard Matthews marketing machine, and it is designed to sell more turkey. That said, I have always wondered why British people don’t eat more turkey than they do. Possibly it’s because the one time most people have it each year, it tends to be overcooked and therefore dry and rather lacking in flavor? I really don’t know, and as Marco points out, “Turkey has more flavor and more texture than chicken…and while consumers traditionally roast turkey there are many other ways to prepare this majestically delicious bird.” I remember from growing up in the US that we Americans consume turkey in a multitude of guises. In the States, you can get turkey burgers in most diners and turkey cold cuts are a staple inside deli sandwiches and childrens’ lunchboxes, not to mention its regular appearance in casseroles and, of course, at Thanksgiving.

In any case, I was invited to head down to Marco restaurant inside hallowed grounds of Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge complex, to have lunch with the big man and sample the turkey dishes he’d come up with for the campaign.

Behind the gray facade, the restaurant’s namesake was ready & waiting

After being given a tour of the new campaign website and speaking to the experts on hand, we were eventually whisked off to a large round table in the center of the quite swish dining room, and Marco emerged from the kitchen just like he does on television: ridiculously large knife and constant wiping of it (check), slightly menacing blank stare (check), black and white checkered shemagh on top of head (check). After staking out the table of journalists and food writers sat in front of him, Marco’s presenting persona (i.e. the one you see in his TV programs) gradually began to recede into the background and the real Marco stepped forward.

Marco cooks

After trotting back into the kitchen to finish preparing the dishes, Marco reappeared baring gifts of an aquidaen nature.

Marco’s Turkeys on Horseback

The first dish he brought out was a plate chock full of what he called turkeys on horseback, a throwback to 70’s canapés, except these were made with turkey breast, of course. I have to say they were very delicious, although the turkey flavor was slightly muted by the salty streaky bacon and sweet prune and mango chutney.

As he took a few questions from around the table, Marco visibly became animated and very passionate, not only about turkey, but also about food and cooking in general. A light had been switched on (which shone through his eyes), and it was suddenly clear for anyone in doubt that we were in the presence of a true master. A simple question about which herbs and spices would go well with turkey (a few of his answers were sage and thyme for more a more traditional spin, or ginger and coriander if you wanted to open the route to Asia) led to discussions of all kinds of food-related topics.

Subjects discussed included how to perfectly poach an egg, and why it sometimes goes all wrong at home (the main points were that you need a very deep pot and should use vinegar); why people have different palates (in his opinion, the palate is formed through childhood flavor experiences, hence this is why he believes that British people from his generation have quite simple tastes); and more technical discussions, such as the perfect temperature to cook turkey steaks (he said it depended on the oven, but cooking it slowly in the mid-60’s [centigrade] with some kind of crust on top would help to keep it moist). Some of the things that stuck in my head were hearing him talk about how he is “more interested in the technical side of gastronomy” (indeed, he seemed to have an almost Blumenthal-like approach to solving problems such as retaining moisture in meat) and that “it’s all about the ingredients, not just making it look pretty.”

Along these lines, the simple recipes he has constructed are designed to show off the turkey to the best effect and to complement and lift it, rather than cover its inherently robust flavor. It was clear that getting back in the kitchen to invent new dishes (even if they all focus on turkey) had re-energized the man and he practically danced back to the kitchen to bring out the next dish.

Soon, Marco brought out a very large turkey steak topped with a thin walnut crust. Besides walnuts, the crust included Gruyere, breadcrumbs a bit of butter. It was amazing how he had managed to preserve the moistness of the turkey (one of the key functions of the topping), and the cheesy and nutty flavors indeed complemented the lovely natural flavor of the turkey.

Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Genuinely excited that the table had liked this first turkey steak dish, Marco dashed back to the kitchen to fetch some more grub. Next up was a reinvention of another classic, and a favorite comfort food of mine, Welsh Rarebit. The catch here was that instead of a base of toasted bread, a large turkey steak was used. As with the last dish, he sliced up the large turkey breast with that mahoosive chef’s knife and used the knife to deliver a small piece of the turkey onto everyone’s plate (no, we weren’t scared one bit). He was patient and the consummate host as he got our feedback (everyone loved it) and discussed the topic of turkey further.

