L'Astrance, Paris 2013
Three Michelin stars in Paris. Simply saying it out loud invokes an ave of emotions. Is this the epiphany of food? To say that our expectations were high is a bit of an understatement. We had recently enjoyed an almost life-changing food experience at two-star Saison in San Francisco. Now we were headed to one of the worlds historical food capital, to one of the worlds most respected restaurants and chef Pascal Barbout. However, a dining experience can be a radically different beast— as we were soon to find out.
We were getting married in Paris, and we planned to have our wedding dinner at L'astrance— one of the most talked about restaurants in Paris. Chef Pascal Barbot has driven his establishment to three-star level in record speed, with a modern approach, with several influences to asian cousine, where the ingredients are the guiding vessel. Every day Pascal visits the food markets and checks what's the best of the day, and then composes a menu based on that. This is rather bold when speaking of Michelin-standards, where every meal must be perfect and where consistency is one of the most important factors. In his speeches, Pascal also talks about the importance of adapting food— listening to its customers (and famously, different diners can receive different items on the same night).
Making a reservation at L'astrance is not an easy thing. There's no website available-- and all information can only be found from word-of-mouth (talk about a restaurant that lives on its reputation). I had read up on the booking procedure, which could only be made over telephone at specific hours. I called, and got an answering machine (which only spoke french). What did it say? Was the line busy? Did I call at a bad time? I tried again, and again— scared I would soon definitively lose out on our wedding day spot. I tried the next day as well, with the same answering machine. I was a bit frustrated how an establishment that surely received a lot of international guests did only leave a french message for their diners. It turns out that the answering machine was stating that the restaurant was closed for the week, and that they would open up in around 10 days (thanks to a friend that could help translate). On the day they opened, I called again— finally, someone answered. However, since they had been closed for 10 days, they would only take bookings for the next month-- and starting tomorrow, they would take bookings for the month I was seeking. The next day I called again, and I got the spot! Phew. (Update: L'astrance now has a website. Apparently 2014 called and notified them of the Internet, though it's still not possible to book online).
I'm sure the scarse information, and the "rumour-only presence" helps L'astrance overall mystique. But it can also be rather frustrating. Anyway. The day finally arrived. We got married, and we walked across the Eiphel Tower to the restaurant to enjoy our first dinner as husband and wife (the restaurant is located only a short distance from the tower). The restaurant is very modest. Yellow leather chairs stands out towards the charcoal black stone walls. A small balcony overlooks the main dining room which has a very high ceiling.
There's no music in the restaurant— so the feeling is a bit "stiff". People are almost whispering to not be heard by the tables around them.
So far, even after two phone calls to the restaurant (one to book, and one to confirm) no one has yet asked us if we're celebrating any special occasion. (We get the feeling that they don't really care). We however decide to order champagne for our small starters.
The dining option available is only the full digestion menu for dinner. As stated before, this gives Pascal Barbot the most freedom to showcase the best of what's available— and compose the full "experience".
One of Pascal Barbots signature dishes is the millefeuille-like galette of foie gras, green apple and mushrooms (all raw), with hazelnut vinaigrette and lemon confit. The dish is very interesting in texture and taste— and it's quite remarkable that it's all raw. This is a welcome exception in the line-up of dishes during the night. It's quite evident that there's no bells and whistles here. The food actually tastes as you expect it to when it's presented to you on the plate. Fish tastes like fish, and almonds and carrots tastes like almonds and carrots (albeit perfectly prepared almonds and carrots).
What follows is a great showcase of when a chef seems to be in full control. All the plates we're given are beautiful and their ingredients are of a very high quality. The light celeriac consommé with slices of raw dorade is really fresh, and the steamed John Dory to follow is prepared to perfection. It's evident that the food is prepared by a skill full hand, that knows exactly how to cook each ingredient to perfection.
Even though there's an interesting fusion between the french and asian in dishes like the lobster served on a peanut sauce with coriander and slices of cucumber, not a lot of tastes we've never experienced before hits our palette. The food looks gorgeous and is handled to perfection (and is as fresh as it can be), but it's evident to us that three-michelin stars showcases good food. Not necessarily "interesting food".
As we approach the deserts of the menu, we're already feeling a bit of "was this it?". Even as writing this down, I'm picturing someone shaking their fists stating "but the food was super fresh, and done with a masterful hand-- what more do you ask for?". And we know, we know— it's an experience in itself to simply taste the perfect carrot, or the perfectly steamed fish. But to us there must be more than that. Where were the textures? Where were the elements that made us smile when we took our first bite?
The ginger, chili pepper, and lemongrass sorbet is however a fun addition to the meal. It's no wonder that two of Pascals signature dishes are the highlights of the night.
The deserts are ended with a plate of fruit, madelene cakes and jasmin-infused eggnog. The plate of fruit emphasises what this restaurant is all about. Let the ingredients speak for themselves— "here are some fresh strawberries".
Even the service in the restaurant speaks the same language.-it's minimalistic. A few number of servers work in perfect harmony to deliver the food at precisely the right time for every diner. It's a true clockwork. There's not much interaction however (a part from a few jokes from Christophe Rohat, head of the dining room, about the fact that we're taking pictures of the food-- and that all the recipes are "secret"). The wine service follows suit. The wines are truly fresh and light. Perfect matches the entire evening. The sommelier pours the wine and returns midway into the diners digesting the plate to describe the wine. This is interesting, as it gives us a chance to taste the wine and the food before given an explanation-- it however also interrupts the eating. Also, very few tasting notes are given— simply which wine and year. Henceforth we don't really see a need to not introduce the wine as it's being poured.
The biggest interaction of the servers during the night happens when a "mystery dish" is presented to us. The waiter asks us to identify the ingredients in the small soup-bowl. It feels almost embarrassing when they ask, since the ingredients are so simple-- but we get them right, which is fun.
At the end of the night we ask to get a signed menu as a memory of our special night. "No problem" the waiter says. After a little while he comes back from the kitchen, looking a little embarrassed, asking: "sorry, but what are your names?".
We must say that we were expecting a three michelin starred restaurant to give a more personal experience than this. Not once has someone asked us if we're celebrating something special. Why are we in Paris? (we're clearly not from around here :) and the waiters don't even know our names at the end of the night.
We keep coming back to it. The fact that we feel apologetic for not appreciating the experience more than we did. Let's state it again. The produce was fantastic-- and the entire meal a great showcase of what a skilful hand can accomplish with great ingredients. But-- to us, a restaurant experience should be more than that. We didn't leave the restaurant with a new taste-sensation, or even a feeling of "wow" (as was the case at Saison). Maybe it's not fair to compare— but it's evident that three stars says very little about the overall experience you'll have as a diner. All in all. It's a very interesting side of the food-spectrum to have experienced L'astrance— and what is its strengths and weaknesses.