Statistics alone would suggest that, of the twenty-plus meals I had in Europe earlier this year, there would be at least one dud.
I just didn’t expect it to be l’Astrance.
Perennially celebrated by chefs and “lists,” Pascal Barbot’s restaurant in Paris’s upper-crust 16eme is considered by many to be one of the best in the world. And its climb to three Michelin stars was one of the fastest.
Sadly, based on my meal there in January, I can’t join in their enthusiasm.
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Ingredient quality was not our objection. In fact, the produce, fish, and meat were all exceptional.
Plating and presentation couldn’t have been lovelier.
And the execution, with the exception of a couple of slightly overcooked langoustines and some gritty cockles, was unimpeachable. The stunningly cooked sea bass at course four, alone, was evidence enough of this kitchen’s capabilities.
But the flavors. Oy.
Of the three or four different menus offered, my friend – a regular and friend of the house – and I chose the top tasting menu (but not the seasonal, special menu with black truffles), which clocked in at around 190€.
Here is what we had:
Foie gras Mariné au Verjus
Galette de champignon de Paris, pâte de citron confit.
Mousse de lait, huître raidie, beurre de Kombu, fleurs sauvages.
Jus de mandarine, ravioles de Cédrat, condiment épinard et cumin.
Cockles and black bean sauce.
Feuille de chou cuisinée au Parmesan, purée de noix et Parmesan.
Celery root puree, Parmesan potato puree, black truffle puree, and black truffles.
Cuit à la poêle, aubergine laquée au Miso, curry noir, ail noir, jus de cuisson.
Mousse de Pomme de Terre
Fromage blanc, glace de vanille.
Citronnelle et Piment
Tiramisu à Notre Façon
Glacé miel et orange, crème de thé vert.
Sorbet Poire et Cannelle
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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I’ve encountered some pretty outlandish attempts at “fusion” cooking, at both the higher and lower ends of the culinary spectrum. And a couple of the plates we got at l’Astrance were among the strangest, if not the worst examples I’ve ever had – crude and groundless approximations of Asian flavors that, like a bull in a china closet, carried little regard for subtlety.*
Those slightly over-poached langoustines came with a chunky satay sauce that, other than an aggressive infusion of lemongrass, was indistinguishable from something you’d find at a mediocre Thai restaurant. As my friend aptly put it, blindfolded, you could have been eating this out of a take-out box. And blindfolded, you might miss the langoustines altogether. The sauce was so thick and spiced you really couldn’t taste anything else on the plate.
At course number five came a gorgeous slice of confit pork that was unfortunately accosted by a (fermented) black bean sauce so sweet it might have been caramel. The cockles had sand in them. I rarely see train wrecks in restaurants. This was a pretty gruesome one.
We both stopped eating. With a pretty direct message, my friend sent our plates back to the kitchen. Our server couldn’t have been more gracious about it, or sincerely concerned.
The apologies lasted a couple of courses, as our pork was replaced anew with the version from one of the other menus. This one was painted with Western umami – cabbage, Parmesan, and a rich demi glace. This was delicious.
And following that, the kitchen sent out a trio of purees – celery root, Parmesan-nut, and black truffle – topped with black truffle slices. This one too, was delicious.
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Barbot’s fascination with the Asian and exotic bled less harmfully over the rest of our meal. Although, we did suffer a plate of underripe tropical fruits at the end, a tradition, I understand, that is perpetuated despite the season.
In quite a few dishes, I wondered whether Barbot was trying a little too hard to be different. Some of the compositions were off-key.
Postage stamp squares of “kombu butter,” alone, were way too strong, concentrated jellies of soy sauce and seaweed. But mixed and melted into a frothy milk mousse, it became more palatable, a briny sauce for a beautifully cooked scallop.
The mandarin orange sauce that came with that fabulous slice of sea bass was a little sweet for me. And the ravioli of cedrat a touch too perfumey. But the tight little quenelle of cumin-spiked spinach was all the condiment I needed. Take away all the rest, and this fish course was easily the most impressive dish of the day.
And there was a blushing cut of venison – nicely cooked – served with a dark curry sauce, black garlic, and Miso-glazed eggplant. Together, it was a bit sombre and serious, but solid and safe. Nothing new was gained after the first bite.
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Were there no true pleasures?
Thankfully, there were a few, most of which appeared at either end of our meal, where the food seemed to stay closer to home.
At the beginning, there was a delicious slice of toasted brioche slathered with melted cheese flecked with black truffles. Beside the mini truffled toasts were marzipan chips piped with apple puree, a crunchy, sweet and sour croquant. These were great too.
At the end, I really loved a quenelle of pear and cinnamon sorbet, even if the bars of spéculoos underneath were completely forgettable. There was also an exquisite vanilla ice cream nestled in frothy potato mousse with fromage blanc.** And the madeleines made with chestnut honey were great, with a deep, sexy voice and a nice golden tan.
And what about Barbot’s famous foie gras and mushroom stack? It was alright. I wish there was more foie gras and less mushroom, and I’ll note that the citrus confit served on the side was a misfit. Personally, I found Stephen Harris’s version, which was inspired by Barbot’s, to be more satisfying and – well – inspired.
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Can my disappointments be simply blamed on a difference in taste? You know, Sondheim makes me cringe.
For Barbot’s (and Sondheim’s) sake, I’d like to think so.
But my lunchmate, who has been to l’Astrance many times and, according to him, has had excellent meals there, agreed that we saw some particularly piss-poor dishes at this meal. He’s never sent anything back to the kitchen at l’Astrance before. So, I can only hope that this experience was a sad exception.
I don’t need bel canto from a meal, as lush and easily digestible as that would be. But I do need a little melody. The tune at l’Astrance was a little hard to swallow.
What a pity.
4 rue Beethoven
* At the risk of appearing histrionic, I nearly gagged over the rich, jasmine-infused “lait de poule” (think eggnog) served in hollowed eggshells at the end of the meal. It was far too sweet and cloying.
** Without describing this dish, the server asked me to guess its contents by tasting it. Potato mousse, creme fraiche, vanilla ice cream, and thyme was my final answer. I was off by one – it was fromage blanc, not creme fraiche. Later, an acquaintance noted that his server had played the same little game with him.