Genuine proof that L'Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

Everything is right about this bistro, from the greeting to the bill This week I ve eaten somewhere that makes me want to do a little jig. Perhaps even a full-on can-can, which would be more in keeping with the nature of my latest (food) love. My heart

Everything is right about this bistro, from the greeting to the bill

This week I've eaten somewhere that makes me want to do a little jig. Perhaps even a full-on can-can, which would be more in keeping with the nature of my latest (food) love.

My heart and stomach have been captured by a restaurant as tiny as Toulouse Lautrec, as effortlessly chic as La Rive Gauche and overwhelmingly French as the Eiffel Tower. Depending on the terms of your cultural reference, L'Absinthe is named either after the infamous drink or the once controversial Degas painting of a woman under the influence of that same drink. Both have certain notoriety, but I expect their namesake to get a name for all the right reasons.

It takes a man with the courage of Napoleon to open on a site that has hosted a series of kitchen nightmares. The last, Le Petit Train, departed before I could even find my fare. It sat empty for a while until current owner Jean-Christophe Slowik arrived.


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Here's a man with such pedigree he has no further need to prove his mettle. Before arriving in Primrose Hill, he spent 20 years front-of-house for Marco Pierre White, starting with the then enfant terrible in 1987 at Harvey's in Wandsworth and working across White's expanding empire - including Mirabelle, Criterion, Belvedere - over the years.

A much esteemed food editor friend lives around the corner and had suggested we try it out.

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It's a corner site with simple decor. On the ground floor - there's also a basement full of tables - white walls were adorned with a long, unpunctuated, scrawling painted list of many of the menu's dishes, plus some doodle-like pictures above the kitchen hatch and till. Framed 19th century style posters with an absinthe theme adorn the walls. The Gallic theme, thankfully, stops short of Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf as there was no soundtrack.

The dark, wooden tables are snugly arranged. Close enough for the gentleman next to me to find our conversation as interesting as that of his dining partner - perhaps more so. Tables of four seemed to have a little more privacy.

The menu is classic bistro. Everything you'd expect - from French onion soup and Bayonne ham with celeriac remoulade to duck confit and steak frites. There are two fish main courses, but I'm glad I'd left Grumpy at home as the vegetarian is not well served. A note offers vegetarian option on request. How very French, to fail to provide for the non-meat eater but instead to force them to "out" themselves so publicly. Fantastique. Most main dishes are less than £10 - everything listed in English with French subtitles.

The charismatic Jean-Christophe - enjoying himself as much as his guests - wasted no time in taking our orders. Drinks were delivered promptly and a basket of hot toasted bread arrived shortly after that.

Almost too soon, our first course arrived. My companion's Lyonnaise salad was a generous bowl of frisee, croutons, lardons and a poached egg. Along with spinach and anything garlic, frisee is not good news on a date. It may leave your breath untainted and no embarrassing tufts in your teeth but it's unwieldy and prone to leaving the eater looking much like the Magic Roundabout's Ermintrude.

My companion - made of sterner stuff - did a fine job, praising the chunky lumps of bacon and croutons, excellent dressing and the poached egg, oozing runny yolk. Egg poaching is a skill not to be underestimated and the chef is obviously proud to have mastered it, including it in two of the six starters.

My starter of French toast, mushrooms, shallots confit, sounded better in translation as pain perdu aux champignons. The two small egg-soaked, shallow-fried pieces of bread were hot and crisp. Between them was a pile of shallots more sweet and sticky than Pooh Bear's paws and a few juicy button mushrooms. I think I prefer my French toast with maple syrup but it was a good start.

As the noise levels rose - from an office party of 12 - I struggled a little to hear my companion. The man next to us gave up all pretence of conversation and went outside for a cigarette, leaving his lady friend to glumly read the walls.

Our main courses continued the simple but well executed trend. My companion's choice, L'Absinthe steak frites, came up French medium - extremely pink - more medium rare and perhaps even rare for us rosbifs but was tender and well seasoned. It was flanked by excellent home-made chips and a perfect bearnaise.

My grilled chicken breast was served as a paillard - that is, pounded to within an inch of its life to a thin, quickly cooked slab. It was moist, big on flavour and served with dressed mixed leaves. It would definitely be the dieter's choice and was history long before the steak frites were demolished.

There's a cheese selection and four desserts. We shared a tart tatin with clotted cream ice cream. Its crisp pastry, darkly buxom apples and thickly creamy ice cream were immaculate. The chocolate cake griottes (a further Franglais-ed title) should have been a soft chocolate cake (the sub-title said moelleux) with morello cherries.

The cake was a firmer fudgier affair than I expected on an excellent custard. I was so distracted by the chocolate, moelleux or otherwise, I've only now realised there was no sniff of a cherry.

At £57.20 for the two meals (plus two glasses of red wine and including a service charge of less than 10 per cent) I thought L'Absinthe excellent value. Even better value is their lunchtime special - £8.50 for a main course and dessert or main course, glass of wine and coffee. I'm on my way back there already. Vive La France.

L'Absinthe, 40 Chalcot Road, London, NW1 8LS

Telephone: 020-7483 4848

Food: Five stars

Service: Five stars

Opening hours: Tuesdays to Fridays noon to 2.30pm and 6pm to 10.30pm, Saturdays noon to 4pm and 6pm to 10.30pm, Sundays noon to 4pm and 6pm to 9.30pm.

Cost: £57.20 for three courses and two glasses

of wine.

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