Thursday, May 24, 2012

In the House of the Green Fairy: Absinthe Café

One of our favourite spots in Wellington West is Absinthe Café, a contemporary restaurant where locavore meets modern European. The design reminds me of an upscale Prague bistro - attractive staff, lots of mirrors everywhere, and a nonchalant pride placed into every dish. I feel like this is a symbol of Ottawa's budding food maturity, but you have real food writers like Don, Jen and Claire; Katy or Kelly to remark on stuff like that. I'm just a guy that writes about burgers.

This is the first burger I've eaten under the "Likes Burgers" rubric that costs over $20. There is an irrational threshold of expectation that exists for ground beef that costs more than a Queen Liz. I feel like Mark Carney would chide me for making a financial decision like that, but I did effortlessly in the name of a blog that makes me no income in return. Irrational, I tell you. If dollars are the conversion of a unit of work into a unit of bling, than this burger would have to be nearly three times "better" than a Hintonburger, or else the price gap must be made up by service and sundries such as amuses bouches and bread. You expect that a chef would have to work around two to three times harder than his/her Hintonburgundian comrades.

And then there's opportunity cost, which my economic-minded readers will know, is defined as "that sinking moment of inner confusion when you realize that you just ordered a hamburger in one of the top restaurants in your area code." What wonderful creation could you be eating instead of that burger? Can a burger be that good as to outweigh a choice of something less traditional?

The object of my affection.

So now that you've slogged through three paragraphs of neuroses, you're wondering if the burger - called the Benevolence Burger - at Absinthe Café is worth it. It's an all-beef patty with house baconnaise, house-smoked bacon, aged cheddar, lettuce, and tomato on a house-baked brioche bun.

So how did it turn out? See how many times I used the word "house" up there? Remember that when you read on after the break.

The burger

The patty is a hand-fashioned 4-5oz' of ground hanger steak (same as their steak frites), griddled to order. In my case I asked for medium and lo, it came thus. Hanger is an interesting choice because it's a lean cut without much marbling and so the juices are pretty tame in the burger patty. For this reason I highly recommend that you do not order it well done, because it would be subject to drying. At medium it was immensely satisfying. I found the meat to have incredible flavour, a nice coarse grind and spot-on seasoning, all without much grease on the palate (from the meat anyway). There was a beef forwardness similar to Black Cat's burgers; many consumers find hanger steaks have a wild gaminess to their flavour, and this could be why.
Revealing the beautiful inside.

Baconnaise was the sole condiment and probably the single greatest driver of the experience after the beef. Flavour-wise it balanced smoke, salt and spice expertly. It was topped with house-smoked bacon, which was tender, protein-rich and not overly salty. It stood out from the baconnaise based on texture and flavour, which is pretty impressive because that condiment was pretty potent. The final star topping was aged cheddar, which as usual receded beneath the onslaught of its accompanists, but it seemed to embrace my patty with its meltiness and so bites that were bacon-free revealed its creamy acidity. So the cheddar is Gary Oldman in Nolan's Batman series: not really shining, but he rounds out the cast.

The bun was perfection, firm crust, soft, eggy crumb and toasted with just enough char. Meat to bun ratio was perfect, and did not suffer sogginess under the juices or dressings. Cold garnishings included lettuce and tomato, both fresh and adding a touch of freshness.

As a final mention, you can see from the pictures that the burger came with a flourish - a pickle speared into the top of the bun with a toothpick. Burger flourishes are commonly used in famed burger destinations around the world, used to pin optional garnishes to the main event for visual impact. Flourishes are conspicuously missing from most Ottawa establishments so I was most pleased to see one.
It was fat-tastic.

Overall, the burger had a luscious, rich mouthfeel that certainly set it above the common offering. It is sized well, especially given two sides to accompany it. Yes, $23 may be expensive to go out for a quality burger, but think of it two ways. First, you are paying for dedication and ownership over a quality product, and significant effort has gone into making a traditional dish exceptional. Second, you're getting great quality everything else, it's just that I don't review service and decor on my blog. Both those things are worth every penny. I firmly situate Absinthe into Ottawa's burger pantheon, and hope that it - or an evolution of it - remains on the menu for the restaurant's lifespan.

Oh, and just before I move to the sides, here is my "boom" moment. The boom moment is when you're already sold on something, and I add just one more thing to the sales pitch that provides even more impetus to go. It's the cherry on top, the pickle flourish. Here goes: Absinthe gives $1 from every Benevolence Burger to the Cornerstone Housing for Women, a local emergency women's shelter. Boom. I'll let you sit with that information for a moment.
Burger with flourish and its partners in sublime.

The sides

The burger came with two sides - an arugula salad and duck confit poutine. The former was knockout-awesome, while the latter I had trouble with. Arugula leaves are topped with parm and lemon-thyme vinaigrette; it's simple and very refreshing. On the other hand, the poutine contains their amazing fries drenched in a very salty, heavy gravy with chunks of confit duck scattered throughout. I found the gravy overpowering and too plentiful, and after a few bites actually set it aside because my wife claimed it as her own.



  1. Darling husband had the burger the last time we were at Absinthe a few weeks back. He says it is the best high-end burger he has ever had. Loved the arugula salad too. And the duck confit poutine! No shortage of calories. I stole some of the fries. Liked them. Would be good with just the frites.