L'Astrance, L'Astrance,L'Astrance, L'Astrance, L'Astrance, L'Astrance
I have a penchant for dining at places that are about to be bestowed their third Michelin star. Last year, I had a table booked at Sant Pao and within days the word came down of its promotion. This year, it was L'Astrance. I booked a table in December for a date late in January and, soon enough, there were rumors of its promotion. Let's see if I can accomplish the same feat in 2008. But unlike Sant Pao, which had already been promoted by the time I dined there, at the time of my meal at L'Astrance, its promotion was nothing more than a rumor (which was confirmed a week ago). But the circumstance made for an amusing evening and allowed me to joke with Pascal and Christophe, telling them that after the promotion they were going to have to borrow huge sums of money and move to larger and flashier quarters where Pascal will have to fancify his cuisine to pay off his bankers.
So how does a restaurant that seats twenty-five people, has a wait staff of five including Christophe, with a dining room the size of a decent hotel room, and which only serves lunch and dinner on Tuesday through Friday, manage to earn three Michelin stars? The key is in Christophe's answers to my teasing him about moving: "Things are perfect now" he told me. "We work hard for four days, have the weekend to relax and be with our families, and Monday's are for taking care of administrative work." He went on to say that, "we couldn't do it that way if we moved to a larger space." In an era where celebrity chefs are jet-setting all over the globe to open new locations while their flagship restaurants deteriorate in the process, Christophe's and Pascal's commitment to maintaining a high quality of cuisine, as well as a high quality of life, is a breath of fresh air.
We started with an amuse of a corn and yogurt veloute with some chile strands on top. Then onto what has become Barbot's most famous dish, a Napoleon of foie gras and champignons de Paris served with some lemon curd on the side. As our dining companion noted, it's a magnifencant use for the lowly white mushrooms that we typicaly use in casual salads. But in this instance, their lack of an exceptionally strong mushroom flavor allows the foie gras to shine through. And when they are chilled, it makes for a perfect contrast in texture. Then one of those magnificent sea scallops, perfectly cooked, in puree of mache with some crevette gris on the side. Simple but sublime. Finally, some delicious turbot with a curry foam on a bed of stewed white onion. Light and airy with just enough bite to it.
A brandade de morue in a lobster and ham broth was my least favorite dish of the evening. While similar to a dish that I had at Le Calandre last year, this version wasn't nearly as elegant or refined. Then what is becoming another signature dish at the restaurant, celery soup with truffle puree and parmesan mousse. Difficult to describe how good it is but it's a shame that one has to go to a fancy restaurant to eat it. I'd like a big bowl in my living room for a Sunday lunch. Maybe Pascal will make me a few quarts to emporter! But as if the soup wasn't enough, the next dish was the dish of the night in my book and a poster child for everything that is right in modern cuisine. Turnips poached and served in a pheasant broth with jullienned black truffles. Going from the thick, creamy and slithgly tangy celery and parmesan soup to the intensely deep pheasant broth was a wonderful contrast. But what made the dish was the amazing clarity of the broth, and intensely good turnips. Such profound simplicity needs to be applauded. We finished up with a tranche of veal that was slow cooked in the oven and served on a bed of leeks. An amazing hunk of meat which Pascal told me came from Paris butcher to the stars, Hugo Denoyer. Another example of how top quality ingredients can shine when they are exposed to the highest expression of modern culinary technique.
I'm not the greatest note taker when it comes to dessert, so you're going to have to use your imagination here. But I can tell you that the first dessert is the house specialty of sweetened fromage blanc blended with puree of potato. It's quite delicious and it has this wonderful grainy texture that is slightly gummy. It sort of reminds me of aligote, a dessert version, without the gumminess that the cheese brings to the dish.
So overall an excellent meal, although I think I preferred my lunch in January 2006 a bit more. But that's really picking nits. L'Astrance is now serving some of the most enjoyable meals in the whole of fine dining, deserving accolades not only for its cuisine, but for its amazingly laid back and casual atmopshere. Let's hope that Pascal and Christophe stick to their guns and stay in this location. I can't imagine the food would be as good if they were serving two to three time the number of covers they serve today. A-