L'Astrance -- March 2008 report
(pictures available here http://www.alifewortheating.com/paris/lastrance/
I know this may come as a shock, but beneath my intimidatingly macho 6′2″, 160lb exterior I’m a sensitive guy. There I was in Paris — a city others inexplicably call the City of Lights though I’ve always known it as the City of Macarons — and something was bothering me. I thought about what I consider to be the peripheral issues of traveling — things like monuments, museums, and parks — and how in the previous week I had completely ignored them. But my worries were squashed when Adam wisely pointed out that l’Astrance is just across the river from the Eiffel Tower. Surely there could be no better place for a walk while we all engaged in the sort of post-game commentary that inevitably follows this kind of meal. And besides, I always manage to see plenty of sites on the way to and from restaurants without even planning to.
We were having lunch with a certain Parisian friend of ours (http://www.julotlespinceaux.com/), so there was even more cause for excitement. Julien is a gentleman and a scholar of many disciplines, and over the course of the meal we were glad to hear his insight on topics as wide-ranging as macarons, poissonneries, and the best cookbook store in the city. We had plenty of time to chat about such things since we chose the longest degustation menu offered at l’Astrance — eight courses. Taking the time to experience other cultures first-hand has always been a priority of mine.
Not that the menu we received when we sat down looked like anything more than Chef Pascal Barbot’s grocery list from that morning. But I knew the correct answer to the maître d’ Cristophe Rohat’s question of how many courses we wanted — trois, cinq, ou huit? — was definitely ©. Considering the previous night’s libational excesses, Adam almost passed on the wine pairing. Luckily our female lunch companion saw the error in this reckless moderation and asked for the full pairing. We happily followed suit. Supporting my friends has always been a priority of mine.
A quick word about the wines, by the way. I’ll just list them below in the order they were poured. I’ve never been a fan of note-taking during a meal, so much of this information was gleaned from the sommelier after the fact. As as such, some of it is incomplete. But with that digression out of the way…
We started with glass of champagne and a couple of hors d’oeuvre. The first was Brioche tiède au beurre de thym, a thick slice of toasted brioche spread with butter and fresh thyme. Neither the bread nor the butter was bad, but neither was extraordinary either. Maybe Jean-Yves Bordier was slowly turning me into a butter snob, but I was surprised to see Barbot coming out of the blocks with something unexceptional.
On the other hand, the Cuiller de parmesan crémeux that came alongside the brioche made for quite a nice beginning to the meal. This spoon held a small orb of spherified parmesan that had the depth and richness of the cheese, but an ultra-smooth, semi-liquid texture. This was soon followed by thick slices of delicious crusty bread made by Jean-Luc Poujauran.
Dr. Loosen 2006 (Wehlener Sonnenuhr??) Riesling Kabinett
Then we took shots. And by that I mean we had a shot glass full of Purée d’asperge verte, yaourt au sésame, lait au champignon. This layered concoction of asparagus purée, sesame yogurt, and mushroom-infused milk foam sounded almost like a health drink, and regrettably it sort of tasted like one, too. The nearly-raw asparagus was wonderfully fresh, but to my taste the purée was at worst bland and at best undersalted. The yogurt added a tangy undertone, while the foamy mushroom-infused milk brought a light creaminess and subtle earthiness (not to mention a boost of calcium and protein. Take that, Jamba Juice.) I wasn’t particularly fond of this dish on its own, but the Riesling we drank with it made me change my tune. The pairing was phenomenal, a symbiotic relationship between food and drink.
