jeudi 13 septembre 2007

L'Astrance: two young men reinvent the Grand Restaurant

(photo Olivier Pascaud)

La version française est ici.

So what’s going on in this restaurant that has been all the fuss in Paris for a few years now, which ranks high on the “hard to get a table” list, and to which Michelin just awarded the third star? Pascal Barbot, says Bibendum, is “au sommet de son art” (at the top of his game). You have no menu as such but a “surprise” menu, and you are asked what you don’t like or can’t stand. Your only option is to choose or not the wine pairing proposed. At dinner, 170€ for the food, 270€ with the wine pairing. Here and there you can find images from other sites and from other meals, since I wrote this review back when I was opposed to pictures. Thanks to all photographic contributors, and of course they can write me any time if they oppose this use of their pictures.

This non-menu is a great idea, because who better than the Chef knows what is good today, and what he feels like doing that day? Not the client for sure. It is a win-win combination, as clients get the best possible experience and the restaurant does not have to manage complicated stocks. Robuchon used to say, before he retired from haute cuisine, that it would be the ideal option if it could be done. Well, I guess times have changed, and here come Pascal Barbot and Christophe Rohat, achieving Robuchon’s dream.
(picture Peray)

After amusing amuses (literally a coffee spoon of “Parmiggiano fondue” with a nice, smooth texture, and a lemon-rosemary brioche), the first evidence of a great talent came in a little glass, filled mostly with a mousse of peas on a bit of lemon yoghurt, some ginger foam on top, two flower petals. This is all made in great Passard-style, pure and minimalist, without cream, butter or any added fat. Of course, as everyone knows since Conticini, you must take your spoon to the bottom of the glass, so that everything mixes in your mouth. The pea is here, rich and vegetal. When vegetables are that fresh and good, that well cooked too, they have something sweet and fruity, like a well matured fruit. And this is exactly what the seasoning achieves and emphasizes here, turning this little glass into a vibrant ode to pea.

The foie gras au verjus, Paris mushrooms, confit lemon is a classic of the house. From the name, you would imagine some sort of a pie, big chunk of liver, chopped mushrooms poelees with butter, some zests, wouldn’t you? Maybe puff pastry? But it is actually a superposition (a mille-feuille) of thin slices of raw “Paris” mushrooms and thicker slices of marinated foie gras. A little quenelle of a lemon sauce on the side, taste of an unsweetened lemon tart (though I don’t think there are eggs inside), and a powder of cèpes mushrooms (porcini) on top. Mushrooms have that beautiful shiny white color indicating that they were recently harvested, recently sliced… and carefully selected.

Is is at first very fresh and disconcerting, almost tasteless. It has been mould in a big salad bowl, then reversed in a plate, and sliced like a part of some cooking-free, puff pastry-free, post-modern, pie. As you come closer to the edge, either your taste buds adapt or the concentration in verjus rises, but the taste gets stronger, and unveils a nice balance which is actually centered around the taste of the raw Paris mushroom. There again, this ends up being a celebration of tastes that only exist in high quality, hyper-fresh vegetables. It is also a somewhat Zen, Buddhist dish, playing with tastelessness.
(Photo Steve Plotnicki)
Most remarkable was the Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel valley served with the first courses, very sweet and tender but also quite light (less than 8°). Alexandre, the sommelier, is an alumni from the golden age of Lucas-Carton/Senderens (i.e. basically three years ago…). Globally, he offers wines that are very well made, rather discreet and even a tad austere, always with very carefully considered pairings. Dishes do not bother to adapt to wines here (unlike what Senderens does), and they change every day. So Alexandre is not trying to accentuate a particular dish with the exact right wine, but opts most of the time for complementing the flavours of the dish with the wine. Vouvray sec with the shellfish, Meursault with the turbot/cabbage/lemon and the red Languedoc all occupy the “taste space” that the dishes leave free, yet with an harmony in the acidity, which is present in wines and in almost every dish (lemon, lemongrass, ginger seem important here).

From there to the dessert, the dishes were, in my opinion, less successful and mastered. A shellfish jelly was an unexpected dish, very minimalist, just an intense shellfish taste, too strong for my American co-diners. It’s like some sort of mouth washer from le Guilvinec, capital city of the langoustine. Immediately after come some langoustines tails (the same whose head were used for the jelly, I guess), in a soup which, we are said, is inspired from the Vietnamese Phó. Langoustines stand out because they are on top of plenty of spring vegetables, herbs and flowers. This is visually superb, full of colours with the nacre of the langoustine, the soup in the background and the touches of red, blue and green from the flowers and herbs. There is also a great balance of taste in each bite that include some langoustine. Each bit is different, but always great. Once you’re out of langoustine however, the dish is less exciting.
(Nage marine et potagère d'Olivier Roellinger, photo Maisons de Bricourt)
I can’t talk about this soup without mentioning the « nage marine et potagère » of Olivier Roellinger in Cancale. It is also based on shellfish and vegetables, with a stock poured on it that has lemongrass and other Asiatic flavors inside. Tastewise, it is the same good idea, but it is better mastered and, in the end, better in Cancale.

