To think, I almost did not make it to l’Astrance. In all honesty, I had nearly crossed it off, naïvely pigeonholing it as a restaurant better suited to spring than midwinter. This was until a far better knowing friend told me ‘go! You must go!’ – and as regular readers may know by now, I always do what my friends tell me to.
Wanting to go is one thing, getting a reservation is another. Apparently a table at l’Astrance is not easy to attain; apparently there is a permanent two-month waiting list. The fact that, by the time I decided that I had to eat there, they had already closed for Christmas, did not help either. Nevertheless, undaunted, I called the morning they reopened (the fifth) and asked for a table for today (the sixth). I did have to ply not inconsiderable charm, then wait on hold not an inconsiderable while, but I finally got what I wanted.
In October 2000, Pascal Barbot and Christophe Rohat, formerly sous chef and maître d’hôtel at l’Arpège respectively, opened their own restaurant. With the aid of bank loans borrowed by the pair after Rohat won a prestigious Heidsieck Monopole prize for best restaurant business plan, the two bought a closed-down bistro in a sleepy street in the 16th. They were an instant success. Leading Parisian critic, Bénédict Beaugé, even commented that their new venture was ‘the most important gastronomic event’ of the time. Such coverage, as well as Passard’s personal mailing list of five hundred loyal clients, ensured that from then on, l’Astrance would be one of the city’s most sought-after tables.
Within only months (five) of setting up, Michelin awarded them their first star (2001), though they did have to wait a little longer for the second (2005) and then third (2007). With this dramatic, rapid rise came controversy. l’Astrance, the smallest and most casual of Paris’ three stars, is different. First, there is no traditional menu. Instead, diners choose how many courses they want and the kitchen chooses what to prepare – a scenario that Joël Robuchon once fantasised about, but did not think possible. Secondly, classic French cuisine and ingredients i.e. heavy saucing, cream, butter have all been abandoned in favour of a healthier, lighter cooking with a decidedly Oriental leaning. Going against the grain however gained them their detractors, some of whom even claimed that the restaurant’s third étoile was political: at the time, there was a cloud around Michelin concerning the stress, emotional and financial, faced by chefs desperate to cling to their stars and they alleged that informal l’Astrance’s third was the guide’s attempt to dispel this. Whether the accusation is true or not, not many would argue that the food here is not of the highest standard and that Barbot is not a talented chef. The pair also seem happy regardless; with a team of half a dozen in the FOH, the same in the kitchen and a self-imposed fifty-covers-a-day limit ‘things are perfect now. We work hard for four days [and] have the weekend to relax and be with our families,’ to quote Rohat.
Barbot, who spent his childhood harvesting vegetables in the family garden and watching his parents cook, claims he knew from the age of seven that he wanted to be a chef. With this in mind, he attended cooking school before stints at Maxim’s, Clavé (1*) and Troisgros (3*). He then moved to London to work under Joël Antunes at Les Saveurs (1990-92) before completing his military service, which had him cooking for the admiral of the French Pacific fleet and island hopping between New Caledonia, New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji. He returned to France in 1993 and joined l’Arpège (3*) where he met Rohat. Here, ‘five magical years liberated [him] and gave [him] the desire, with Christophe, to rehabilitate a certain idea of the restaurant that, for [them], must be a place of interchange, coherence and complicity.’ Prior to realising this ‘idea’ though, he went to Ampersand in Sydney for a year (1998-99) and, on his second return, he and Rohat had a very brief spell at historic Lapérouse. Within months, however, they were gone and l’Astrance was born.
