It’s true, ever since Café Absinthe opened in 1991 the mystique of absinthe has been a major lure to its doors. Although no longer regulated by the government, absinthe’s powers are still the stuff of urban legends and reportedly
Café Absinthe has many a regular patron that simply comes to the bar for one or another absinthe cocktail. Café Absinthe stocks 7 types of absinthe liqueur to this day.
However, to those who know the hustle bustle scene of Wicker Park, the greater appeal of Café Absinthe might be its semi-secluded cozy feel.
You enter through the alley in the back and if you don’t already know about Café Absinthe you might not know to drop in.
That very happening Tavern on the corner of Damen and North Avenue does in fact share a kitchen with Café Absinthe.
However, in ambiance and menu there is little similarity.
Café Absinthe is a quiet white tablecloth dining experience where you can sample contemporary American cuisine. Word has spread about it to England and France among other European countries that send a steady stream of visitors to Café Absinthe’s renowned doors. I have attended trade shows where out-of-towners had Café Absinthe on their short list of “must-dos” in Chicago. The majority of patrons though do come from greater Chicagoland.
Perhaps because we were early the dark interior with off-beat design elements such as its lighting, it immediately struck me as a place for a romantic getaway. Later, when it was clear that our server had the perfect knack to be there when needed but not to crowd it added to this impression.
It’s an open kitchen in view and with aromas swimming to your table, but its quiet, at least on a weekday. This is a good place for a special occasion dinner or to make a weekday special.
The Bordeaux wine recommended to us was a superb match with the wide range of foods that we tried, and is also one of the house by-glass offerings. Besides the full bar, there is a full wine list to choose from.
First up was a crab cake that had a nice crunch to its top making it a tasty appetizer to get our anticipation for the meal started.
The Fois Gras was a sweet surprise with apricot being the predominant flavor. This was absolutely an appetizer, readying you for a meal to come, unlike the crab cake that could also serve as a standalone meal.
The rosemary imbued Australian Rack of Lamb, particularly the surprising dried tomato accents in the accompanying watercress sauté, was a standout. Among the entrees we sampled, this is the top recommendation if you are a lamb lover.
For the pescovegetarians in the crowd—and if you are a strict vegan you will have limited options—the Alaska Halibut is a good pick. Flavored with horseradish, it comes with mashed potatoes and is very filling.
We were probably too full to give you a good report on the Charbroiled Beef Tenderloin. This too is a rich dish and very filling, more so than the portion size would suggest.
THE favorite dish we shared and one we plan to return to Café Absinthe to have again is the Roasted Beet Salad. It is large enough to be a meal for one and possibly for two, unlike the beet salad starters served in most restaurants. For those of us who tend to cook with little salt this is perfect, as the only salt is from the side manchego cheese. The delicious touch was the toasted almonds. It is perhaps a misnomer because tomatoes abound as well in this salad along with the mix of different types of tender greens.
Throughout our meal we listened to Sam Cooke in that just right background volume. Our server, Eric Taylor, a base player in the folk pop band “The Bears of Blue River” made that music selection. You couldn’t ask for more in service—there when you wanted him and leaving us in privacy most of the time.
Hidden and tucked away, Café Absinthe now shares the limelight in Bucktown Wicker Park with many fine dining options—but it was one of the first and there are reasons it has endured.
1954 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
Photos: Peter Kachergis