On our recent trip across the the border to Paris we endeavoured to really pack in the meals – visiting three michelin-starred restaurants (two 3*s and a 1*), as well as a couple of humbler eateries, all in the span of two nights. We left bright and early on the Eurostar, rolled in late morning and immediately dashed on the metro to drop off our bags at the hotel. A not-so-quick taxi ride later we landed at the doorstep of L’Astrance, an intimate 8-table restaurant set up in 2000 by L’Arpège defectees Pascal Barbot and Christophe Rohat (Rohat orchestrates the front-of house, while Barbot works his culinary magic behind the scenes). Impressively gaining a Michelin star in its first year of opening, the restaurant now proudly holds 3 stars (since 2007) and is currently ranked 16th on the S.Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant list.
We were given three surprise menus to choose from – the Menu Dejeuner (€70), Menu Printemps (€130) and Menu Astrance (€190), and as we had planned this trip solely for the purpose of eating, we splurged and chose the grandest option. B also went for the surprise wine pairings (at a heart-stopping supplement of €120) but I was ill so refrained (just as well!) and instead requested for a camomile tea, to which the ever-attentive Christophe replied that they were already preparing me a special infusion.
We began with a white disc of Almond Leaf with Green Apple and Praline and a small square of warm brioche with Rosemary and Lemon Butter. The former was a touch bland yet still intriguing, but the brioche was very dry and the flavours in the butter could have been more pronounced.
The third amuse of Pea Velouté with Ginger Yoghurt and Cucumber Mousse was quite lovely – it had appetising hints of cardamom and cinnamon, and made an appropriate warm, soft intro to the meal.
There were two dishes that I found stunning. The first was a painstakingly stacked galette of Foie Gras and Champignons de Paris, served with a blob of bright yellow lemon confit, and a hazelnut oil. It is no wonder that it’s a speciality of the restaurant as it was probably one of the most refined preparations of foie gras I’ve tasted – layers of liver delicately marinated with verjus, raw mushroom slices and slivers of crisp, tart granny smiths resting on a thin hazelnut feuilletine bottom. Extremely well-balanced, with clean light flavours and wonderful textures. The subtle hazelnut oil added warmth and depth though I felt the bitter lemon confit was one ingredient too many.
While B also enjoyed the layered foie gras and mushroom, the star dish for him was the Poached Langoustine in a Spring Vegetable Broth. The fat juicy langoustine was soft and tender, and it’s sweetness was a perfect foil to the intense, deeply aromatic shellfish-enriched broth. Traces of garlic and ginger helped brighten the soup, as did the snappy mélange of spring vegetables.
We were not quite as taken by the White Asparagus with Cumin, Caramelised Almonds, Lemon Coulis and Orange Confit with Spinach. The cumin-dusted spears were perfectly cooked but the sharp citrus sauce and bitter candied peel completely overpowered its subtle flavours. The spinach laced with piquillo peppers were pleasant enough but didn’t add anything to the dish and nor did the sugared almonds (although they were probably the tastiest things on the plate).
A fillet of Turbot with Rose Petals, Kabu (a Japanese turnip varietal) and Mint Salad and a Grape and Tamarind Sauce didn’t fare much better. Again, the fish was well-executed and the flavour profile undeniably interesting, however the use of spices was too restrained and for a dish seasoned with cumin, tamarind and paprika, it was surprisingly mild and lacking in oomph.
The Razor Clam, grilled with thyme and olive oil that was served on the side wasn’t the best specimen of the mollusc I’ve ever eaten (could have been sweeter), but was nice enough.
The second fish course (another signature dish) was a much better display of Barbot’s talents, and was really quite special – Buckwheat Crusted Miso Mackerel, served with Lemon-cured Sardine, Oyster Leaf, Lemon Confit and Anchovy Cream. The elegant Japanese-inspired creation was well-curated, and I thought the addition of the nutty toasted buckwheat was inspired, being distinctly pleasing in both taste and texture. As in its former guises, the bitter citrus was again, an unwelcome extra.
We sauced the mackerel dish with a grassy green Smoked Anchovy and Chrysanthemum Cream (served in a separate porcelein vessel) that was rich, intense and just as delicious eaten by the spoon on its own.
Next up was my other favourite from the degustation – a Grilled Pork Belly and Tail, Morels cooked in Vin Jaune, with Wild Garlic and Parmesan Foam. This umami-rich caramelised pork was simply extraordinary, and had Chinese five spice and star anise notes that lent a distinct Oriental flavour. The deep earthy morels, gently cooked in verjus and bathed in garlicky cheese bubbles were equally stunning and made an excellent partner to the tender porcine slabs.
The Saddle of Lamb with Spring Vegetables and Black Garlic looked worryingly over-done, but when sliced into, revealed moist pink flesh. I didn’t care for the black olive and liquorice paste, but the fermented garlic added complexity to the otherwise simple dish. No fireworks, but a good solid dish.
Before the arrival of our desserts proper, we were given a mystery hot-and-cold creation and asked to guess its ingredients. Fragrant vanilla hit us straight away and B thought the faint acidity indicated it was some sort of vanilla yoghurt concoction. I however knew it had to be more unusual, and upon detecting starch and traces of thyme, decided it was vanilla ice cream cocooned in a warm thyme-infused potato mousse. The waiter quizzed the baffled guests next to us who looked clearly frustrated when he then moved on to us and pronounced my guess “Parfait!” with a smile.
Games over, we freshened up with a palate cleanser of Chilli, Lemongrass and Ginger Sorbet. The chilli gently warmed the back of the throat and the sorbet had a luxurious foamy, snow-like quality.
The desserts arrived in tandem, and I wasn’t a real fan of either. The Almond Cappuccino with Verbena-infused Rhubarb, Strawberry Compote and Grilled Rice Leaf was pretty to look at, but the hidden layer of sickly-sweet stewed fruit overpowered the milky almond foam, and although there was a tartness present, it wasn’t enough to counterbalance the sugar.
The Mango and Ginger Sorbet with Coconut Biscuit was the better of the two, with crystallised ginger adding a nice bite to the sorbet. However the macaroon-like biscuit was really dry and too sweet, especially when eaten with the sorbet.
We were served a plate of mixed fruit, a small bowl of (burnt) mini Honey Madeleines and a selection of sweet tidbits with our tea and coffee. The Orange and Honey Ice Cream filled Meringue Parcel was heavily-perfumed and again, cloyingly sweet. As was the Egg Nog with Jasmine – a real shame as the floral frothy nectar was actually quite delicious.
So was it a three-star experience, worthy of the sky-high prices we paid? There was no question with regard to the calibre of Rohat and his team – they were professional and discreet but not at all stuffy (even cracking the odd joke during service), and we felt completely looked after throughout the entirety of the meal. It was the food that let it down for me – there were some definite highs but also a fair few lows and for a top-class restaurant supposedly on level pegging with the likes of The French Laundry, it’s just not acceptable (not at those prices anyway). I do loathe to say it though, as despite this I did leave L’Astrance content rather than disgruntled, with the distinct feeling of having had a very pleasant few hours.
4 Rue Beethoven
75016 Paris, France
t. +33 (0)1 40 50 84 40