Sunday, February 08, 2009

Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Mrs. Hollywood and I celebrated our fifteenth anniversary last Thursday. Or, more accurately, we celebrated the next day, last Friday, which also doubled as my forty-fifth birthday.

A family from our parish volunteered to entertain Lion Boy while we made merry - a rare event indeed.

We dropped Leo off with our friends at about 4 pm, and headed to the French Quarter. Our destination was Pravda, a bar located at 1113 Decatur Street. We have read some great reviews about Pravda, which praised its Cold War Kitsch decor, very hip clientele, outstanding service, and the fact that they serve absinthe. For some reason, we thought they served food as well, but they don't.

So, we walked around the neighborhood a bit (the weather was a wee bit chilly, but a light jacket was enough to keep things comfy). Decatur Street is where the French Market is located, a really cool little subset of the Vieux Carre that includes several restaurants and bars.

Not knowing where to eat, and getting hungrier by the minute, we settled on Margaritaville - which could be interpreted as heresy, as this is a "chain" restaurant, and not something unique to the Quarter or even to New Orleans. But that's what we decided on based on the posted menu and rumbling tummies.

We loved it!

The menu did have a distinctly New Orleans flavor, from the alligator bites to the file gumbo. The decor is a lot of fun, and people were definitely there to have a good time. It is also a family-friendly location, and as parents are wont to do, we kept saying how much Leo would like this, how we are going to come back with Leo, and how we can't wait to see Leo's face when he sees the boat and airplane in the restaurant. Yeah, I know, I know.

Anyway, the gumbo was really quite good, the steak (a house sirloin) was also very tasty. Mrs. H. had jerk chicken and a crab chowder. And the drinks were really (really!) good. Mrs. H. (who seldom imbibes) enjoyed her frozen blue "license to chill" margarita. Fr. H. (likewise not a heavy drinker) had a classic mojito - which was obviously made with all fresh ingredients. Service was outstanding, and the atmosphere of the restaurant is a perpetual party.

Another benefit for locals is that they are trying to bring us into the restaurant. If you are a local, you can get a card that entitles you to a 20% discount, plus a free drink and dessert on your birthday (which I was able to use right away).

We closed out dinner with key lime pie, and passed the time in a leisurely way.

After settling the check, we strolled over to Pravda.

Though it was getting dark, it was still early for the Quarter. The place was virtually empty. It is a very relaxed atmosphere, and there is a beautiful (and I mean beautiful) courtyard out back that butts up against the high wall of the neighboring Italian restaurant. There is a delightful and (though it was not in use) a firepit. Music is piped in, which on this day was of a classic rock bent (some old 70s and 80s alternative/punk).

Inside is just as the reviews described - Russian words painted on the wall, old Soviet posters, a large Communist Star behind the bar (with a faberge egg hanging in front), and even a ghastly painting of Rasputin.

The bar itself is decked out in absinthe paraphernalia.

Absinthe had a huge following in New Orleans during the "belle epoque" of the turn of the twentieth century. Absinthe is an alcoholic beverage that also has wormwood - which in high dosages can be poisonous. It is actually a kind of narcotic, though the dose in absinthe is actually small.

There is a mystique associated with absinthe, and it was enjoyed by the "bohemian" and literary set in New Orleans and in various places in Europe. There is a ritual of preparation involving an ice-water fountain, a sugar cube, and a strange-looking spoon upon which the cube is dissolved.

Absinthe was vilified amid the hysteria of the temperance movement, and was described in such laughable terms as this quote:
"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."
That's funny. That's how I describe the Federal Reserve.

Somehow, hype of this nature was not dismissed as ridiculous, and absinthe was outlawed in the US. in 1912. It was also being banned around the world at this time, though a few countries never outlawed it. By 2007, cooler (and saner heads) prevailed, and absinthe was again legal in the U.S. and in many other countries that had once made it contraband.

We wanted to try absinthe, and our bartender, Bird, was very helpful. She recommended the Kübler brand from Switzerland, which actually began making absinthe in 1863. It had only been revived in 2005, and the company's efforts allowed re-legalization to happen in Switzerland (whose constitution actually banned absinthe!) and subsequently, the United States - which supposedly includes New Orleans.

Mrs. H. and I decided to share a drink (it is not cheap at $15 a glass). Bird cheerfully set up the exotic looking apparatus. Before we knew it, the little fountain was pouring a tiny stream of icewater over a sugarcube into our glass, creating both a beautiful cloudy "louche" in the glass and a licorice-laced aroma in the air that was just unbelievable.

By this time, we were the only ones in the bar, and Bird patiently answered our questions about absinthe and about Pravda. She knew what she was doing, and was both professional, and friendly. We discussed absinthe's reputation, its various types, its chemical properties, and she described it quite accurately as "a lovely drink."

Kübler is on the mild side of absinthe at only 106 proof. Before it is mixed with the sugary icewater, it is clear in color - not the stereotypical bright green like some of the brands. Mrs. H. and I both enjoyed it - though I really like the licorice taste a lot more than she. The effect is very nice and relaxing, different than the usual "alcohol buzz." Of course, we were splitting one drink between the two of us, and also had full bellies. But still, it had a nice feeling to it. It is indeed "a lovely drink," and though neither one of us is really into the bar scene, Pravda is unique and cool. It is definitely a great place to go on a special occasion to relax and just hang out.

We leisurly sipped and chatted as the early evening wore on. Eventually, business in the bar picked up, and singles and couples both came in at a good clip.

When we picked up Lion Boy, he had been away from us for a whopping five hours, and was asleep. We are really grateful to our parishioners who took Leo out to eat, played with him, and came away with the usual collection of hilarious stories about the crazy things our son says and does. Where does he learn this stuff?

And though we won't be taking him to Pravda (at least not for another 17 years or so), we do look forward to bringing the little guy to eat with us next time at Margaritaville.


Frank Gillespie said...

I picked up a bottle of Grande Absente when I visited Texas last Christmas (Absinthe isn’t allowed to be sold in NC…). It’s a little stronger than Kubler but it came highly recommended. About two weeks ago my fountain and glasses arrived and all I need to do is pick a good Friday night to sit back and enjoy my visit with the green fairy. I can’t wait.
It’s good to know that if I ever make it down your way that I’ll have one more attraction to visit.

Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

Haven't tried it yet, but there is an Absinthe readily available called "Lucid" (my local village liquor store carries it) Kind of a fun website too.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Last time I was in the French Quarter I was just eighteen. But since in those days prohibition was so far gone that they even let young-uns drink, I got to have a hurricane. Still have the glass somewhere, too. But I knew nothing about absinthe. That was the '70s. Maybe it hadn't caught on yet.

solarblogger said...

After all I had heard of the drink, and the "green fairie" segment of the movie Moulin Rouge, I would have thought absinthe was going to be very risky. It turned out to be something more along the line of trying a mint julep or ouzo for the first time. Either absinthe was MUCH stronger back in the day on account of greater amounts of wormwood, or the reporting was all hysteria.

If I were recommending a drink on flavor alone (rather than the ritual that goes along with it, which can make me a fan of something I even mildly dislike otherwise) the mojito is a great one. If you get one that is too bitter, give it another try somewhere else. They are not all created equal.