The astrance title is not, of course, without a story of its own. Parisian restaurateurs share a belief that having a name starting with A is advantageous as this places them at the beginning of dining guides thus improving their chances of customers calling them first. Barbot and Rohat think the same way, but were at a complete loss as to which A they would use. This was until Rohat, one day hiking in the Auvergne, came across a wild, ironically inedible, star-like flower called Grand Astrance. He immediately phoned his partner…
Barbot, who includes Passard, Gagnaire, Bras, Veyrat and Wakuda as inspirations, is somewhat of a maverick in the kitchen. Rarely does he use measures or weights; his favourite tool is a mortar and pestle he brought back from Thailand with which he loves to make curry paste; just hours after dinner service, he can be found strolling the city’s food markets, like that at Rungis or Iéna; and he is even working with molecular gastronomy scientists. He is impulsive – last-minute weekend trips to Sweden, Morocco and Italy are not unusual – and has an adventurous spirit – James Cook is his hero. In contradiction to his Vichois heritage, his cooking principles are humble, ‘one can do as many things with citrus as with a truffle for example; for me, one and the other deserve the same attention.’ He marries all these influences together to create contemporary, dynamic and exciting food.
l‘Astrance’s unassuming façade is formed of windows filled with bushels of straw. There is a small wooden bar to the left as one enters; to either side of it there is a spiral metal staircase leading, on the left, down and, to the right, up to a cantilevered chrome balcony bearing two tables. Beyond the bar, the Bauhaus dining room, encased by high ceilings and textured, charcoal grey walls has warehouse chic. Bright apricot leather banquettes and chairs stand on stone tile floor. There are just twenty-five covers, but the seven small and single, circle centre table are well-spaced, surely at the expense of larger capacity. The area has a larger-than-real feel from horizontal and vertical mirrors with gilded frames that hang on the walls, which are also inlaid with flower stations. On the far side, a grey, portholed swing-door leads to the kitchen; its colour matches the tall steel poll that is planted in the room’s middle. Uncluttered tabletops are laid with only little vases fashioned from black rock, Bernaudaud crockery and charger plates that come in different tie-dyed shades. Spotlights and recessed halogen panels provide illumination. The room certainly reflects the cooking; minimalistic, colourful and modern. It is also functional, but comfortable; urbane, but modest.
La carte covers merely two pages. One side offers three choices: menu Déjeuner (three courses), menu Hiver (five) and menu Astrance (seven) – each with or without wine pairing. An inventory of ingredients on the other side intimates at what may come. One simply must decide how many dishes they want and let the staff know if there is anything on the list they cannot or will not eat.
Pour moi, bien sûr, c’etait le menu Astrance…
Amuse Bouche 1: Biscuit sablé et feuille de thym; pomme vert et raisin au café et cognac. Biscuit sablé square inset with thyme leaf came with coffee and cognac soaked raisins and sliced Granny Smith quarters. Already on the teaspoon, the biscuit required minimum effort to eat. The texture was more of fudge – brittle to begin, but then breaking apart and melting into a rich paste – yet the flavour was only subtly sweet with mildly menthol linger. The plump and permeated raisins had a very gentle hit of cognac-coffee to them and the sour green apple was fresh; having them together, however, had little extra effect.
Le Pain: Pain campagne. For bread there was but Hobson’s choice of country brown and bought-in, but at least bought from Jean-Luc Poujauran. If we judge Paris’ bakers by how many three Michelin-starred restaurants they supply, his bakery is the best and by some margin. The slightly sourdough slices had crunchy, lightly charred crusts with fluffy middles and fairly open crumbs. The well-salted butter was Échiré from Deux-Sèvres and carries the AOC stamp of approval.
Amuse Bouche 2: Velouté de courge, yaourt à la graine de moutarde, mousse du lait au safran et cardamome. A shot of butternut squash soup sitting on mustard seed yoghurt and topped off with saffron and cardamom foam formed the second amuse. The sweetness of the velouté, which had a pleasingly grainy thickness to it, was balanced by the sourness of the yoghurt beneath. The mustard had minor effect offering only a limited heat. Saffron and cardamom meanwhile had surprising strength and clarity, bringing floral, punchy warmth with them.
