By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It has been touted as a cure for everything from flatulence and crushing headaches to anemia and convulsions. Created in the late 1700s by a French doctor, the emerald-green spirit known as absinthe has been both celebrated and condemned over the centuries.
Local restaurateur Amar Harrag is dispelling the negative myths about absinthe with his newly launched Wormwood, a bar and restaurant he named after one of the spirit’s primary botanical extracts.
Wormwood replaces Jayne’s Gastropub, which served elevated British-pub fare for nearly 15 years. Harrag has given the space a French flair, drawing inspiration from an absinthe bar he discovered while visiting his small hometown in southern France.
“We’re starting out with at least 30 different kinds of absinthe—from Europe and the U.S., including one from a local distillery in Barrio Logan called ReBru Spirits,” he pointed out. “Every distiller has their own recipe. In addition to wormwood, some have common herbs such as mint and coriander, and others have more obscure herbs such as hyssop and angelica.”
Harrag also owns the mezcal-centric Tahona Bar in Old Town. There, the liquor and its myriad varieties serve as a bridge to Mexican culture. At Wormwood, he hopes to educate consumers equally on absinthe’s French-European connections while creating a sense of community through tastings and a book club focusing on authors who have shown passion for absinthe in their works.
“With absinthe, the history is so strong,” said Harrag. “More than 100 years ago there was the misconception that absinthe made you crazy. It wasn’t based on any data. It was actually the wine industry in France that lobbied to get it banned because absinthe had become so popular, especially among artists and philosophers in Paris during the early 1900s.”
Harrag also cited that Parisian bar owners back then held “green hour” in the late afternoons, when high numbers of consumers gathered to imbibe on the drink.
But stigmas about absinthe and its wormwood extract eventually took root, resulting in global bans on the liquor. In Europe and the U.S. such bans were lifted in 2002 and 2007, respectively.
Harrag admits the liquor is indeed higher in alcohol compared to most spirits, ranging between 90 and 130 proof. He playfully cites the words of 19th-century Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, who described the effects of absinthe as such: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wished they were. After the second one, you see things as they are not. After the third, you finally see things as they really are.”
Moderation is the approach at Wormwood, where customers are served their absinthe along with a table-size water fountain.
“The water drips slowly into your glasses from multiple spouts of the fountain. It’s up to the customer how much they want to dilute their absinthe,” said Harrag while noting the “ceremonial presentation” dates back at least a century throughout France. The wormwood element, he added, is what gives the spirit its distinct anise flavor.
Several changes were made to the interior, although Jayne’s intimate bar and signature black-and-white floor tiles remain in place.
Harrag created two backyard patios; one of them is a “secret garden” designated for private parties. He also hung new wall art and opened up the kitchen so customers can witness the creation of meals by two executive chefs: Danny Romero, formerly of Addison, Bracero and Stone Brewing Co.; and Janina Jaray, who ran a bakery in Tijuana and had also worked at Addison.
Their menu is French-based with dishes unique to Wormwood. Some of them include oysters accented with absinthe foam, artichokes set in Caesar butter, wild mushroom tartlets, and Wagyu beef tartare. On the dessert menu is “baba au rhum,” a classic French cake soaked in rum.
Wormwood is located at 4677 30th St. It operates from 5 to 10 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; and 5 to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Harrag plans on introducing brunch service early next year.
For more information call 619-915-6706 or visit wormwoodsd.com.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.