I would not have said “no” to one more slice of duck. Four thin slabs didn’t seem quite enough. Especially when the bird is so good. This was duck (from Mariposa Farm) on a lunch salad at Absinthe. It came with other good things – crisp spears of asparagus in a lemon-thyme vinaigrette, soft marbles of superior goat cheese, heirloom tomatoes of wait-all-year-for-it flavour, a hillock of dressed up baby arugula. It was a deeply satisfying plate of good things. My itch for more of those slices came from pure greed, and from knowing that duck is rarely done so well – the skin crisp and well seasoned, the fat rendered to a thin layer for flavour and textural balance, and the flesh itself rosy pink and succulent. I longed for more.
Absinthe chef Patrick Garland is the man behind the duck. His restaurant is now in its fourth year, feet firmly planted in its “new” location on Wellington Street, still offering a bistro formula of ever-changing market cuisine.
I had reviewed this place when the paint was still fresh, the Absinthe-green wall behind the bar barely dry. That was in 2007. This July, a driving rain forced me inside one afternoon around lunchtime, and duck seemed about right for a soggy day.
I returned for a very good dinner. It began well with an amuse-bouche shot of gazpacho, perfumed with basil, further chilled with a wee ball of cucumber sorbet, zinged with balsamic and sweetened with honey. A delightful gift on a hot summer night. And then a couple of prettily presented “trios” wherein the only missteps of the evening were sighted. The first was asparagus three ways – a little grilled goat cheese and asparagus sandwich (fine), a cold asparagus soup (very fine) and then a ho-hum asparagus salad in a somewhat soggy cheddar cheese “bowl.” In the seafood sampler, a bass “pogo” was tasty but far too greasy. Better was the crab cake served with a chipotle relish and plopped on a refreshing mango salsa. Best of all, the albacore tuna taco, which was fresh, light and full of flavour.
With the three-course table d’hÃ´te came a middle course of soup or salad. But not just any tossed-off soup or salad course. Here was a delightful chilled soup of carrot and fresh pea, heady with five-spice powder, and the romaine salad (a Caesar of sorts) was first-rate – bouncy leaves in a commanding lemon garlic dressing, the good house bread fashioned into crisps, and on top of the mound, excellent pancetta bacon.
On a daily menu, the steak frites appears to be the one constant. A hanger (or skirt) steak, marinated in something that darkens and tenderizes it, then grilled to medium rare, arrived in thick ruby slabs that delivered crunch and juice and chew in pleasing balance. The steak came with excellent fries, a horseradish mayonnaise and summer-fresh snap peas. It takes a bit of courage to offer a still little-known cut of meat as your house steak, and insist it be ordered no more cooked than medium rare, but Absinthe shows us how it’s done, and it’s little wonder this is a signature dish.
Micro greens were more than a pretty topping on the ravioli stuffed with ricotta and goat cheese. They added peppery, bitter notes – a pleasing, contrasting chomp to the tender pasta pockets with their soft, mild filling and the sweet vegetable ragout beneath.
In keeping with the trio theme, we ordered a sample of the house-made ice creams. They were all good, the dark chocolate divine. Kudos too for the lemon tart with lemon and raspberry sorbets, and the classic crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e.
Service has been a lovely balance of friendliness and professionalism.
Absinthe is maturing very well.