Entrée 1: Galette de champignons de Paris et foie gras mariné au verjus, huile de noisette, citron confit. Innumerable micro-thin laminae of raw, mandolined Paris mushrooms, assembled on a maple syrup sweetened sheet of pâte â brik, made for an aesthetic alabaster architecture, interrupted only by ingots of verjuice-infused foie gras and flecks of lemon and orange zest; cèpe powder peppered its testudo-esque carapace while confit lemon and hazelnut oil occupied either side of the plate. Although rather fine, the feuilles of fungus still offered a bite that contrasted agreeably with the buttery consistency of the foie, which having arrived at the right temperature, was already ready to melt immediately on the tongue; the flavours were also in as much accord – the earthy, woody delicacy of the former reflected equally by the richness of the latter. The crunchy, sweet pastry, secreted citrus and earthy cèpe sprinkling each added to, rather than distracted from, the mushroom-foie millefeuille. The luminous roasted lemon purée, acting as the mustard to this deconstructed pie, provided some acidity and hazelnut oil, distinctly deep nuttiness.
This is the only ever-present on an ever-evolving menu. And for good reason. It pleases the eye through the contrast of colour, consummate craftsmanship and elegance of form. Each element, uncooked, remains scarcely manipulated, its natural quality, texture and freshness on show, pleasing the palate too. Neither is one’s intelligence ignored – the witty juxtaposition of common, basic button mushroom and luxurious, expensive foie gras provides a little mental stimulation whilst the simple fact that the chef has fashioned something so pretty out of offal and fungus provides some more.
Entrée 2: Coquilles Saint-Jacques, coquillages, dashi. A small auburn splash of seaweed butter was circumscribed with shellfish and citrus with a clay bowl of mussels, razor clam and komatsuna in kombo dashi delivered alongside: moving anticlockwise, this marine ring consisted of scallop sprinkled with lime zest; Meyer lemon confit; Aquitaine caviar on golden beetroot; oyster over lemon caviar with shiso leaf; and abalone. Pan fried scallop was cooked well, but tasted weak; the Meyer lemon – a Chinese cross between common lemon and mandarin with a smooth, fragrant, edible skin and less acidity – was agreeably bittersweet; and pickled betterave jaune, more sugary than regular red beetroot, was matched by the salty caviar d’Aquitaine. The oyster Marenne d’Oléron, a fine example, was briny-sweet but clean; it was balanced by the tangy, tiny lemon bubbles with the shiso, minty and anise, a nice addition. Abalone had mild sea-like savour and chewy consistency. The pick of the plate was the tasty kombo butter – rich, creamy and crammed with umami, it brought the dish together.
From the dashi, the fleshy razor clam and komatsuna – a Japanese member of the turnip family similar to slightly spicy cabbage – stood out. The clear, pure bouillon d’algue itself supplied more MSG.
Plat Principal 1: Cabillaud, salade au carotte et cacahuètes. A chunk of cod, caramelised perfect persimmon colour yet its centre still almost translucent, sat on julienne yellow and orange carrot, roasted peanut and fennel salad and was partnered by a deft duxelle of papaya and mango. The cod was cooked impeccably; this was possibly the best form of this fish I have ever eaten. Its firm, moist, flavourful flakes were contrasted against crunchy, creamy peanuts; sweet, crisp carrot; and al dente fennel, which, with the Thai basil seasoning, shares an affinity for seafood. Red chilli gave the salad some spice and a subtly acidic counterpoint came in the frame of the fruity, finely-diced quenelle.
Plat Principal 2: Turbot, oursin, epinard. Thin, but fatty fillet of turbot was teamed with cream of sea urchin, their tongues as well as barely sautéed spinach, secreted beneath which was citron confit. This succulent specimen, like the previous cod, could not have been cooked better; slow-roasted, the fish’s fat had slowly fused into its flesh – the surface was almost crisp, whereas the meat, rich. Its delicate flavour found consensus in both incarnations of the sweet, briny urchin: the unctuous crème, full of relish, and the scrumptious, melt-away roe. The coarse lemon pulp was contrastingly sour whilst the spinach, supple and well-seasoned.
