A few years ago three friends and I ventured into Surry Hills’ Absinthe Salon. Having immersed ourselves in the swirling mythology of wormwood, the Green Fairy, Toulouse Lautrec and Moulin Rouge, we geared up for a night of bewitching intrigue with a snifter around the corner before wending our way through deserted side streets and alleys to the salon’s doorway, which we half expected to creak open with all the subtlety of an Addams Family sound effect.
We were excited, which was evidently our first mistake. The door swung open to illuminate our eager faces against that of the proprietor, who assessed us with narrowing eyes and a look of thinly veiled disdain creeping into the creases of his face. The stasis dragged to the point where I wondered whether a secret code was required: ‘The hen is in the nest. I repeat, the hen is in the nest.’ Er, perhaps not. Finally the silence was broken with a barked “Enter!” giving us the distinct impression that we were privates on parade rather than patrons of his trade.
The reception room leading into the salon itself was a peculiar assault to the senses of absinthe-themed bric-a-brac and exposed brickwork more reminiscent of a Budgewoi timeshare than a Parisienne salon. My bullshit radar pinged me with an alert that the evening may in fact have all the authenticity of a thoroughly punchable mime artist.
And so began a litany of sermonised conditions announced with a heady blend of gravitas and ennui, including the three drink limit, various instructions on etiquette and a clear indication that we were at the behest of the proprietor’s ‘my way or the highway’ school of hosting. Not to have our spirits dampened, one of my friends jumped in by asking ‘Will we see the Green Fairy?’. Oh dear … BIG mistake (#2).
Before he could finish the sentence a strangulated voice resembling a seriously pissed off Arnold Schwarzenegger boomed ‘I HATE it when people ask me that! You are not here to see the Green Fairy. You are here to respect the absinthe and to take it seriously. I will have NO MORE TALK OF THE GREEN FAIRY!’, as his fist thumped something, quite possibly his wife. And with that he turned on his heels and the curtains parted as we meekly followed into the salon itself.
A chintzy room was filled with tables of people just like us, but something wasn’t quite right about the scene and it didn’t take Hercule Poirot to work out what. Vaguely terrified patrons had been rendered mute en masse, lest they incur the wrath of the Absinthe Nazi. I had never been in a place where so many young people had gathered to drink hard liquor where the room was so wholly sapped of its life force. It was as if we were all at boarding school detention lining up for a caning.
The laminated menu provided an extensive and somewhat bewildering choice of brands but having already had our gonads chopped off at the front door, we felt in no position to make a decision so we shrivelled into submission until the decision was made for us.
A large ornately decorated water cooler sat on the table with four pouring spouts and we drenched our spoons and sugar cubes in the customary fashion but I can’t say absinthe and water is my preferred drop. It reminds me of the sort of remedy your grandmother would give you as a child for constipation if she couldn’t find any prunes in the pantry.
Gladly though, with the Absinthe Nazi now distracted with other prey, we could relax a little and let the bizarre proceedings catch up with us. Mistake #3. One of us tittered, manifestly showing complete disrespect for the establishment by demonstrating what is otherwise known in the bar trade as ‘having a good time’.
Mein Host stormed back over to us and said ‘Enough. You will not get your third drink. You are drunk. You are finished. Out!’.
By which time we were thoroughly delighted to extricate ourselves from what was the most comprehensive level of self-aggrandising bullshit masquerading as epicurean high art we could all remember.
But not before we picked up our gonads from the reception floor and hurled them along with some fairly impressive ‘bomb mots’ in the proprietor’s general direction.
Indeed, if the Absinthe Salon’s walls could talk that night, they’d have had Tourettes!
We ran onto the streets, heaving with laughter while happily leaving the frightened faces and neutered nether regions of Sydneysiders in our wake.
And then we went out for a real drink.