In this Bravo/Food Network age where you can't just be a good cook, it's not easy to be asked to follow in the wake of a big personality like Jamie Lauren—a woman who made her name on Top Chef. Self-assured with all the right tattoos and a penchant for hot dogs, Lauren gives good media.
It took me a while to get back to Absinthe, but I finally made it last week for an indulgent meal. Adam Keough took over the stoves in the fall after Lauren left for LA last summer, and from what little I've seen of his personality, he seems to speak to a more traditional chef. His previous experience includes working with Josh Skenes at Chez TJ and for different Mina Group (as in Michael) properties.
Keough's food is classic with a very French sensibility. Butter and cream and bacon are all over the place, from the potato tart made with leeks, bacon, topped with a sunny side up egg (our server said she's begging him to do this for brunch) to a nicely balanced shellfish stew with bacon broth. One of his signature dishes is a take on a Nicoise salad—an absolutely delicious potato-crusted Arctic Char with a sprinkle of chopped olives and a salad of butter lettuce with wax beans. I'm so programmed to have a kneejerk reaction to summer ingredients in the winter (WAX BEANS! ALERT! ALERT!) that my little p.c. alarm went off. But who am I kidding? Waiting to be struck by lightning, I've been shamefully relishing organic blueberries from Whole Foods all winter like they're crack. Not even local crack.
Another thing that chefs in this day and age are no longer allowed to do is just cook first and second courses and maybe desserts. They have to come up with some great burger or bar food—something comforting that people will crave and therefore come back for again and again. And this, Keough has mastered. When I was up to 99 on the Big Eat creation this year, agonizing over the final slot, I happened to stop at Absinthe one night to sit at the bar for a drink and some oysters. Despite my protests that I was full, the bartender sent us out Keough's warm soft garlic pretzels (more like nubs of pretzels) topped with a little crunchy salt and served with a tiny crock of creamy Vermont cheddar mornay. I couldn't stop eating them.
And at the final hour, I had my 100th Big Eat. Pair those with a good gin martini and you've got a slam dunk.