Entremet 1: Velouté de celeri, truffe noire, gratiné à la Tomme d’Auvergne. A bowl brimming with concentric circles of black truffle cream, surrounded by chiffon-coloured celery purée, was trimmed with triangles of Tomme d’Auvergne au gratin and a tranche of truffle. This crowning cheese, with rust-tinted crust, is local to Barbot’s native Auvergne; (as tomme suggests) it is made on a small farm and is a cheese of distinction. Is it also ideal warm and released a nutty aroma that mingled with that of the truffle. The celery was surprisingly saccharine, but the crème de truffe, very earthy; when mixed together, each tamed the other, meeting at a pleasant medium.
Plat Principal 3: Canard de Challans, salade au poireau, truffe noire. A couple of brink pink pieces of Challans duck poised over additional duck set in jus de truffe, lay upon leek, caper and black truffle, all chopped and seasoned with ginger, garlic and soy sauce. Grilled and then roasted at low temperature, the duck lived up to its reputation. This black Barbary had delicious, juicy steak-like meat and a lean lining of tempting fat that melted in the mouth. The truffle and jus rôti together had real deep, savoury relish yet remained rather light, clearly made without much cream or butter. More minced truffle was intersprinkled through the vegetable salad. The leeks were moist but crunchy, their mellow sweetness balanced by the saltiness of the soy. Although the capers went unnoticed, the ginger did add some citric spice.
Entremet 2: Surprise – s’avancer à dire! Next it was the infamous ‘can you guess what it is?’ course. A small bowl bore warm, airy mousse around a central spoonful of colder, denser substance. The mousse was slightly sour, sweet and starchy at once whereas the middle matter was aromatic and creamy.
For those curious, I, obviously, deduced all the ingredients correctly (wink), but I think it best that I not reveal them here and spoil the fun for future diners.
Savouries savoured, it was time for sweets. Four treats arrived simultaneously with instructions to start on the right and work my way around.
Dessert 1: Sorbet piment-citronelle. To clear my palate and revive my appetite I began with a trou Normand: soft, cold sorbet shot. Immediately the scent of lemongrass and ginger carried from the little glass. On tasting the concoction, my taste buds were initially confused. Simultaneously, I sensed the crisp heat of exotic peppers, but also the icy temperature of smooth sorbet – hot and cold concurrently. If that was not enough, then came a subtle undercurrent of exotic ginger and heady lemongrass. Barbot, apparently having come across these unusually strong chillies in Asia, then found a way whereby suffusing them with syrup extracts their savour without their burning sensation. It worked wonderfully well.
Dessert 2: Thé vert, mousse de lait, sorbet pamplemousse. A small quenelle of grapefruit sorbet, submerged in milk foam, came sitting on crème de thé vert studded with caramelised pistachio and pumpkin seed, itself coating Génoise cake; a sugar tuile straightjacket held all the elements together. The supporting sponge had become moist after absorbing the juices from above; the matcha mousse was smoky and ever so slightly astringent; its nuts and seeds were crunchy; whilst the emulsion on top was clean and light. The sorbet, distinct and sour, complemented the green tea; and the croustillant coat was sugary and crispy.
Dessert 3: Sabayon de mangue, clafoutis de mangue et pomme. Another Génoise cake acted as a cushion for mango and apple clafoutis that lay covered in mango sabayon soused with jus de mangue and embedded with a caramelised cluster of peanuts and almonds. Airy, sweet sabayon had a fruity zing that corresponded with the concentrated mango juice that surrounded it. The fruit filling was aromatic and tasty; clafoutis, like custard, was creamy and rich; whilst the cake supplied some substance.
Dessert 4: Riz au lait parfumée au yuzu. Rice pudding imbued with yuzu was layered with a thin film of honey jelly upon which passion fruit caramel was poured at the table. This sauce was like syrup and had seriously strong passion fruit tanginess whilst the honey film (made with agar agar) was opposingly sweet. The rice pudding underneath was thick and yummy with little surprise pieces of yuzu zest that added nice acidity.
