Monday, June 24, 2019

L'Astrance Pascal Barbot

In the beginning of 21st century, with the big wave of Spanish cuisine and several years later, Nordic cooking ... some so-called pundits thought that French gastronomy food might be 'dead' soon. In the France itself, more and more chefs would rather open bistro / brasserie / simpler restaurant than fine dining places. However, the most famous alumni of L'Arpege and Alain Passard's protege named Pascal Barbot believed otherwise. Without much buzz, after having worked for the master of rotisserie and vegetable then traveling elsewhere for a couple of years, Chef Barbot quietly opened L'Astrance in 2000 in partnership with Christophe Rohat, who used to be Arpege's maitre d'hotel. Astrance is the name of the flower indigenous to Pascal's native Auvergne. It is probably the smallest among Parisian dining institutions but well-appointed and served around 25 clients per service. The charming restaurant with simple and modern decor was located in the quiet side street, not too far from the Eiffel tower. Solid yellow banquettes and chairs with white linens and 'grayish' textured walls were the most eye-catching things from the interiors. The focus was on the food. Within 2-3 years, L'Astrance became the hottest table in town. The phone never stopped ringing and a daily waiting list was normal. 7 years since the opening, L'Astrance was awarded the 3-star Michelin (Pascal Barbot was only 34 years young at that time), an honor the restaurant kept until early this year when it was demoted into 2-star again. Having been here twice prior to this lunch, I was cautiously optimistic that the kitchen would still be able to deliver top meal ...       

Unlike many other multiple star restaurants in France / Paris, L'Astrance does not serve any a la carte menu. There were a few options depending on the price level, but the cooking was always spontaneous. It was normal that sometimes different tables would be served different dishes although they both ordered the same menu. This method was risky with high pressure but this could be done because Pascal Barbot is a master in his craft with excellent technical skills and possesses a profound understanding of how to prepare any ingredients. Thanks to his creativity and imagination, the menu sometimes even changes on the weekly basis. Astrance is also unique since Chef Barbot often created dishes influenced or inspired by Asian flair (the chef used to work and often travel around that region). Despite that, the most frequent used products and technique applied were still (modern) French, executed at a high level. The evolution of the cuisine here constantly happening albeit slowly. Another strength of the restaurant was its wine pairing program. The wine was carefully selected and generally matched well with the food. My "half" surprise wine pairing was really satisfying. Many of the chosen wines need not be from big produces or expensive ones. Clients admired and appreciated this kind of Sommelier's ability. Alexandre Ceret was the current head wine waiter at Astrance.

My lunch began with small bites of Tartelette of black truffle and parmesan cheese - earthy and a little heavy; and Almond biscuit with apple and hazelnut - a little zesty and sweet. Like my past meals here, I opted for the most comprehensive menu and here is my food journey.

Menu Astrance

Foie gras mariné au verjus, millefeuille de champignon de Paris, pâte de citron confit (The "Napoleon" of white Button mushrooms (dusted with porcini powder), slices of green apple and Foie gras marinated in verjus served with Hazelnut oil and preserved Lemon) - The millefeuille was generally light and delicate having great texture and taste variations. The duck liver's warm rich taste was balanced fresh sharp apple, lemon acidity and woody mushroom. The interplay of crunchy champignon and creamy foie gras was clear and pleasant. The natural flavor of each ingredient could still be easily recognized. No doubt, it was the most famous and photographed dish at this restaurant. Similar to L'Arpege's egg, everybody has to have and savor this delicacy at L'Astrance. Given its portion, I don't think I would ever be bored with Pascal Barbot's signature appetizer.

Accompanied by wine: Vouette et Sorbée fidele Blanc de noirs Champagne (intense nose, rather complex taste with fruit and flower, little acidity, good aroma).

Bisque de crustacés, safran et raviole de Carabineros (Red Shrimp ravioli served in Shellfish bisque with saffron) - While the prawn was tasty, I found the ravioli's skin was slightly too thick. The flavorful emulsion had Asian touch, containing coconut milk. To tamper any rich taste and add some layers of textures, Chef Barbot put in cabbage, carrot and spinach underneath the bisque - in light of the rest of the dishes, this one was alright. 

Saint-Pierre, riz Japonais “Koshihikari”, beurre blanc la sauce soja (John Dory served with Koshihikari rice and 'white butter' emulsion) - If the previous dish had Thai influence, this one was inspired by Japanese cuisine. The perfectly steamed John Dory was mild with flaky texture. It went along with refined Japanese short-grain rice (fluffy and a bit sticky) seasoned by vinegar and a little citrus. The delicious "brown sauce" enhanced both the fish and the rice altogether; essentially it was a mixture of beurre blanc and soy sauce. I liked this sophisticated dish ... at the same time, I felt a few people might not enjoy it - not so French or too Asian perhaps?

Accompanied by wine: 2016 Domaine Jousset Montlouis-sur-Loire Premier Rendez-Vous (some minerality and acidity with smooth finish - good pairing with the fish and creamy cheese).

Velouté de céleri, coulis de Truffe noires, et Parmesan fondu (Celeriac cream soup served with melted Parmesan, Perigord truffle shavings and puree) - It was one of L'Astrance specialties in the Winter; the combination of these produce generated rich and robust flavors (buttery, creamy and ... slightly sinful), fragrant aroma as well as velvety texture. I tasted each element separately before mixing them to appreciate the dish even more. The wine pairing (with Chenin blanc-based wine from Loire Valley) was wonderful.

