(Austin, TX) — During most of our vacation in Austin, we’ve sampled regional fare like barbecue, down home dishes, and Asian cuisine with Texas flair. Now, though, our taste for French cooking takes over and we have absinthe to thank. Péché is an absinthe bar with an extensive menu that changes daily, located just two blocks south of the ribald activities taking place on Austin’s legendary 6th street. We walk to the restaurant on Saturday night, passing groups of young revelers headed in the other direction, until we spy the warm, inviting entrance to our dinner venue...

He Fed:

We have 7p reservations and the restaurant is pretty empty. I really dig the dark, ornate wood furnishings and New Orleans vibe of the chandeliers. Shelf upon shelf of liquor frame the back of the bar, while overhead are different types of absinthe dispensers of all shapes and sizes. The hostess takes us to our table, where we squint at the menus until our eyes can adjust to the dimness. It’s fine, though; we don’t have any plans afterward, and want to take it slow tonight.

I am determined to try some absinthe. I’ve had it in past, but usually only as a flavoring agent. For instance, at Bruce Sherman’s North Pond, I had my first taste in a champagne cocktail, when they’d just swish it in the flute, pour it out, then add the bubbly. My heart quails at the astronomical pure absinthe ABV levels, though, so I steer toward a cocktail instead: Death in the Afternoon. I mean, what self-respecting writer wouldn’t order the cocktail that Ernest Hemingway invented? It contains just absinthe and champagne, about a 1-to-5 ratio, respectively, chilled slightly in a martini shaker and poured into a chalice. It’s sweet, sparkly, and redolent of licorice. I like anise flavors, ordinarily, but this pushes my boundaries. I know I’ll only have this one cocktail, and I will be sipping it slowly.

I have a tough time walking into a French eatery and not ordering escargot, if it’s on the menu (and it almost always is). Here, there are two options: the bar menu just shows escargots with garlic butter, and the daily menu shows escargots a la Bourguignon with roasted marrow bones. I’m not down with the marrow tonight, though I do ask our server about the difference between the two preparations. Turns out, there isn’t any. It’s just $6 more for the marrow bone. Otherwise, it’s a plate of buttery toasted crostini and a small herb salad, drizzled with butter sauce. The snails are tender and not at all chewy, just how I like them. It’s a rich dish, though, so I have to leave a few of the little guys on the plate else surrender my main course.

It’s an evening for traditional fare, evidently, as I gravitate to another classic offering: steak frites. The beef comes medium rare, already sliced, oozing onto a bed of wilted spinach and accompanied with starchy fries that are so orange I mistake them for sweet potatoes. It also comes with absinthe steak sauce which I mistake for ketchup at first. I dip fry after fry into the addictively sweet sauce and by the time I realize my error, I haven’t saved any for the steak! No regrets, though. It’s wondrous on the fries. As for the beef, it’s just a little leaner and drier than I’d prefer. Beautifully prepared, but I got the distinct impression it may have lost some juices after being sliced.

By now, we’re winding down yet I’m craving something sweet to finish the meal. Juliet orders her customary cappuccino, too stuffed to entertain the thought of creme brulee or grapefruit panna cotta. I select a double espresso, knowing that I’ll need a sugary foil for the bitter coffee. Luckily, the daily menu has just the right thing: Pure Luck Chevre Cheesecake. It’s a cheesecake made with goat cheese from nearby artisanal farm and dairy, Pure Luck, located just outside Austin in Barton Creek (where we’d spent the first half of our vacation!). On top is poured a honey caramel sauce and toasted almonds. I love a thick, dense cheesecake and this hits all the right notes. Tangy, earthy, and just the right amount of sweetness. Even Juliet can’t resist a single forkful. I demolish the rest and wash it down with the espresso.

By now, the restaurant has filled up. The bar is hopping with intrepid absinthe-lovers, and nearby tables have suddenly found population. We squeeze out of our seats after paying the bill and disappear into the night, content with fresh air and a short walk back to our hotel.
She Fed:

Péché is a short one mile walk from our hotel. We arrive early enough in the evening to find it only partially full, so we’re seated immediately. The interior is warm and cozy, though it's a pretty large space. Something about it reminds me of a few eateries we visited in Paris. Our server, Amanda, is cordial and prompt, knowing just when to sidle up to the table if we need something.

We decide to start with absinthe cocktails, since absinthe is prominently featured throughout the menu. In addition to using it as an ingredient in a few dishes, there’s 15 types of absinthe listed on the bar menu. I choose “Tru Blood”; it’s simply champagne and absinthe rouge. Very similar to an absinthe concoction popularized by Ernest Hemingway, who was known to be fond of absinthe. It is said Hemingway recommended drinking several of these slowly throughout the course of an afternoon. Despite it’s deep red color, it’s exactly what I’d expect from green absinthe—deep flavors and aromas of fennel and anise, tempered a bit by the yeasty bubbles. But it’s a bit too much for me and I struggle to finish the drink. No chance of me ever following Hemingway’s advice on this one.

I start with salad...though it’s a pork belly salad Lyonnaise, so it won’t be one of those virtuous salads fit for a bunny. A bed of fingerling potatoes is bordered by frisee, topped with an ample slab of pork belly and (if that weren't enough) a jiggly poached egg. I decide to mix it all together, cutting up the potatoes, pork belly, and greens then spearing the egg so it all gets a good coating of the rich yolk. The potatoes are perfectly cooked, with just a bit of bite left. The slightly bitter frisee reminds me of an unruly tumbleweed. The pork belly and luscious egg add a layer of succulence. I make a note to try this dish at home with bacon (a little easier to find in my local markets) instead of pork belly and a few more varieties of greens. I think any salad served with an egg on it would make Jeremy happy.

Amanda recommends a glass of Chateau de Sancerre from Loire Valley to go with the salad. It’s fruity, but not sweet. Being from West Michigan, whenever I hear “fruity” I immediately fear a sweet wine. This is a full bodied wine with lush layers of citrus and summer stone fruit. It cuts through the richness of the salad. I enjoy it so much I order another glass with my entree.

Though I’m tempted by the grilled lamb T-bone with chanterelles and camembert potatoes or the filet with seared foie gras, I’ve had more than my fair share of red meat on this vacation. And I did just eat a big hunk of pork belly. So I go for the monkfish saltimbocca with smashed fingerlings, spinach, and prosciutto. When I ask if there’s any possibility of me substituting mushrooms for the spinach, Amanda assures me that’s no problem. Whew! I despise cooked spinach.

Our entrees arrive beautifully plated. The mild, flaky monkfish is perched on a medley of meaty, flavorful mushrooms, mostly chanterelle, in a puckery veal-lemon jus. Here and there is a smashed fingerling. Leaves of crispy fried sage are layered with sheets of salty prosciutto, which top the mild and flaky monkfish. Despite being full about halfway through the dish, it’s so darn good that I finish it off. Jeremy gives me a bite of his steak frites daubed in absinthe ketchup—super tasty.

When Amanda asks about dessert I raise my hands in protest, but Jeremy’s in the mood for cheesecake and espresso. I won’t be able to help with dessert, but I will have a cappuccino. She brings two forks with the cheesecake and I do end up trying one bite. It’s lovely, but I’m too full for sweets, content to sip my coffee. I’d love to stay and linger over after dinner drinks, but I’m saturated. Time to pay the bill and toddle back to the hotel.

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