Petit Fours: Lait de poule, madeleines au miel de châtaignier, fruits frais de saison. Jasmine egg nog served in an egg shell à la Passard; baby basket of chestnut honey madeleines; and a plate of seasonal fruit formed the petit fours. The floral fragrance and flavour of jasmine was startlingly clear and egg nog, fluffy and sweet. Unfortunately, the madeleines, soft, crusty and faintly honeyed, came cold – apparently this was intentional, but I do always like these more when warm. The fruit salad – apple, date, mango, mandarin and pineapple – though an unusual finish, was refreshing and very much in keeping with the character of the cooking. The jumbo, fleshy Californian date and sugary, but not overly sharp, pineapple pleased the most.
The service here is very smooth. The minimal wait staff – I counted only four, including Christophe, in the FOH today – work well as a team; efficient, attentive and always available. There is also a real relaxedness, enthusiasm and humour to all, whilst still being courteous, discreet and professional. Every attempt seems to be made to engage the customer, culminating in having them even guess what they are eating. The courses were timed expertly and I was pleased with the detailed knowledge of the food that my serveur had. However, my only whine, and it is only a minor one, was his insistence on speaking English (which, to be fair, he spoke well). Maybe he was not convinced by my own fluency in his tongue, but I did hope that only addressing him in French may have been hint enough that that was what I preferred in return.
After lunch, I was able to speak to Barbot himself and he certainly lived up to expectation – curious, unassuming, sincere and constantly smiling. He was still visibly full of energy, even after a full service, and was very easy to talk to – his perfect English helped. As an aside, whilst we talked, I was also struck by how very small the kitchen was (twelve metres square).
It must be said that the restaurant is strikingly quiet – but not in a hushed, one-must-remain-respectfully-silent sort of way. Instead, there was an almost palpable concentration in the room as diners were intently focused on their dishes. I guess not knowing what was coming and because each plate had a certain exclusivity and possibly personal touch to it may explain this. As does the limited seating and spacious interior. I like to think though that it has more to do with the former and that l’Astrance’s clientele really care about what they are eating – as if the restaurant were full of foodies. That said, it does seem to attract more than its fair share of gastro-tourists.
I, for one, love Barbot’s concept. When I first heard that it was the chef who decided what to cook and each dish would be a surprise, I was delighted. In fact, it would not be the first or last time I have left it up to the kitchen to choose what courses I would be having. I like this strategy as, first, I am impossibly indecisive when it comes to ordering (as regular readers may know) and secondly, I am firmly in the school that believes no one knows better than the chef what ingredients are best that day and what he is in the mood to cook – and surely if the chef is enjoying what he is making, there is more chance that I will enjoy eating it. Actually it was not until a friend pointed out the opposite view point that I was even aware one existed. In short, he argued that what Barbot is doing is utterly shellfish; that he is having fun at the customers’ expense and has settled on this method to keep himself from getting bored. Now, he may be right, but, with all due respect, I do not care if he is; at the end of the day, what really matters to me is whether I enjoyed my meal – which I did.
Some of the cooking on show today was stunning. The galette, the cod (which, I repeat, I have never had better), the turbot, the duck – each was perfectly prepared. Technically brilliant, the food was also full of flavour, colour and vibrancy. The ingredients impressed with both their taste and their originality. Barbot is very well-travelled and his cuisine clearly reflects this; before each course, not only was I guessing whether it would be meat, fish or…other, but also where the recipe would come from. Lunch was a gastronomic tour that started and ended in France but stopped in Japan and Thailand along the way.
It was on his own comprehensive journeys that the chef developed and refined his approach: ‘of my two years spent in London I kept the soy, the ginger, the lemongrass and all the spices that expand the taste palate. From my military service in New Caledonia I brought back the coconut, vanilla and lime. From Japan, the tea ceremony and a different approach to the meal’. During his time in the (hotter) Far East, he also became accustomed to cooking without cream and butter, using milk as his base liquid instead. This is all in addition to his l’Arpège training and Passard’s presence is indeed keenly felt through the cleanness of presentation and cuisine and the respect for fruit and vegetables.