Croque Monsieur au Saint Nectaire et à la truffe noire (Toasted sandwich of St.-Nectaire cheese and Black truffle) - Another Pascal Barbot's signature dish in the Winter. Crispy and buttery toasted bread was filled by melting & soft cheese (tangy, sweet, mildly bitter) as well as cooked truffle (pungent, earthy, delicious) ... every byte was ethereal. Hands down it was the world's best croque monsieur and much better than Rostang's black truffle sandwich.

Accompanied by wine: Bartoli Vecchio Samperi Perpetuo Marsala 5 years (fresh, discreet, fine acidity, some orange aroma, a little nutty - beautiful pairing with the sandwich above).

Tourte Colvert et Foie Gras, salade à la Truffe noire (The pie of wild Mallard and duck liver, served with Black truffle salad) - Pieces of mainly duck breast and foie gras with some other parts of the duck were neatly encased inside relatively thin puff pastry. The meat was meticulously cooked with the right texture and taste; it was dense & rich yet not heavy and flavorful & deep yet not cloying. It was rightfully accompanied by sauce containing duck jus and some black truffle. The salad with light dressing + generous Perigord truffle shavings would add some complexity as well as tamper any intense flavor. It was nearly as perfect as L'Ambroisie's version. Nowadays, it was quite a rare feat for any top restaurants to create such dish and I was very pleased to have savored it in L'Astrance. 

Accompanied by wine: 2011 Domaine Combier Crozes-Hermitage Clos des Grives (fragrant, round taste, medium body, good density on the palate - excellent pairing for the gamey meat, here as well as with the pigeon).

Roasted Pigeon served with Salsify and Cherry condiment & almond - The breast's quality was superb and juicy; its flavor was nicely derived by the deep sauce (concentrated pigeon's jus with some black truffle). The versatile & savory root vegetable, crisp almond and tart cherry paste would balance any gamey / intense taste from this Loire valley bird. Pascal's slow cooked meat dishes rarely disappointed. The kitchen also prepared the Pigeon's leg and liver, which were more flavorful. There were also Juniper berries with distinct taste in this small bowl.

Sorbet piment, Gingembre et Citronnelle (A sorbet of Chili pepper, Ginger and Lemon grass) - The combination might not be usual, but it was a very good palate cleanser.
Chocolate souffle tart (melting, bitter, a bit sour) accompanied by salted caramel - intense but very pleasant. This was the main dessert for this lunch

Purée de pomme de terre, glace vanilla (Potato mousseline served with Vanilla ice cream, Thyme and Fromage blanc) - This 'mashed' potato was complex (though the picture looked simple) and tasty - a mixture of smooth potato, a bit sour cheese, and sweet & good quality ice cream. The temperature (hot and cold) and texture contrast were enjoyable. Many elements worked well together.

Madeleines au miel de châtaignier / Lait de poule au jasmin / Fruits frais
Honey chestnut Madeleine: crispy, fragrant and sweet.
Jasmine eggnog: aromatic and sweet.
Seasonal and fresh fruits: good but not exceptional.
Most of the sweets part at L'Astrance might be repetitive, but they're not overwhelming - kinda easy to eat and digest. 

The casual dining room was accompanied by a relaxed service. L'Astrance did not employ that many staffs in both kitchen and dining room. Therefore, most of the waiters including the Sommelier and Manager Rohat focused more on preparing the utensils, bring dishes to the tables and clearing the food. They tried their best to entertain or made a quick joke but I understood that until the end of the meal, it was quite challenging for the staffs to have a long conversation with clients. Chris Rohat made conscious effort to talk to me and a few other repeated guests when not busy. If one stays more than 2 hours during lunch or longer than 3 hours for dinner, one has a good chance to meet and talk with Pascal Barbot. He was gracious and amiable; when talking with him, Chef Barbot made sure to have an eye contact and usually was interested in listening to the customer's feedback. Pascal was quite well-known to be the nicest chef among the high-end restaurant suppliers. He trusted these artisanal producers to send the freshest and best ingredients to his restaurants although sometimes he's not sure whether the clients would like them. In short, on the day to day basis, it's normal that Pascal might not have the full picture of what to cook until the morning he arrived to Astrance. This was when his experience, creativity and spontaneous cuisine came to the rescue. 

There was a rumor about how kind Pascal Barbot was towards his alumni. He was very supportive when cooks that used to work with him wanted to open his / her own restaurants. I heard that Chef Barbot was even willing to assist / invest financially. Some of the current famous chefs that used to grace L'Astrance's kitchen were Shuzo Kishida (Quintessence) and Magnus Nilsson (Faviken). Pascal Barbot received the full support of Alain Passard when the Arpege's owner shared hundreds of his regulars to him upon opening Astrance and now he's doing something similar towards his "students". A beautiful cycle of generosity! L'Astrance may not be among my top 5 favorite restaurants in France, but it has been consistently performed at high levels (at 2.5* "Michelin" standard in my notes) based on my 3 meals here. At the moment, it's a 2-star restaurant but I like and value this restaurant more than my meals at Guy Savoy Paris or Le Pre Catelan. For a reference, here is my previous meal at Astrance - Astrance (early) Spring 2016. Whereas the pictures of the dishes above, can be found: L'Astrance Jan '19
Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 95/100