The next dish didn’t need any help from the wine, although some champagne would’ve been appropriate to celebrate what a masterpiece it was. I’m talking about Chef Barbot’s famous Galette de champignons de Paris et foie gras mariné au verjus, huile de noisette, citron confit. Any raw food dieters out there take note — this layered “cake” was not cooked. Instead, the chef layered thin slices of raw button mushrooms with verjuice-marinated foie gras. These layers sandwiched citrus zest between them that brightened up both the flavors and the colors of this beige creation. The base was a thin, crispy layer of brik dough. Sprinkled on top was some intensely earthy porcini powder. And served alongside all this was some tart lemon confit and a dab of hazelnut oil that added a nice depth to the dish. I think what made this dish so special was the staying power of its flavors. The first taste sensation was the subtlety of the raw sliced mushrooms. Then a bright punch of acidity from the citrus. And finally a lingering richness on the tongue from the foie gras and the hazelnut oil. It was really a dynamic experience for the palate, and it was a dish I won’t soon forget. The next time you’ve got a spare lobe of foie gras laying around the kitchen, you should definitely give it a try.
Loimer 2006 Grüner-Veltliner “Kamptal”
We took a short trip to Thailand with the Langoustines juste poelées, soupe thailandais, legumes et fleurs de printemps. A few langoustines were halved and quickly pan-fried to get some browning on the flesh side. The seasoning was incredibly subtle, a sure sign of Chef Barbot’s confidence in his fresh products. The langoustines had been heated just to the point of limbo between raw and cooked. Their texture ranged from slightly firm on the outside to tender within. On the side of the langoustines was a frothy soup with some classic Thai ingredients: coconut milk, lemongrass and ginger. Spring vegetables and edible flowers added bright colors to these bright flavors. This was really a fantastic soup, and in combination with the langoustines, a very enjoyable course.
Clément Klur 2004 Riesling Wineck Schlossberg (Alsace Grand Cru)
Then we had some more asparagus, and thankfully it was cooked a little more this time — Asperges vertes et blanches au cumin, purée de cédrat, sauge cassis, amandes caramélisées. Fat stalks of green and white asparagus were seasoned with cumin and Andean silverleaf sage. The former brought a smoky aroma while the latter smelled of blackcurrant (hence the name in French). What I mistakenly took for a quenelle of potato purée on the side was actually citron, which brought vibrant acidity to the dish along with the candied citron zests scattered around the plate. A few caramelized almonds provided a contrasting texture and a nutty sweet flavor.
Domaine de la Louvetrie 1993 Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Fief du Breil (Jo Landron)
We had a couple of fish courses, the first of which was the Sériole sautée, coquillages cuisinées légèrement, purée des légumes verts, confit d’agrumes. A piece of sautéed yellowtail came flanked by a small abalone and a plump mussel. The shellfish were slightly firm outside but soft within, while the yellowtail was fork-tender and flaky. Each had been seasoned only with salt (if even that), allowing their clean natural flavors to come through. A green purée that we couldn’t identify brought a vegetal component to a dish that would have been totally out to sea otherwise. Yet another appearance of citrus confit created a nice flavor balance between salty, bitter, sour and sweet.
Pierre Gonon (2006??) Saint-Joseph Les Oliviers (Blanc)
Next came the Saint-Pierre cuisiné lentement, chou-fleur, piment doux, câpres, puntarelles. This filet of slow-cooked John Dory was served with cauliflower dressed with a sweet-and-sour (and salty) combination of capers and sweet red peppers. There were also a few pieces of puntarelle, a slightly bitter Italian green vegetable in the chicory family that none of us had tried before. Those are the spiky things in the picture that look like the lovechild of an asparagus tip and a shrimp head. They were crisp and delicious. But the fish here was unfortunately overcooked. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it tough, but we all agreed it was a bit on the firm side. Whether that firmness can be attributed to the cooking method (I’m not convinced by slow-cooked fish) or just plain human error, I don’t know. But that misstep dragged down an otherwise quite flavorful course.
Bodegas Toro Albalá 1922 Viejisimo Solera Amontillado ??
