Thursday, January 8, 2009

L'Astrance: Trois Etoile

One of my Christmas presents this year was a lunch at L’Astrance, a modern and naturalistic space in the sixteenth near Trocadero. Pascal Barbot is one of the youngest chefs in France boasting three Michelin stars and holds the rare honor of jumping from one star to three. The décor at L’Astrance is mostly black stone and blond woods with organic hints everywhere. Each table held a beautiful mini-bouquet of orchids in small volcanic rock vases and small enclaves were cut into the black walls housing ornate flower arrangements. It is hard to pin down Barbot’s cuisine; a fusion of traditional French technique with nuances of Asian and tropical ingredients garnered from his voyages abroad. The food was both minimalist and complex with almost maniacal attention to detail in all areas. There are three possible menus to choose from listed simply as lunch menu, winter menu, and L’Astrance menu. Menu in the French linguistic context refers to a tasting menu of set courses decided by the chef. My father and I choose the menu d’hiver or winter menu and sat down to our amuse bouche or preliminary little snack offered compliments of Mr. Barbot: a shot glass of pumpkin soup with cardamom-saffron mousse and mustard seed velouté. The silky roast pumpkin soup combined with the pale yellow mousse bursting with saffron flavor was out of this world and it took me a few bites to realize
the mustard seed affecting my sinuses.

The first course was a “galette” of raw foie gras marinated in verjus with white mushrooms or the poetically phrased champignon de Paris. The galette or multi-layered “pastry” was composed of micro-thin layers of raw mushroom sheltering slices of marinated foie drizzled lightly with chestnut oil. This is one of Barbot’s signature dishes and alone warrants the praise he has received at L’Astrance. The soft woodsy flavor of the mushrooms and the tangy flavor of verjus, a vinegary medieval condiment made from semi-ripe and unfermented wine grapes, complimented the foie gras perfectly.

The second course was Barbot’s version of a seafood platter consisting of a variety of sea foods surrounding a pool of dark purple algae butter. Each and every element was wonderful on its own while taking part in a progression as you ate from warm to hot and subtle to assertive. Here were the elements: two sea scallops with grated Meyer lemon zest and preserved lemon, Marenne oyster with some strange green leaf and pink caviar, roasted yellow beet with sturgeon caviar, a slice of orneaux which unfortunately does not exist in the states but resembles an octopus, and a razor clam and mussel dashi broth served in a small clay bowl to cleanse the palate. Little can be said to attest to the gustatory pleasure of eating this dish though I found the plating a little too minimalist bordering on boring.

The third course and second seafood dish was a fillet of halibut with a Thai carrot-peanut salad and a mango-papaya tartar. The sweetness of the fish, perfectly cooked through, was accentuated by the crunchy carrot salad featuring two types of julienned carrots, roasted peanuts, Thai basil, and red chili. A small quenelle of tiny minced papaya and mango was served alongside pairing excellently with the halibut. The knife work alone needed for the preparation of this dish is noteworthy enough though the flavors were right on par.

The fourth course was a “soup” to mark the transition from seafood to meat, a halfway point in the meal. Barbot prepared a delicious bowl of decadent black truffle soup representing the winter season and one of the crown gems in French gastronomy. The black truffle soup was coupled with celeriac puree and crispy wedges of Tome d’Auvergne, a creamy cheese from the Auvergne region. The highly flavored soup tasted absolutely of the forest and dirt in the best possible sense. The creamy puree ameliorated with god only knows how much butter contrasted nicely in both visually and olfactory with the stark black soup.

The final savory dish was a duck breast with baby winter vegetables and a jus truffee. The rare pink duck was cooked to perfection; cooked far less than the chewy duck passing at fine dining restaurants in America. The baby turnips and carrots were poached in what I believe was a chicken stock infused with fresh herbs permeating through their plump little bodies. The jus or truffled duck reduction was a classic pairing with the roast meat and thin slice of black truffle accompanying the vegetables.

The desserts were delicious in their own right even though I hardly ever lavish myself with sweet things at the end of a meal. The concerto of desserts served at the end of the meal would have made a sugar connoisseur of anyone. I will simply list them as I know next to none about the ingredients or methodology used to prepare sweets though I have nothing but respect for the art of the pastry chef. Here is the list of dessert offerings: potato and fromage blanc mousse with vanilla-thyme ice cream, lemon grass and Jamaican pepper sorbet, layered sugar cup with grapefruit sorbet, green tea mousse, and caramelized pistachio sponge cake, passion fruit clafoutie with zabaione and pine nut crown, and a finally a citrus-ginger rice pudding with honey gelatin and orange-caramel sauce.

We concluded the meal with a glass of Jurancon, a dry sweet wine, and an espresso. The coffee came accompanied much to our delight by a “jasmine egg”; an empty brown eggshell full of a milky concoction infused with bright jasmine flavor. The sweet creamy drink and bitter coffee were exactly what we needed to calm our palates before hitting the cold streets of Paris. Thank you Mr. Barbot and you will certainly be seeing us again in the near future. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

No comments: