Wednesday, April 13, 2011

L'Astrance, Paris France

I was stunned – baffled even – the wind entirely removed from my sails; how could such a highly regarded establishment have failed to impress? With the Michelin 3-Star location previously ranking as number two on my list of “must visit” restaurants worldwide I originally thought that perhaps this was simply a case inflated expectations but no matter how I tried I couldn’t create a scenario where this was the case. “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” an idiom my friend and dining partner uses to describe restaurants where he feels many ‘pretend’ to understand the hype but where he fails to see what all the fuss is about sprung to mind – and then he said those exact words as we emerged from L’Astrance at the end of dinner on April the 13th, 2011.

Sure I’d read some mixed things about Chef Barbot’s small restaurant in the 16th – the difficult reservations (less than 180 diners a week,) the casual service (at times even aloof,) the controversially rapid ascent to three stars, and the fact that the chef’s-whimsy menu was oft speckled with duds amongst the brilliance…but honestly they were all risks I was willing to take because I’d heard that when the brilliance shined it was perhaps the brightest in modern East/West and Modern/Classic fusion today…and of courseenlisting the help of a Parisian familiar with the restaurant’s rather obscure did not hurt our chances, either.

With my sister once again opting to retire early for the evening it was with little effort that I found L’Astrance – as a matter of fact I arrived a full hour early to realize there wasn’t much else to do in the area and as such climbed the large stone staircase at the end of the street to explore the neighborhood until the restaurant opened its doors. Still arriving slightly early for our 8:30pm seating I was greeted at the door by Christophe Rohat and with the reservation confirmed was led to one of the two-tops along the wall – a large well-spaced table with two hand blown glass chargers, a thick white tablecloth, and fourstemmed glasses already in waiting. Greeted pleasantly by our server, a young man perhaps of twenty-five, I was offered water and on selecting still was left to browse the room until my friend arrived – a room that would eventually fill to capacity including a trio sitting at a four-top with their Chihuahua (something I’d have never expected even at a Michelin 1-Star in the United States.)

With my friend’s timing impeccable I spent perhaps 10 minutes at the table until he walked in the door at 8:30 sharp and all in all I must say the precise minimalism of L’Astrance is something to behold. With bare floors, goldenrod leather seating, high ceilings and plenty of mirrors the room is fancy without being stuffy and the small flowers in black stone vases add just a touch of softness to the otherwise hard lines, woods, and chrome. With my friend seated it would be a matter of moments before our server would return, confirm his water choice of sparkling, and present us with menus at the wine list. With myself not drinking my friend selected a red and a white to be paired with the appropriate courses and selecting the “menu Astrance” without restrictions we began.

With the dog table, the table to my left, and the table behind my friend already started and the table to my right receiving courses nearly simultaneously to us the first course of the evening was one of the few I’ve noted to be repeated in the experiences I’ve read from L’Astrance – an amuse of “Brioche with black truffle and parmesan butter and Marzipan wafers with apple gelee.” With the first buttery and savory as the perfume of truffle filled the palate and the second crisp and slightly sour with a smooth linger of almond these were nicely conceived and a welcomed starter.

With the slate (literally) cleared the next item to arrive at our table – a slightly sourdough flavored brown bread from Poujauran with salty Echire butter and extra fleur de sel – would also arrive with the first mistake of the evening as our server filled my friend’s sparking water with my still – a mistake that would actually happen twice and although harmless went without apology, merely replacement.

The second amuse of the evening, served shortly after our bread, was a double shot glass with three layers described as “Broccoli Veloute with Mustard Cream and Passion Fruit Foam.” Pairing my favorite vegetable with my least favorite condiment and one of my less preferred fruits I have to admit I did not have high hopes going in and much to my disappointment my fears were realized as nothing in this dish worked for me, not even the broccoli. While it is true that people less put off my mustard may have gotten a little more mileage out of this dish I simply do not see how bitter, acidic, and pudding-thick would ever “work.”

