L'Absinthe, 40 Chalcot Road, London NW1
Primrose Hill's L'Absinthe is teaching flexible locals the French bistro method of beating stress
Sunday 03 February 2008
All the clichés are present and correct: French onion soup, cassoulet, blackboard menu, flickering candles, belle époque posters, dark bistro chairs and ebullient French host.
I love clichés, because clichés don't become clichés unless they're doing something right in the first place. And there is a lot that is right with the familiar, time-honoured characteristics of the neighbourhood French bistro.
The first thing you see and hear at L'Absinthe is the tall, jeans-clad proprietor, Jean-Christophe Slowik, booming out a welcome as if he has seen you a million times before. Mind you, had you been a regular at Harvey's, The Oak Room, Quo Vadis, Criterion, The Belvedere, Parisienne Chophouse, Chez Max or Frankie's Bar and Grill, he probably has. For 20 years, Slowik was a lieutenant in Marco Pierre White's massed culinary forces, which is the equivalent to 100 years in any other restaurant group.
Last November, he decided to go it alone, opening this charmingly cramped, decidedly neighbourly corner wine shop and bistro, and engaging the services of well-regarded chef Christophe Favre. After just two months, the place is full every night with a good-looking, high-income thespian/agent Primrose Hill crowd who, until now, probably spent all their free time at the nearby Triyoga centre doing Pilates.
L'Absinthe is proof that food is therapy, too. With its leeks vinaigrette, moules marinières, steak frites and crème brûlée, the whole place is a warm bath for bistro-lovers, and JC, as he is known, makes it very easy to just lie back and enjoy it. Both the blackboard specials and menu are written in English and French ("I like to have spelling mistakes in both languages," he laughs), and the prices are a soothing massage for the pound-pummelled.
Served in a white bowl the size of a hand-basin, a Lyonnais salad (£4.95) is gutsy, big-hearted and straightforward – a massive retox of chunky, smoky bacon lardons, perky friseé lettuce and good crisp croutons, bathed in a suitably sharp vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg. Leeks vinaigrette (£4.95) are equally simple, the stumps of sweet leek contrasting with another zingy dressing, a runny poached egg and a minuscule dice of carrot.
Every wine on the compact, personal, all-French selection is listed with its bottle-shop price plus a corkage charge of either £6, £8, or £10. It's a great deal, putting my earthy, spicy Domaine Jean-Marc Pillot Bourgogne 2005 at just £19.50 (the same wine is listed for £39.50 at Marco Pierre White's Yew Tree Inn).
The cassoulet is another super-bowl, of white beans, garlicky Toulouse sausages, tender lamb and a few porky pieces, correctly topped with a golden crust of crumbs, all for £9.50. It's good, but for me, any cassoulet without a chunk of confit goose or duck is just sausage and beans.
Steak frites (£13.50) is a decent, lightly crusty Aberdeen Angus ribeye from Donald Russell, served rare as requested, with hand-cut working man's chips, a well-dressed oak leaf salad and a bowl of béarnaise sauce, which needs more bite.
An apple tarte Tatin (£4.15) transcends mere goodness and goes all the way to greatness, the Cox's Orange Pippins transformed into honeyed lobes of sweetness in crisp pastry, and served with a vestige of heat from the baking, not bunged in a microwave and turned into steamy sogginess. An all-French cheese course (£5.50) includes a splodge of gooey, spreading Vacherin served in a big spoon.
So it's not actually full of clichés after all, because this sort of exceptional value for good produce, skilled cooking and warm service is not, sadly, something with which we are overly familiar. And I do love that Primrose Hill is discovering something that de-stresses even more than two hours of craniosacral therapy.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
L'Absinthe, 40 Chalcot Road, London NW1, tel: 020 7483 4848. Lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Sunday. Around £75 for two, including wine and service
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat
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