After the rarebit, a similar dish of turkey napolitana (which had a crust of tomato purée, mozzarella, chopped black olives and basil leaves) was served in the same edgy manner, and while good, it wasn’t as tasty as the rarebit was to my own palate.

Marco’s Turkey Steak with Sage & Onion Stuffing

Last up in the turkey breast parade was one topped with sage and onion stuffing, which did remind me of a Christmas or Thanksgiving meal – more familiar but still ever so moist and flavorful.

Marco’s experimental roast turkey joint

After what we thought was the last dish, Marco brought out a magnificent, glistening specimen. If someone wouldn’t have told us what meat it was, we could have been forgiven for thinking it was something else (pork, maybe), but it was indeed a turkey joint, with the bone left in. He had been slow-roasting it and it had the most amazing golden glazing on the outside. He had cleverly stuffed it just under the skin with a simple concoction of sage and onion, and he carved it into individual portions and served it to us himself. This was a real honor, and I couldn’t believe how it tasted…almost like a well-roasted lamb, it was moist and had bags of flavor. My mother does a very nice roasted turkey, but it certainly couldn’t hold a candle to this (sorry Mom). Marco had also prepared his own gravy, which he kept jokingly calling “Bernard Matthews’ World Famous Gravy” as there was a company representative present at the table, which was spot on as well. No, it’s not for sale (yet).

Well, after being saturated with meat that was low in saturated fat, I was completely full. Luckily, I happened to be sitting next to Marco, and we had a short and highly enjoyable conversation about – big surprise – food. After discovering I hailed from the Pacific Northwest, he got very excited and proceeded to tell me about a supperclub he had gone to in Seattle, Washington which he was completely enamoured with, as the farmer who reared the meat they were eating was present at the dinner and introduced the dishes that included his meat himself. In general, he has quite a cynical view of the current state of food in the UK (“…it’s all about celebrity chefs here”), whereas he has found that in the US “…people are generally more passionate about the food itself.”

After wrapping up our little conversation, I headed for the hills (well, the West End) and decided that my next task would be to try and recreate one of his turkey recipes at home later that week. After all, they were intended to be simple and easily replicable by the amateur home cook, so I figured if I could make it taste good, anyone could!

Laissez cooks

The next weekend, I decided I would try the Turkey Welsh Rarebit recipe (as Mrs. LF and I both like Welsh Rarebit on toast) and we headed to the supermarket in search of some turkey breast steaks. I couldn’t find any Bernard Matthews ones (Oliver Thring had kindly reminded me that I should try to use their turkey to make it more ‘authentic’), so I bought the only ones on hand, which happened to be organic and free range, so probably all the better.

The recipe card for Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Back home, I went through the recipe and gave Mrs. LF strict instructions not to interfere, although she did pace about the kitchen to make sure I didn’t do anything totally stupid. I thought I did pretty well overall, except for getting a bit too uptight about ensuring the uncooked crusts were perfectly moulded and covered the turkey breasts evenly and completely (I am still way too anal in the kitchen, and Mrs. LF can’t stand it!). I was a bit worried about how they would turn out, as of course I wanted them to look just like the beautiful picture on the recipe card!

My version of Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Well, it didn’t look quite like the image on the card, but I think they turned out quite nicely (no?). Mrs. LF also taught me how to prepare a good vinaigrette for our accompanying salad (see, I really am an amateur).

I am pleased to say that they tasted d*mn good! While they weren’t quite as moist as Marco’s breasts (ah-hem…), the flavor was just about the same and, most importantly, Mrs. LF was really impressed.

So there you go, a relatively healthy, easy and quick recipe for your weekday dinner!

And thank you for bearing with me on my first paltry poultry post. 🙂

*Note: many thanks to the team at Clarion for organizing the event*