Astrance, Paris 2
January 22, 2007
4 rue Beethoven 16e
Closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday
We went back to Astrance for dinner on January 17, 2007. The next morning François Simon of Le Figaro, perhaps France’s most influential food writer, wrote that he had a leak from the printer of the Michelin Guide that Astrance would receive its third star next month. So it will probably be a while before we can get another reservation as Astrance has only twenty-five places, four days a week. (For our first visit: see our blog post of June 11, 2005, when Astrance had just received its second star.)
We had reserved for 8:30 and, as it was raining, we assumed we could not get a taxi and so left our hotel at 7:40 to take the subway, which involves one change. But as we approached the rue du Bac Metro station, there were two taxis in the stand across the street. So we arrived by the restaurant just before 8:00. We sat in a sheltered bus stop on the riverfront and watched the Eiffel Tower, directly across the Seine, which sparkles from head to toe for the first ten minutes of every dark hour. This is a leftover of the January 1, 2000, Millenium celebration. The effect is quite spectacular when you can see the whole tower from up close, including the immense feet.
And so we were the first to arrive at the restaurant at 8:10. We were seated on the little balcony level, which only has two tables and thus we were able to look down on most of the other tables to see what they were being served etc. Usually arriving early means that one is ahead of the crowd as the kitchen slows down, but that was not the case here. Since almost everyone has the same thing, they don’t get the kitchen really going until about 8:50, but, since there are only 25 places, it moves along smoothly after that. But the early arrival gave us a chance to chat with our friendly and informative sommelier. I said that I was surprised to see the chef, Pascal Barbot, present when Ferran Adrià was holding a conference in Madrid. We were told that Barbot had been at the conference over the weekend; that he goes to Spain for research about six times a year and that he is always, definitely always, in the kitchen when Astrance is open.
After some discussion, the sommelier brought us a dry Vouvray for apéritif and a brioche with black truffles for amuse-gueule. He also brought us a bottle of the only water they serve, one from the Auvergne; there is a choice of sparkling or flat.
The chef’s partner and maître d’hôtel, Christophe Rohat, came by to chat. He told us of his brief recent trip to NYC where he had dined at Peter Luger, Per Se and WD-50.
Pascal Barbot and Christophe Rohat
The sparse Astrance menu had three choices: the surprise dinner at 170 €; the surprise dinner with surprise wines at 270 €; and a black truffle menu (without wines) at 250 €. We took the second choice (and when the bill came, that was it: 540 € with no extras.)
The first course was a foamy cod mousse. This, and the second course, were served with a German Riesling kabinet, which was dry, but not a trocken. We didn’t have to guess this one as it had been divulged during the discussion on the choice of apéritif. (All the wines for guessing are French.)
The second course was a wedge of a cake of thin slices of raw foie gras, marinated in grape juice, interlayered with thin slices of raw white “Paris” mushrooms, served with a bit of lemon jelly. This was excellent; when I remarked to the waiter that I remembered it from the last time, he said it was the only item always on the menu.
Third was a slightly cooked scallop on a bed of excellent watercress purée, too preciously garnished with a little shrimp and a dab of walnut. The wine was light and fruity, but with enough acidity to hold it together, and so I guessed chenin blanc, but it was a clairette from near Les Baux, Domaine Havette. It also went with the fourth course which was a piece of turbot on a bed of thinly sliced, cooked onions and greens with a dab of something. Barbot likes these little dabs, which didn’t seem substantial enough to me to be satisfying.
The fifth course was a truffled brandade of coarse cod, gratinée, served with a pork and veal sauce and little slices of veal. It was good, but the truffle flavor was faint and everyone seems to be serving variations on brandade nowadays. When guessing the wine, I noted that it was sherry-like, which won the approval of the sommelier as it was a 2000 Macle Côte du Jura, which uses the same evaporation aging process as Sherry. It was particularly enjoyable as it was unusual without being unduly exotic and went very well with the brandade.
Sixth came a purée of celery root with a generous swirl of purée of truffles. This was good, but not as extraordinary as the similar dish Linda had two nights before at Gaya Pierre Gagnaire or the truffled purée or eggs at Le Diamant Noir in Nice. The sommelier was not happy when I guessed the wine to be a viognier; it was a 1996 Meursault. We got a lecture about how well Burgundies go with truffles and that it was more refined than a viognier etc. But Linda and I both felt that it didn’t have the earthy Meursault character, perhaps because of its advanced age. Furthermore, we thought that a red Burgundy would have been better at this point, but we were informed that the chef likes to cook for white wines.
The seventh course was a nice filet of duck with crisp skin and a pink inside, served on a bed of leeks with a purée of beets. The wine was very closed and I didn’t hazard a guess, which was just as well as I would not have been close; it was a 1989 Pomerol, which had been taken from the cellar and poured from its magnum into the carafe just an hour before. The sommelier conceded that an hour was nowhere near enough time and told us how difficult it is for him to plan ahead because he doesn’t know in advance if the large tables will take the surprise wines or order from the wine list. We didn’t argue as all the discussions had been friendly and informative. He also didn’t argue with my point that a surprise wine list shouldn’t have Bordeaux and Burgundies; that Bandol, Cornas etc, would be more interesting. But the last two wines served had undoubtedly been in their cellar for a while, were interesting and certainly would be very expensive on a wine list.
There was no cheese course and we went on to the pre-dessert of a slightly peppered lemongrass sorbet. This, and the desserts, was accompanied by a 30-year-old Oloroso Dulce from González y Byass, a lovely dessert sherry, more interesting than a Sauternes style. The desserts were: jasmine-flavored pineapple; a foamy sabayon of maple syrup; a praline millefeuille with hazelnut mousse. Finally there was “hen’s milk” a mix of egg yolk and milk drunk from an eggshell with madeleines and pieces of fresh fruit.
So, assuming that François Simon is right that Astrance will be awarded three stars next month at the same time that Taillevent, Le Grand Véfour and others who have held them for years are downgraded, I guess I am obligated to give my opinion. It appears that Michelin is in the process of redefining what three stars mean. The theory has always been that the stars reflect cuisine and the Michelin forks represent sumptuousness. But this has become more difficult to support as hotels subsidize restaurants in order to have a three star attraction; as modern and foreign influences create wider differences of opinion as to what is great cuisine; and as the media play a destabilizing role. Well, I do not buy into the idea that the stars have to have their quota of women chefs, which seems to be happening, but I do think that a rethink of the stars is good. If the base of the new idea is the overall experience of the meal, then Astrance deserves its third star. Barbot’s cuisine is not as successfully inventive as Pierre Gagnaire, nor as instructively disciplined as Michel Bras, nor as flamboyantly aggressive as Marc Veyrat. If they are the standards, Barbot’s cuisine is not three stars. The lack of an à la carte menu will be held against him by traditionalists. But we had a wonderful time while there and the evening was totally focussed on the food and wine. François Simon gives Barbot great credit for holding down the number of seats so that attention can be paid. He tells horror stories of 120 seats at Taillevent and tour buses at l’Auberge de l’Ill. (The last time we were at l’Auberge de l’Ill, twenty years ago, we were so bothered by the table of Swedes next to us constantly chortelling loudly and taking flash pictures that we left without having dessert; but l’Auberge still has its three stars.) Anyway, Michelin doesn’t ask my opinion, but we are very happy to have been present twice during the rise of Astrance and plan to return when the media hubbub has died down and competitive eaters have gone on to somewhere else. We hope to find Astrance much the same and I hope to do a bit better guessing the wines.
For a review from a blog similar to ours of Astrance from April, 2006, go to: http://www.gastroville.com/archives/daily_posts/000039.html.
For one by a different author on the same blog from January 27, 2007, go to: http://www.gastroville.com/archives/2007/01/index.htm
This writer is a real poet. The Astrance review, in English, follows a quite elaborate one on Ambroisie in French. Sample;
4 times Chapeau! for the perfect cooking of the two rectangular pieces of lamb: There was an unbelievably thin and crunchy outer face of fat at the top that was colored like a perfect crème brûlée. It was thin and pure like a first layer of ice on top of a glass of water from the freezer just when it starts crystallizing but prior to development of any opacity. And, it had the right amount of smokiness despite all its fragile texture.