With an entire slice of bread and butter plus a glass of water cleansing my palate of the previous disaster the first proper course of our meal was Barbot’s most famous – the Parisian Mushroom Galette with Foie Gras, Apple, Hazelnut Oil, Lemon Cream, and Violet – yet despite the gorgeous presentation and large portion I was somewhat underwhelmed by the flavor. Sure the sweet pastry base topped with at least twenty layers of mandolined fungi, two thick layers of creamy foie gras, and a touch of razor
thin apple was a textural masterpiece and the very definition of the Chef’s focus on minimally manipulated ingredients, but the flavor was largely just mushroom and a hint of liver with the apple nearly undetectable, especially when paired with either of the sauces – and it was here that I started to

With the foie gras enjoyed but myself not yet feeling the sense of excitement I’d expected from an entirely spontaneous menu our next course would certainly deliver in the flavor department. Described as “Kombu, Yuzu, Scallop, Oyster, Oyster Leaf, and Crème Fraiche” this frothy soup was parts creamy and parts vegetal, parts briny and parts sweet, and each ingredient was flawless – particularly the nearly raw scallop and lightly poached oyster. Where the dish failed, however, was the manner of its construction – the Kombu an overly reduced paste and the yuzu a large slice, neither of which could be mixed with the other ingredients thus leading to one bite so saline that it could barely be swallowed and another tear-jerkingly tart.

Already noting Barbot’s affinity for acid and citrus it was no surprise that it would arrive once again in the next dish, but thankfully on this occasion it was done right. Described as “Spinach, Bergamot, Asparagus, Candied nuts, John Dory, Lemon, Curry” I’ll first note that the fish, my favorite, was flawless – slightly crispy on the exterior but moist and textural within while the smooth curry sauce lent a lovely aromatic touch to both it and the snappy curry-dusted asparagus alongside. With each bite of the asparagus slightly different due to the numerous constituents topping it, additional fun bites were found the intensely vegetal quenelle of spinach and a curl of candied lemon around bergamot scented cream.

Again showing an adept hand with fish and seafood the next dish was the best of the group even though it was once more an exercise in “which ingredient doesn’t belong?” Titled “Mackerel, Miso, Daikon, Meyer Lemon, Sardine, Buckwheat, Leek” and accompanied by a cup of “Smoked Anchovy, Creamy Rocket Veloute, and Frangelico” the answer to the question was Meyer Lemon – an ingredient I’m rather certain is not native to France, and thankfully an ingredient that was easily pushed aside. With the Mackerel actually glazed in Miso before being seared with the scale side down and then coated with buckwheat I can honestly say this was the best Mackerel I’ve ever had – a small portion, but a stunning one. Moving on to the soup – I only wish Barbot had used citrus like he did alcohol because although I have no idea how he thought to pair spicy arugula, fragrant Frangelico, and Anchovy I’m glad he did as each unique flavor seemed to balance the others into something wholly delicious.

Our fifth proper course of the evening would be the best that we would receive – a dish stated to be Guinea Fowl, Onion stuffing, Vin Jaune, Morel, Cabbage, and Comte sauce. Beginning with two rounds of the buttery smooth fowl – one breast and one leg – with a rich onion, wine, and oyster stuffing beneath the skin the bird itself was phenomenal and the plating a sight to behold. Not to be outdone, resting beneath the protein were a pair of opposites – large earthy morels piped full of a creamy cabbage puree and a roll of cabbage stuffed with chopped morels – both lovely and the whole plate all the better with an ethereal savory comte foam.

Having watched the earlier tables around us receive their dishes I was excited for the next course – a scarlet game bird that looked to be pigeon…unfortunately that course would never arrive and instead our next plate would be the plate that followed the pigeon for our neighbors – a “Tasting of lamb” with saddle, belly, confit of leg, and kidney plated with a quenelle of eggplant and licorice, green olive, miso, and mushroom jus. A veritable gout attack on a plate following the foie gras, sardines, etc this was actually my first time experiencing lamb kidney and although quite smooth and tasty it was my least preferred of the degustation as all the other portions were shining examples of young lamb done right. With the entirety of the plate quite savory and even the licorice and olive relatively muted it was again here that Barbot showed a great deal of restraint that I wish we’d have seen with the earlier

With both myself and my dining partner wondering what would come next and hoping for the pigeon our wishes were unfulfilled as the next course would be the night’s palate cleanser – a tasty and spicy sorbet of Lemongrass, chili pepper, and ginger. Inquiring from our server what the bird course was and what menu it was a part of we were merely told “the menu is different for everyone” and when we persisted and asked if it could be ordered we were simply dismissed with the same answer. Rather annoyed at this point by the intentionally vague answer more fuel was added to the fire as the couple to our left, the dog table, and one other received Barbot’s famous “surprise” dish - Mousse de Pomme de Terre – while my table and the couple to the right were again ignored.

For dessert, the collection would arrive as a trio – each unique, light, and tasty but only one truly memorable. Beginning first with a flat panna cotta of Rhubarb Compote with Pineapple and Rice Cracker the concept seemed similar to that of a crème brulee without the blowtorch and the sweet fruits balanced nicely beneath the crunchy cracker.

The second dessert, favored by my friend but largely underwhelming me due to my generally blasé feelings for passion fruit, was Passion Fruit Mousse in a Tart with Green Tea. Another extremely light presentation with the grassy matcha acting to even out the tooth-aching sweet mousse I actually enjoyed the tart – I only wish a different fruit would have been featured as its filling.

The final dessert, the least composed and most tasty, was Orange and Honey Ice Cream with Pistachio Cream and Shortbread – light and creamy, sweet but balanced by the buttery shortbread – and that Pistachio cream…it was potentially the best pastry cream I tasted in all of Paris.

Still sore about the pigeon and the mousse I’m rather certain the mood was palpable as the final bites of the meal were delivered rather coolly but with ample description – the first a pairing of Sticky yet delectable Chestnut Honey Madelines and a plate of fresh fruits including Dates, Pineapple, Mango, and Grapes and the second a Jasmine Eggnog served in an eggshell – a flavor I found cloying and my friend compared to the smell of a urinal cake.

With the bill settled, bag collected, and a copy of the menu requested it was not long before we found ourselves back on the Rue Beethoven just five minutes after 11:00pm. Having already noted my friend’s comments about the Emperor’s New Clothes with regard to not understanding the hype I will expound further and say that I actually DO understand the hype as the food can occasionally be brilliant. What I don’t understand is the restaurant’s attitude – serving whatever it wants to whomever it wants, placing eccentric and contradictory ingredients in places they never belonged – it is like they are unapologetically experimenting at the customer’s expense while treating the diner as though it is a privilege to act as a guinea pig. Who knows – perhaps I caught them on a bad night – but considering my previous three-star experiences both in Paris and Stateside there was simply no excuse for some of the dishes we were served…or the ones we weren’t served. Then again, I guess L’Astrance never offered an excuse and all things considering I imagine it never does – you’re paying for them to do whatever they want.


Anonymous said...

I had almost exactly the same experience in Summer 2008. The food was occasionally excellent, but often average. The service was incredibly terrible/condescending (you didn't do the wine pairings, but we did, and it was worse -- they wouldn't initially tell you what the wine was, only offering us a chance to 'guess'). It felt like we had done something to offend, as the other tables were clearly receiving both a friendlier attitude and additional courses. When I inquired about us 'missing' a few of the courses served to other tables, I got a similarly vague answer to the one you did.

uhockey said...

I've heard similar from a couple of people. It comes to me as no surprise that Barbot was invited to cook at Ko by David Chang in the past.....