L'Astrance: At the Crossroads
I recently had my second meal at this deservedly celebrated restaurant after a hiatus of two years. My first meal had revealed the courage of a young chef who was so ingredient focused that when he came across some outstanding cherries and strawberries he did not shy away from offering them in their natural format as a pre-dessert course with no manipulation. At the same time, the chef, Barbot’s, desire for minimal treatment of ingredients and his determination to eliminate sauces as binding elements in his dishes embodied some risks. That is, his cuisine seemed very dependent on the quality of the raw material and their proper execution, and any single mishap on these counts would prove more disastrous for this chef than for some other celebrated French chefs. In addition, elimination of binding elements implied that Barbot’s cuisine was very much dependent on the synergies between the dominant ingredient of a dish and the supporting elements. In that regard, although it was clear that Barbot was a painstaking researcher, he had not reached the maturity level and instinctual assuredness of his mentor Monsieur Passard of Arpege. I was very curious to try the restaurant a second time, and when I called, Monsieur Rohat, the co-partner and manager of the dining room, graciously granted my request, adding that they no longer served an a la carte menu, but a menu surprise for the whole table. "Is there anything you don’t eat?" he added.
As we had flown that day (March 28, Tuesday) from Roma to Paris amidst a general strike and student demonstrations (which, personally, I am in favor of because they remind me of my childhood’s Paris and a healthy resistance against importing US style "flexible" labor institutions), we were starving, as we had not had anything to eat the whole day. We were first to arrive at 8PM to l’Astrance. This rare situation gave me a chance to marvel how fitting the space for Barbot’s delicate cuisine was, and as guests began to arrive I glanced and noticed that the clientele was quite different than two years ago. That is, it was less bohemian and unconventional and clearly more "bourgeois", as fitting the plush and chic 16th arrondissement.
Normally, as more mature diners substitute for a younger clientele when a restaurant achieves fame (and increases its prices!), chefs tend to turn more conventional. I have not seen this in the case of Barbot. Indeed two of the most successful dishes, both of which merit 19, were hardly conventional. One of them combined a very rich beef tail (queue de boeuf) and Breton Belon oyster ragout with beets and an infusion of camembert. This was a luscious, decadent, and delicious "mer et terre" combination, where the beet jus added just the required acidity to balance the complex gras and iodized notes. Overall the dish was a study in how not to compromise deliciousness when one tinkers with texture and unusual combinations. Less unorthodox, but equally sumptuous, was a fried langoustines dish. Two gros langoustines, as fresh and sweet and big as the ones served at l’Ambroisie, sat on a pool of spinach with a foamy beurre blanc infused lightly by coconut milk and tamarind. It was served with a tartare of raw scallops and langoustines and with an infusion of small fresh shrimps (crevette grises). Clearly this dish is a nod to Pacaud’s now classic langoustines served on ethereal wafers and with a curry sauce, and Barbot seems capable of capturing what is the essence of French haute cuisine today, that is, harmonious and complex preparations which are not heavy or cloying.
All of the ingredients in these dishes were bound together
by well conceived infusions. Some other dishes were even lighter and less
robust, displaying elegance and extreme freshness. The foie gras, which was
layered by thinly cut crunchy Paris
Interestingly, two more dishes which reveal the same philosophy ended up in opposite poles. The slow cooked barbue (a turbot like fish which I admire) served with Pertuis green asparagus and morels and an accompanying light vin jaune sauce, was marvelous. The cooking method had extracted the maximum flavour from the very fresh, sweet fish, but had left the firm texture intact. Each bite revealed tender flakes and juicy, briny flavors. Crunchy asparagus, morels which tasted like morels, and the modicum of acidity and bitterness imparted by the deft saucing complemented the excellence of the barbu and did not detract from its deliciousness. Bravo!
Unfortunately the same slow cooking technique and minimum
manipulation did not work with the lamb from the Pyrenees. I was told that the gigot d’agneau from the Pyrenees was slow cooked, and it was not cooked sous
vide. Nonetheless, the texture was soggy, more like chewing a wet cloth, so it
struck me like a bad example of sous vide. Is this the fault of cooking or
mediocre quality? I don’t know. What I
know is that there is delicious lamb in the Pyrenees. But the best lamb dish in my recent memory
was a Pauillac gem that my gastroville partner, Mikael, found in a local
butcher in Monaco
Interestingly, the lamb I had eaten at l’Astrance two years ago was better, albeit not as good as Mikael’s Pauillac lamb. My conclusion is that, because Barbot opts for clear and focused tastes, which I admire, he may be flirting with potential disaster when he can’t find the quality material he needs (the lamb was accompanied by good leek and potato fondant).
A good sorbet (of lemongrass and red pepper) was served, and we concluded with a modern dessert combining mango-rhubarb-nougat glacee and caramelized walnut flavors.
This surprise menu is now 150 Euro per head. For an additional 100 Euro per head the sommelier offers to match dishes with different wines. Instead, for the same money, we opted for a 99 Roulot Bourgogne Blanc and a 2003 Roc d’Anglade from Pays du Gard which is 80% Carignane. The wine list is quite intriguing in that, as has been the case in the early years of Passard when he was a two star chef, l’Astrance, too, includes a great deal of new discoveries and some classics from the South of France. I expected the 99 Roulot to match our first course beautifully, and it did. Very harmonious and with good acidity (the sommelier rightly described the wine as very "vif" ) and minerals, the 99 Roulot is drinking beautifully and will improve. The Roc d’Anglade reminded me of a Peyre Rose, which combines a lush texture and forward crème de cassis and blackberry flavors with some elegance in the long finish. It also complemented the queue de bouef beautifully. I will look for this producer in the future.
I found the overall flow of our menu surprise good but not optimum. Serving the foie gras so early in the meal is unorthodox, and, despite the lightness of the preparation, I am not fully convinced. I also thought that the queue de boeuf was a more sturdy dish than the lamb. Somehow, compared to Can Roca and Mugaritz of Spain, Barbot has not perfected the flow of the meal yet (on the other hand, he doesn’t commit overt violations of good taste such as done at El Bulli). On the other hand, his consommé of smoked lard and grilled bread has to be tasted to see how clever the chef is, and this is a superb taste cleanser before the final course, the lamb dish.
Some other details are also satisfactory. The bread is very very good, and I was told that it is from Monsieur Poujauran. The service is discreet, and timing between courses is perfect. Monsieur Rohat is very attentive to details, and is a suave and gracious host.
Overall, this restaurant clearly deserves its current Michelin rating and should reach higher in the coming years. I found it to have improved during the last two years, as the chef seems capable of maturing and evolving towards a more luscious and complex style. I would be most curious and happy to return.
Ranking: 17.5/20 (VM)
April 12, 2006