L’Astrance, Paris, where mystery and mirth combine

This petite space seats just 26

We’re about seven courses into lunch at l’Astrance, the cult Parisian three-star, when our waiter announces we now have a test. A small bowl arrives. A dollop of something glistening and white, yet freckled, like a diamond on velvet, sits in the middle of a pillowy white substance.

Before we can have dessert, he says, we have to tell them what it is. The sommelier’s been playing the same game with wines. There is no wine list.

While l’Astrance’s approach to food is full of serious intent, it’s underpinned by jocularity, as well as mystery. There’s no a la carte menu, just three degustation options, based on price, the dishes revealed as they land on the table. You surrender to their vision. It’s the sort of trust and control Joel Robuchon dreamed of, but even he baulked at implementing.

I’m not sure how the hand-written, almost illegible bill came to € 540 (about $1150). And the mystery remains, since l’Astance is one of the few top-end restaurants to not present a menu as a souvenir when you depart.

Is it a bird or potato?

Fortunately, we passed that test. It’s lemony mashed potato, with ricotta, I think, but it turns out to be creamed cheese and a bindi of vanilla bean ice cream. The realisation of the unusual combination is unsettling – a shift in the paradigm that sneaks up and mugs expectations – yet the dish is not unpleasant. Curious, certainly, with the potato’s starch reduced to textural transmitter. It’s an insight into why Pascal Barbot refined yet relaxed 26-seat fine diner – a  former bistro in an unassuming side street across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower – inspires whispered reverence from the culinary cognoscenti. But being irreverent, I love the fact that when my wife says she doesn’t like pigeon, Maitre d’ Christophe Rohat jokes that it’s shame because they were caught near the Trocadero that morning.

Barbot worked briefly in Australia under Tony Bilson and refined his talent, along with Rohat, at L’Arpege under Alain Passard. He’s since surpassed his former master to be ranked as high as 11 in the world’s 50 best restaurants. (In 2011, L’Astrance is 13th).

His approach defies local conventions, pursuing jolts of flavour that hit the palate like brushing against an electric fence. His food is simultaneously light, bright and strikingly beautiful. Most of all, it’s unexpected and doesn’t allow ego to transform nature’s beauty beyond recognition.

Foie gras and mushroom terrine with lemon

Foie gras remains one of the decadent status symbols of fine dining, however a desire to stave off a quadruple bypass has diminished its appeal to me, yet Barbot offers it in the most thrilling and texturally intriguing ways I’ve experienced. His millefeuille of foie gras with mushroom is a wedge of layers of buttery, verjuice-marinated liver interlaced with slices of raw mushroom and dusted with porcini powder. The result seems remarkably light, with hazelnut oil as its nexus and the acidity from a bright yellow splodge of intensely flavoured, buttery lemon confit for a striking contrast.

Barbot’s use of traditional French ingredients is often charged with Asian flavours. A colourful medley of scallop and prawn with crunchy slivers of raw vegetables, decorated with borage and nasturtium flowers and micro-herb,s is flavoured with peanut paste to create a gado gado-like effect.

A peppery lemongrass sorbet is a palate cleanser.

Elsewhere, he turns to Spain for inspiration, from the gazpacho-like amuse bouche to crisp-skinned Bresse chicken breast on white beans with a sweetly paprika smoky chorizo emulsion. Among a series of exquisite desserts is jasmine eggnog in an eggshell, then a platter of fresh fruit featuring the fattest raspberries, as well as cherry tomatoes, for they are fruit too, remember.

Barbot is as confident of nature’s talents as his own. He looks to the future while reminding us of the past. In doing so, his food fills you with hope.

 

L’Astrance

4 rue Beethoven, 75016 Paris, France

+33 (0)1 40 50 84 40

 

* Visited October 2008.

 

 

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