L’Absinthe aims to be a friendly, neighbourhood brasserie, and throws in a bonus: a very generous wine pricing policy. There is a wine shop here (of sorts) though it seems to really be a vehicle for the restaurant (when I asked how much wine was sold at the shop, I was told about bottle a day). The deal is that wines are available at the shop price plus a modest corkage of £6, £8 or £10, or none at all for the pricier bottles. For example Champin Le Seignur Jean Michel Gerin 2004 is listed at £34.50 plus £10 corkage, for a wine that for a wine that actually retails for around £28 a bottle. The list is all French and covers just a couple of pages with mostly some moderately obscure growers, but without doubt this wine list is very good value indeed; I can’t immediately think of another London restaurant with pricing this kind. The décor is simple as befits a brasserie, with white walls, wooden floors, bare (small) tables and simple wooden chairs. There is a downstairs as well as the ground floor, and in all the restaurant can seat 60 people at once, at least if they all breathe in.
Starters range from £4.25 - £7.50, main courses £8,95 - £14.50, desserts are £4.50, so food prices are fair also. Service is friendly and casual but capable e.g. the waiter remembered who ordered what. With all these things going for it I was certainly inclined to like the place. Instead of bread there were pieces of toast, which I don’t think is a good idea; a simple rustic bread would surely be an improvement (apparently the kitchen is tiny and even warming up bought-in bread presents a logistical challenge). I began with a salad of goat cheese on toast with a mixed leaf salad. The cheese used was Cabecou and itself was in good condition, but the cheese had rather welded itself to the toast and partly softened it, making it awkward to cut. The salad leaves were OK but the dressing was a bit too sharp (1/10). A salad of baby spinach leaves, blue cheese (it was actually Bleu dAuvergne) and walnuts was a bit better, the cheese nicely ripe and the walnut providing a better texture contrast to the cheese (2/10).
Grilled tuna (£11.95) was cooked rather longer than asked for, but was fine, with a simple ratatouille and sauce vierge. The vegetables were reasonable but nothing special, the dish overall pleasant enough (2/10). A rib eye steak was better with a nice quality piece of meat, with chips made in the kitchen but which were a little on the soggy side, served with a rather watery peppercorn sauce (3/10). Lemon tart was properly made with soft pastry, served with a bought-in lemon sorbet (3/10). Pot au chocolat is a bistro classic and had good texture and decent taste (3/10).
Overall the food was perhaps between 2/10 and 3/10, but somehow it didn’t quite work as well as it might have done, if I compare it with similar fare elsewhere. I found the overall experience very pleasant, mainly due to the charming service from the owner and the great wine list, but strictly as a food experience it was merely adequate. It is already proving very popular with the Primrose Hill locals. If this was at the end of my road I probably go back every now and again given the generous wine pricing and nice atmosphere, but it is not really worth a long journey for the food. Still, perhaps Absinthe will make the heart grow fonder.