Back at l'Astrance, the side of a perfectly cooked and wonderfully fresh turbot comes some “chou pointu” (cabbage), with marinated onions underneath and raw sardine on top. Further in the plate stands a dose of a sweet pepper-spinach condiment, on the other side of the fish lies a line of red sauce. The fish sits in a lemon-ginger sauce. Each element goes well with the turbot. The sardine, cabbage and onion are like a separate dish within the dish, isolated. Like in the soup, the taste of the fish develops well and differently in each bite, it is not overwhelmed. If you try to mix everything in a bite, well, first it’s really difficult, and second it’s no good at all.

So this one gave the impression of a dish that refuses to pick a lane, cabbage or spinach, lemon or ketchup. By the way, discussing with Christophe Rohat at the end of the meal, I used that idea that this cooking often refuses to chose, and this became a misunderstanding as he thought that I was referring to the no-choice menu.
Let’s forget about a course of girolles, poached egg, yellow wine emulsion, Bellota, summer truffle, caramelised almonds on Parmiggiano fondue, that was not only excessively complicated but mostly wasted by bad girolles. The next dish makes the Chef proud and my co-diners happy. Cauliflower, smartly resting on a bed of chorizo coulis (blended and filtered chorizo). Raw almonds bring crunch, a slice of Bellota brings salt, meaty flavour and a counterpoint, summer truffle brings nothing. When we discuss this in the end, the Chef tells me “why could cauliflower not be the central element of a dish”? Damn right he is. But he also tells me that the dish was initially created with these summer beans from Brittany, the coco from Paimpol (picture above -- MobyP) instead of cauliflower. And I am very sure that this mus be an amazing dish, and this confirms my first impression of the dish: it is good, it could have been so much better.

The main course was a grilled lamb saddle, flavourful, tender, slightly crispy on top, seasoned and cooked with a Formula 1 precision. A little rectangle of miso laqued eggplant, melty, sweet and spicy, intensely eggplanty. That was just perfect. But the Chef is afraid of getting bored, and he is sickened after a few bites of the same dish, he told me. So he thinks the dish is better with barely cooked (or not at all?) Japanese daikon and a coffee-wine-chocolate condiment. Now I understand the diversity of flavours and textures this offers, and the possible bilateral agreements inside. But, while it clearly signs the dish, I don’t think it makes it better (photo lxt: miso-laqued eggplant, grilled lamb saddle).

A puree of sweet potato, slightly warm, with a vanilla ice-cream on top, is a transition to the firework of deserts (“à la Gagnaire” they say). It is an abundance of little flavourful sweets. They are good, some very good like this peach-apricot clafoutis, this pomegranate île flottante with a nice big hairy raspberry on top, that nice lemon tart. Then a pepper and ginger sorbet cleanses the palate and the next serving is even nicer, madeleines and fresh fruits.

So what do we think? I hope you have enough elements to make up your mind. In this little street of the fancy and residential 16th, an incredibly gifted and talented Chef freely invents. He adapts his cooking to the best ingredients available that day. He is a master of seasoning and cooking, and has plenty of ideas. His cooking, (unlike Gagnaire's, btw) is easy to digest, not fat, based on vegetables, fruits, flesh and aromas. The team around him (from what I was in the dining room and what I guessed from the kitchen) shares his enthusiasm and commitment. Even though every diner has to take the menu surprise, I noticed that different tables do not receive exactly the same dishes, and I have no doubt that dishes evolve almost daily.

L’Astrance brings together the Gagnaire spirit (invention, improvisation, research even, the cult of the artist and the movement) and the Passard methods (the veneration of the raw ingredient, the absolute precision of cooking and seasoning, team work in a place which is too small).

Yet I did not exit l’Astrance with any desire to come back. Surprising, exhilarating, young and nice things are going on here. Two young and great professionals are revolutionising what you expect from fine dining. But in the end, I expect from a three star experience that it be turned towards me, and my impression of l’Astrance is that they are “beyond” the idea of client satisfaction.

Given that they are one of the most difficult restaurants to get a table at, I am not afraid of hurting their business when I say that I remain to be convinced.

Great job, kids, but you don’t need me.

4 rue Beethoven F - 75016 PARIS
+33 1 40 50 84 40

2 commentaires:

Anonyme a dit…

For Hi-resolution photos and menus of restaurant L' Astrance please see below:

Liz a dit…

I haven't even got to the end of your post yet, but I was struck by the phrase about wines that "occupy the 'taste space' that the dishes leave free". That's a great distillation of what creating an effective contrasting wine match is all about! Thanks!