Flower Power (L'Astrance -- Paris, France)
When Jon and I were trying to decide which restaurant would be our big ticket meal in Paris, we asked everyone we knew where to go. We got lots of suggestions, but the one place that kept coming up again and again was L'Astrance. We can take a hint.
L'Astrance is the brainchild of Pascal Barbot, who despite being barely out of diapers is making some of the most interesting food I've wrapped my lips around. Homeboy's got it goin' on. L'Astrance is also the name of a flower, in case you needed to know that for the SAT's or something.
I'm not sure what we were expecting when we arrived at this little gem with two Michelin stars (and they get it right in Paris, so why are they so fucktarded when it comes to SF, huh?), but we weren't expect the Lilliputian dining room that is home to Barbot's glorious presentations. The restaurant is tiny, seating a total of 23 people the night we were there. We were at one of two tables on an upper level, reached by a spiral staircase, that overlooked the main room. The whole space had a more casual and modern feel than I expected -- more say, Myth than French Laundry.
The service was impeccable. The staff had excellent English, although most of our conversations ended up being held in the oh-so-elegant language of Franglais. And while all the service was excellent, the sommelier stole our hearts with the sheer enthusiasm he had for each wine he presented us. I would also like to take this moment to say that NEVER EVER EVER have I had a wine pairing as perfect as the one we had at L'Astrance. Everything just made perfect sense. I believe I even said "Oh. Wow. Now I understand the point of the whole wine pairing thing."
Now, our night was an interesting one, and I'll get to that, but it meant that a) I forgot to ask for a menu on our way out, and b) my memory is now a little foggy about some of our dishes. This was also the night that Jon chose not to bring his camera, which is as sucktacular as it gets since I often rely on his photos to remind me of what we ate. I'll do the best I can...
We started the meal with an amuse bouche of toasted brioche with parmesan and lobster cream. If you had put a trough of them in front of me, I would not have complained. This was followed by a corn veloute that yeilded a surprise of yogurt at the bottom and came crowned with a light orange foam. This creamy liquid love lingered in my mouth before I acquiesced to letting it slide down my throat. I had to contain myself as climaxing this early in the meal would not have been prudent.
Barbot is incredibly unique in that his food draws from cuisine all over the world. You cannot nail this guy down. I loved it. Basically, the dude travels, picks out what he likes best, then translates for his clientele. This meant we received what was my favorite dish of the night: perfectly cooked prawns in a consomme of Thai flavors with kaffir lime leaves, pomelo segments and the exact right balance of chilies. Flawless.
We moved onto poached salmon that I remember was cooked perfectly. What I do not remember is what it came with. To make up for it, I will embarrass my husband. Jon was not feeling so hot that night. Copious sightseeing combined with overzealous intake of unpasteurized cheese was not doing any favors for his digestive system. Mid-way through the salmon, he looked a bit off and excused himself from the table. He descended two narrow spiral staircases to the tiniest bathroom on earth (composed of two stalls), evacuated the contents of his digestive track (I'll let you guess how, although any guess would not be wrong if you follow...), and returned to the table. And finished his salmon. I shit you not. It was that good.
Now, I get a bit rusty in places so I'll just jettison all that rust now and let you know what else I don't remember so well: Our other fish. White, light, bass, I think. Cooked with Chinese five spice powder (Brilliant!). Best part? We got a RED wine with this dish (a nice Burgandy), which was so outside the box and so exactly RIGHT.
I also don't remember our duck, except that it was juicy and I was really full when we got it. I'm not a duck lover in general (like it, don't love it), so it's not surprising that I'm flaking on this one.
Before the duck, we got chorizo and beans. Yeppers. Big, fat cannelini beans with a red pepper/chorizo sauce that just barely covered each bean. The whole shebang was topped with a coin of red pepper that looked like chorizo. Bonus points all around. Besides, it was fucking delicious.
Our cheese course was the best cheese course on the planet. When we were presented with it, the server got a gleeful look and said "now for the surprise -- it is your turn to guess." A bowl of soft white something. With a cold something in the center. OK...fromage blanc -- check. Vanilla ice cream -- check. What is the mystery ingredient? Wait for it....MASHED POTATOES. Yep. Mashed fucking potatoes. Sounds so repulsive, right? It's not. It's bitchin'.
Despite being full, the dessert "course" made me so happy. Why? Because all of a sudden, your table is filled with treats. A sorbet (lemongrass and pepper) and an ile flotante (rhubarb if you must know) among them. And once you scarf those down? You get a big ass plate of fruit and nuts and madeleines.
At this point, Jon paid his second visit to the restroom (as did the woman at the table next to us -- as there are only two tiny stalls, she got a very colorful play by play of my husband's gastrointestinal mayhem, which I imagine was unpleasant for her and I know was mortifying for him). Upon his return, we paid our check and got the hell out of there so he wouldn't have to be in close proximity to our table neighbor for another minute.
Verdict? Loved it. Loved every little morsel. Interesting, delicious and masterful, Barbot's cuisine demands nothing but adoration. I had to blow my fine dining wad somewhere in Paris, and I was not disappointed by my choice (nor was Jon, even in his less than perfect state). I can't wait to go back.
"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld