May 10, 2009
Absinthe's menu has a comforting familiarity but adventure lies in the fiery spirit it is named after
By Wong Ah Yoke
After all the fancy cooking at the World Gourmet Summit which ended a week ago, dinner at Absinthe last week was a return to basics. And it was a wonderful feeling.
There was not a hint of foam on the menu. Instead, it was good, honest French cooking where the focus was rightly on flavour and quality rather than gimmicks.
Absinthe, which opened at the end of last year, is co-owned by chef Francois Mermilliod and restaurant manager Philippe Pau together with Stephane Colleoni and Diego Chiarini from Oso Italian restaurant next door.
The place is not big but it is charming, with a warm brown colour scheme and a long window on one side that lets diners watch the action in the kitchen.
Service is led by the affable Pau, a veteran in the restaurant scene here whom I first met at the now-defunct L'Aigle d'Or restaurant in the former Duxton Hotel in the 1990s.
And in the kitchen is the talented Mermilliod, who has also worked in Singapore since the 1990s in restaurants such as Au Petit Salut, Duo and Flutes at the Fort.
His menu for Absinthe is traditional French using popular premium ingredients such as Black Angus beef and Kurobuta pork.
But even with humbler ingredients, his insistence on flavour is evident.
For example, one of my favourite appetisers is the roasted tomato tart tatin ($19). It is very simple, comprising a plump tomato on a layer of puff pastry but the juicy fruit - sweet and tart with a hint of smokiness - is so delicious. Served with shallot confit and a small salad with bits of feta cheese, it makes a dish that is bursting with different strong flavours.
For something less healthy but just as quintessentially French, the pan-fried foie gras with warm blinis and wild hibiscus flower compote ($28) is also worth trying. The novelty here is the hibiscus compote, which turns out to be less exotic than it sounds. It has a bit of sourness which goes well with the rich liver but does not boast any dominant flavour.
The bouillabaisse ($38) here is listed among the main courses, but you can also ask to have it split into two servings as a soup course. That way, you can squeeze in one more main dish.
The stock is robust with a bisque-like richness and made a bit more spirited with a dash of absinthe. Sitting in it are pieces of white fish and a succulent prawn. Saffron aioli and croutons are served on the side.
Absinthe, a spirit made with wormwood and aniseed, is highly alcoholic and was once thought to have harmful addictive effects. In fact, it was banned in the United States and many European countries in the early 20th century.
But now, it is known that those effects were grossly exaggerated and the drink is easily available again. In fact, you can order a glass of it at Absinthe. It has a pleasant liquorice-like flavour although it reminds some people of cough mixture.
To return to the food, main courses here are heavy on roasts. The serving of roasted duck with creamy porcini polenta ($38) is very generous, with half the bird on the plate. It appears to have been slow-cooked before being roasted as the meat is very tender under the sheet of crispy skin.
It also seems to be a young bird as the flavour is mild, which may appeal to those who do not like the characteristic gamey flavour of duck. I, however, like it more robust.
The menu lists a rack of Kurobuta pork but off the menu is a slow-cooked Kurobuta pork belly ($28) that just cannot be ignored. As expected, it is rich with flavourful fat that moistens the meat most deliciously. It is heavy though, so share the goodness around the table.
Among the desserts, I am totally besotted with the warm plum clafoutis with almond ice cream ($13). The clafoutis is a moist and soft pastry which is like a cross between a custard and a cake, and is studded with chunks of fruit.
Whether eaten on its own or with the ice cream, it is comforting and makes the perfect finale to a perfect meal.
Warm plum clafoutis ($13)
The soft, moist pastry provides a satisfying finale.
46 Bukit Pasoh Road, tel: 6327-8178
Open: Noon to 2.30pm (Mondays to Fridays), 6.30 to 10.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays). Closed on Sundays
Price: Budget about $80 per person without drinks