Then we had a simple but great dish of Poitrine de porc, haricots blancs, émulsion de chorizo. This thick slice of pork belly with equal layers of fat and meat was meltingly tender. It rested on a little bed of small white beans in a delicious chorizo emulsion rich with chili and paprika. This was exactly the kind of dish I would have expected from a disciple of Alain Passard — a straightforward and to-the-point composition of flavors combined with great ingredients and great technique. We all really enjoyed this dish, Julien so much so that he snuck downstairs to ask for a second round. This request was kindly obliged, much to my delight. There’s a special place in heaven for people like Julien.
Causse-Marines 1996 “Mysterre” Vin de Table (Patrice Lescarret; Dix ans de voile)
There’s also a special place in heaven for whoever cooked the Poularde de Bresse aux morilles, fondue de parmesan, sauce au vin jaune. I assumed this fattened young Bresse hen had been roasted but Julien pointed out that it was cooked on the stove. Whatever the cooking method, the results were firm yet juicy flesh and delectably crispy skin. This was a million miles away from that boneless, skinless, lifeless bird that often passes for chicken where I’m from. We all agreed the poularde was undersalted, but the staff were quick to help us remedy that. Underneath the meat was a creamy parmesan fondue, sautéed morels, and a sauce enriched with vin jaune, all of which made for a delicious backdrop for the bird. Really a stunning dish, and certainly one of the best of the meal.
Dessert time finally rolled around, starting with the Sorbet piment-citronnelle, or lemongrass and hot pepper sorbet. This is the kind of thing Thomas Keller might ironically call “IcyHot” on his menu (though I can’t say I’d recommend this for a topical analgesic…). Cold and hot danced on the tongue at once, making this a great palate cleanser as we segued to the sweeter end of the meal.
Joh. Jos. Prüm 2003 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese
Adam later asked us which dish had been our favorite of the meal, and my knee-jerk reaction was the Sabayon à l’orange amère, nougatine (though I later allowed that it was clearly the foie gras). This light and frothy bitter orange sabayon was spiced in a way I found just intoxicating. There were pieces of nougatine at the bottom of the dish, providing a sweet crunch that really complemented the silky sabayon. Yet another composition that was relatively simple and focused yet utterly delicious.
I also very much enjoyed the Tartelette pistache-abricot, mousse de rhubarbe. The tart dough contained little bits of pistachio and dried apricot, and the rhubarb mousse it held was airy but thick like shaving cream. I would even recommend that Barbot bottle and sell it as such, although I’m pretty sure it would leave people licking their own faces incessantly. The mousse was sweet but the natural tartness of rhubarb was still allowed to shine through. Really nice.
The sweets kept coming, and next was the Mousse au safran et citron vert, sablé breton. A small cylinder of saffron mousse dotted with tiny bits of lime zest sat on top of a buttery, crumbly little cookie. Our friend noted that the mousse tasted sort of like Trix cereal, which was funny but true. Silly rabbit. I found the mousse to be quite flavorful, and by now I was certainly impressed by Barbot’s effective use of citrus in both his savory and sweet creations. I’m not surprised that he was once quoted as saying he simply could not cook without it.
The Lait de poule au jasmin also elicited memories of home, or in this case a home cleaning product. Adam asked me what I thought this Jasmine-infused eggnog smelled like, and my response was ♪♪ Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean ♪♪. The odd thing is, as much as I didn’t care for the smell, I actually liked the pleasantly sweet taste of the eggnog and the creamy feel on the tongue. Not too bad at all.
They brought out a little basket of Madeleines au miel de châtaignier, or chestnut honey madeleines. These little cakes were good, but I couldn’t help think about what a big difference it makes when they arrive warm. In any case, finally winding things down we had a plate of fruits frais, including grapes, orange, mango and medjool dates. All the fruits were very fresh and of great quality, with the dates being so exceptionally good that we got a second round of them.
We had come in around 12:30, but by the time all was said and done it must’ve been around 5:00. It was a dark and rainy day outside, so it didn’t look like that little walk by the Eiffel Tower was going to happen after all. But what did I care, really? Sightseeing is not the reason I travel. I came to Paris to eat, drink, rinse and repeat. And so far that was going quite well.
