I was eating peanut butter sandwiches everyday at my middle school cafeteria when Anthony Bourdain started making a name for himself, but I still had the same initial reactions to him when I became interested in food writing and watching as the foodie world did about five or six years later than the initial Bourdain breakout. When I watched the pilot episode of No Reservations on Netflix, I ended up more impressed with Bourdain than the food he tried. He seemed like the most badass of chefs, with the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips and the small silver hoop dangling from his earlobe.
In the world of Emerils and Mario Batalis, he was the food world’s Keith Richards and I was the little girl falling in love all the way at the very back of the concert hall.
When I started planning my Parisian 4-month vacation, I rewatched that episode again. I knew that I might not be able to afford to visit all of the bars and restos and patisseries and boulangeries that Bourdain did, but I definitely had to go to that absinthe bar.
And two months in, when I watched it again, I felt like such an insider that I scoffed at Bourdain’s recommendation that taxis are an easy way to get around Paris and could pick out neighborhoods and streets that he passed by. But then I deflated when I realized that no, I hadn’t actually gone to that absinthe bar yet and only had a month or so left to do it.
As I wrote in a previous post, suddenly it was Thanksgiving—aka, Thursday, in Paris. I had gotten a little taste of the holiday and its tradition the Wednesday before at a little potluck dinner thrown at my school, but I still wanted to do something. And I thought, if I can’t have all of my Thanksgiving traditions, then I’m going to do something so outrageously un-Thanksgiving like that there’s no way I’ll be able to get homesick.
Using that brilliant logic, I ended up suggesting the absinthe bar to my friends.
I sent over the Youtube clip of the bar scene—and my friends actually took the time to watch it, which usually doesn’t happen (to be fair, I do love sending Youtube videos).
“We’re not actually going to hallucinate like that, right?” one friend asked.
“Nah, of course not,” I said. “We don’t have the special camera effects Bourdain did.”
We also didn’t have the illegal, pre-prohibition absinthe that he did, either.
The bar looked pretty kitchsy in the video—low lighting, skeleton decorations, cartoon pornography featuring hot naked demon ladies. The website was equally bizarre. The “philosophy” of the bar is to be exactly what a “rock ‘n’ roll” bar should be like—but also being “punk rock” and “metal” at the same time.
I made sure I wore my leather jacket—but it’s a jean-colored fake leather jacket cut in the style of a jeans jacket, so I was nowhere near the leather daddy/witch goddess fashion of all of the bar patrons.
And this was something I picked up as soon as I walked through the door—although that could have been because a woman with piles of dark hair messily held on the top of her head laughed and said, “Come on, kids” in French as we walked by her.
Yeah, not exactly the kind of welcoming I wanted.
Later, my friend confessed, “As soon as I walked through the door, I wanted to bolt out of there.”
But we soldiered on, trying not to stare at the demon porn or all of the leather. It’s funny, because there are a lot of bars in Paris that try to capitalize on the coolness of rock or Anglophilia and call themselves “bar du rock” or a “bar du punk.” But La Cantada II really was a metal bar, sure, but the people here were older, in their thirties and forties. The Oberkampf/Parmentier neighborhood the bar is in is really known for being the cool hangout place for the young hipsters and “bobos,” and we quickly decided that we were at the bar these people went to when they got too old or too creepy.
I felt like I was back working at the record store I worked at in high school—once again, I was the only natural blonde there with no piercings, no tattoos, and no way of ever intimidating anyone ever. Except now, my friends were with me and there’s always strength in numbers, I guess.
We timidly approached the bar, and I was thrown once again when I didn’t see a menu for absinthe. Sure, I saw the absinthe bottles and the antiquated “Absinthe” sign, but I didn’t see prices or names for absinthes, only for beers, mixed drinks, and wines. I started internally freaking out—I brought my friends here, I was the one pushing for the bar, and then there wasn’t any absinthe?
The bartender approached us, and I was so busy being surprised at how he looked exactly like Harris from Freaks and Geeks would look as a thirtysomething bartender at an absinthe bar that I fumbled and just said, in French, “Good evening, it’s our first time here and …”
He immediately interrupted me and said, in English, “You came for absinthe,” as he grabbed a laminated absinthe menu from behind the bar.
It was that obvious. We were one of those American tourists who wandered in because of Anthony Bourdain. But really, how many twenty-year-old girl American tourists can say that?
The names of the absinthes meant nothing to us, as did the country of origin listed in parentheses. What did interest us were the prices (less than 5 euros for most of the glasses—a better bargain than most alcoholic drinks at bars here) and the alcohol content (around 60 to 70 %). But when the bartender came back a couple minutes later, we still had no clue what we were doing.
“What’s the best drink for our first time?” we asked, since giving us the menu really didn’t help us out.
He pointed to the “Mata Ari,” which was 4,80 euros so we felt confident that he wasn’t trying to rip us off.
I’d Google the drink later, and apparently it’s a bohemian absinthe without the pedigree of a French or Swiss absinthe, which means it’s more like a wormwood bitter than the proper anise absinthe. But to my newborn absinthe palette, it was a pretty good starting off drink.
Who am I kidding—anything would have been a pretty good starting off drink. I started giggling as soon as the bartender pulled out the old-time water drippers. Everything about this bar and this drink was becoming an experience in itself.
He poured a little bit of absinthe—not even a full shot—into a fancy glass, and then took out a triangular log with holes in it to lay across the rim of the glass. A small sugar cube was then placed on top of that, and then the water from the water dripper slowly dissolved the sugar into the absinthe.
The resulting color of the drink was a pale mint—not the bright green I was expecting. It tasted a lot of black licorice, but in a way that I could easily drink (I always give the black licorice anything to my mom, can’t stand the stuff). And this is something that is not something that should be easily drank in large quantities. I went home after one drink, not even wanting to try another because I just felt heavy and thick.
Maybe it’s because of all the pancakes I like to eat on brunch excursions, but has anyone ever described food as “sitting on your stomach?” Well, because absinthe definitely sits on your liver. I think people would have to be crazy just to drink large amounts of absinthe. I’m glad I went to an absinthe bar, and I would definitely drink absinthe again, but it’s a one-time-only per occasion kind of drink for me.
But I still like absinthe. Like many people before me, I only knew about absinthe because of its scandalous reputation, not because of its taste. It was only a friend of a friend, with those “friends” being Anthony Bourdain and Oscar Wilde as the people I most associated with absinthe. But now I’d say that absinthe and me are acquaintances, and it’s always nice making friends at bars.