It is minimalism, personality and detail that dictate Barbot’s style. Minimalism comes in many forms: treatment of ingredients; cooking processes; plating and even calories. There is an obvious absence of saucing (condiments taking their place) as well as salt and pepper, which have been replaced with herbs and spices. The chef also appears to prefer to preserve inherent form as well as flavour; where possible, produce remains whole and intact. Cooking is simple, again not distorting the shape of the food, its texture or its taste. Barbot’s attention to detail comes through with respect to plate aesthetics especially; there is striking neatness, lightness and elegance in appearance. His motto is quality over quantity – and it shows. By personality I refer both to his character and to a lesser extent the personal tailoring of each dish to the diner. A love of the Auvergne is obvious as his affection for Asian cuisine. That being said, the ubiquity of acidity and especially citrus is possibly the clearest clue as to his own tastes. He has been quoted as saying, ‘I love citrus; it’s impossible for me to cook without it’ and he repeated as much again after lunch.
The Galette de champignons de Paris et foie gras is an excellent illustration of Barbot’s approach. Here he employs really just two main ingredients, both raw, both minimally treated. Instead of transforming them, he uses their innate properties and principally how these contrast to ‘make’ the dish. Building on the basic physical differences – smooth against crisp, rich against earthy – he also incorporates the visual variation of dark against light and then, to maybe a more quixotic extent, luxury against economy. Additionally, there is that always-present acidic touch, which works excellently here, and a presentation that demonstrates the kitchen’s precision and artistry too.
When l’Astrance first opened, it was regarded as revolutionary. Many saw Barbot as a cook acting contrarily to French customs – no saucing and eschewing cream and butter, the staples of French cookery. He was redefining French cooking. I cannot really comment on much of what went before, but today, in my opinion, Barbot seems to encapsulate contemporary French haute cuisine. Light, simple, clean, harmonious, fascinated with the Far East – these are some of the governing dynamics that dominate Paris’ gastronomy at present. This is not a value judgement, but what is deemed by many as quintessentially French – hearty, rich, saucy recipes – seems to have become anachronistic and a symptom of yesteryear. This sort of cooking is certainly still alive, but is more common at the two star level. It is as if to get that third star, food needs daintiness.
As much as I approve of l’Astrance’s approach, I know it is an inherently risky one, relying largely on two things – the quality of the ingredients; and the mood/presence of Barbot. His elemental, Spartan style leaves him susceptible and at the mercy of his materials. To ensure against this the best suppliers are sought – for example, Hugo Desnoyer is Barbot’s butcher – and the surprise concept helps too as there is no obligation to deliver specific dishes; each day meals are made only from products that meet the mandatory minimum. As mentioned earlier, the menu may also aide in mitigating the second risk in that the chef is challenged each day and kept interested. The fact that the restaurant is open only four days a week is another concession to this.
To summarise, I really enjoyed the food at l’Astrance. Being served some of my favourite ingredients no doubt helped and this was very much luck of the draw, but I was impressed with the technique apparent and the appetising, vivid arrangements on the plate. I appreciated the attentiveness to detail as well, which as readers may be able to attest to, is something I always like to see. I also had fun and definitely feel that not knowing what to expect next enriched the whole experience.
I must admit that I admire Barbot. Many regard Gagnaire as the mad scientist behind the stove, but, to a degree, I think this label can apply to this chef too. It is no easy thing to conceive and create such dishes on a daily basis. I think that the fact that he has been able to do this – whilst also essentially at the top of his game – so consistently and for so long, says a lot about his character.
For one thing, the man must really love to cook.
4 rue Beethoven, Paris 75016
tel: 0033 1 40 50 84 40
nearest metro: Passy