I’ve read assessments of l’Astrance ranging from "weak" to "excellent" and everything in between. And maybe just one visit doesn’t allow me to rest firmly in any of those camps. But I will say the place made an awfully good first impression. Barbot’s cuisine is calculated and graceful, deftly combining a few great ingredients with studied technique and a dash of whimsy to create something singular in every sense of the word. The wine pairing arranged by sommelier Alexandre Jean was so skillfully done that I was nearly in disbelief. To be quite honest, a few of the dishes didn’t thrill me on their own; nor did some of the wines. But the combinations of the two that Jean and Barbot dreamed up that afternoon were truly alchemical, completing and challenging and enhancing one another at every turn. My first reaction to the service from M. Rohat was that it was a bit cold, but as we interacted more I realized he simply exudes the same sort of confidence that shined through on our plates and in our glasses. This small team in the kitchen and the floor creates a restaurant that is comfortable in its own skin. Crisp and delicious in more ways than one.
We made a huge mistake at our last meal at L’Astrance. We went with the cheaper lunch menu and didn’t do the wine pairing. Therefore, I missed having Chef Barbot’s famous Galette de champignons de Paris et foie gras mariné au verjus, huile de noisette, citron confit. I had loved this dish last time we were at L’Astrance and watched enviously as other diners were savoring each and every bite of this fantastic dish. Also, they truly pick dishes to match the wine and as we were drinking just a white, our final savory course was a disappointment - Veal with salsify and veal jus that was just a hunk of meat and bland.
Our meal in 2006 was superb, so this was a disappointment. I truly blame it on ordering the cheapest menu.
Brioche with spicy butter and a spoon of parmesan custard. This was subtle, but at the same time a pleasant mouth-feel—think of a gougere as a set-up for what would come.
French pea puree with rosemary yogurt and mint and lemon juice. It was crucial that you mixed this up—the flavors were both subtle yet delicious.
The famous mushroom/foie gras Napoleon. The bottom layer was almond pastry crust, then a foie gras slice, next a layer of thinly sliced Paris mushrooms and so on with a final top layer of the pastry. Also on the plate a small dab of roasted lemon “custard.” Our waiter explained that the lemon functions as the mustard. In addition there was an herb that was described as “amai prop” anybody’s guess. It was supposed to impart a mushroom quality. This was delicious with extraordinary taste and texture. This is clearly a signature dish—innovative and delicious.
Langoustines a la nage with peanuts, spicy butter, borage and chives. The langoustine itself was superb and the broth had a decidedly Asian feel — perhaps from the ginger. There were small bits of peanuts that did not detract, but did add texture more than taste. There was also some type of “veggie” that was supposed to taste like mushroom. On the side a “leaf” that was done tempura-style. It was supposed to mimic fish. The accompaniments were not essential to the dish. The quality and taste of the langoustines was superb.
Halibut with cabbage, lemon and ginger, mauve, sweet pepper and lemon, wild leaf and saffron mousse. What is interesting is that we were the only ones served this dish—the couple to our right got cod and to our left they received rouget. The halibut was outstanding and each of the elements added an interesting but well thought out note.
Pigeon with rosemary jus, morels, white asparagus and a parmesan cheese sauce.
Again, we were the only ones having this dish. Everyone else was having veal. In a word, the pigeon was magnificent—perfect pigeon breast, a tiny leg, the thigh and an exquisite tiny liver. The 3 morels at the bottom of the plate were excellent. The white asparagus spears were to the far left and far right and the parmesan cheese “sauce” was a small pool in the middle of the plate.
The surprise course—lemon-thyme ice cream with white cheese (fromage blanc) and potato mousse—delicious.
Pepper sorbet with lemongrass—excellent.
Sabayon with Roquefort and vervena …yes, those who have been there, we skipped the famous egg nog in a shell, all of the chocolates, the tarts, etc as we were having dinner at L’Ambroisie that night.
Our 2008 meal with pictures here: