Foodwise, my last day in Paris was a mix of high-end and low, though all delicious. After all the rave reviews I’d read of Pascal Barbot’s Astrance restaurant (really, just try googling it), I kicked myself for not having made reservations in advance. The restaurant seats 26, total. Still, at 11 a.m. the day I wanted to eat there, I called to see if peut etre there were any open tables for lunch, and voila – there was an available reservation at 12:30.
I decided to try Astrance instead of Pierre “Mr. Seafood” Gagnaire’s Gaya because Pascal Barbot used to be the number two man to Alain Passard at Arpege, which was Jon and my first brush with 3-Michelin-star dining. Nostalgia always trumps, however loose the connection, you see. So that’s where Cathy, Lauren and I headed for lunch.
We were seated upstairs in a small lofted area with two tables. This worked well for Lauren, who gets antsy (wouldn’t you if you were 18 months old and not planning to eat the food?) and was able to run around a little and toss crayon bits without bothering anyone.
The room is all contempo gray with lemon-yellow leather banquettes and dining chairs providing splashes of color. I liked the clean look, though I see Cathy’s point about the style being a little cold.
Most of the other diners were men in suits. I wondered: were they at L’Astrance for business lunches? If so, that is a really freaking long business lunch. L’Astrance has two Michelin stars, which in my mind means multi-course and multi-hours. [Update: The 2007 Michelin guide has added a third star to L’Astrance.]
The first thing I noticed is that L’Astrance uses a host/guest system of menus. Cathy got the host menu, meaning her menu showed prices and mine didn’t. Not a huge deal, but I find this ritual archaic and pointless, and I figure there’s bound to be a mistake if you have, say, a woman who’s paying but who ends up with the guest menu.
It’s 70 euros for the regular lunch menu, and there are much pricier tasting menu options from there. Also be aware that you don’t get any details at all about what you’re going to eat, because everything is supposed to be a surprise at L’Astrance. So the menu is just a price list, telling you info like: “Lunch Menu: 70 euros.”
Cutting to the chow, below is what we ate, along with a few brief tasting notes. All credit to Cathy for the food photography:
- Amuse-bouche: Espresso spoon serving a drop of parmesan gelee, accompanied by mini buttered brioches shaped like toast. The tiny drop of parmesan gelee was eggy, creamy and cheesy and packed a big punch.
- Amuse-bouche: ‘Shotglass’ of creamed corn topped with a citrus foam. Using another small spoon, you scoop the creamed corn so it mixes with the citrus foam, creating a seemingly impossible dense-but-fluffy texture and sweet-and-sour flavor. The cleverest course, I thought, and where an El Bulli influence shone through the most.
- First plate: Sea scallops with a hollandaise-type sauce and beets (see photo at top). The scallops were almost raw and deliciously sweet. The sauce and beets mixed to create bold colours and a creamy, citrus-y flavor that brought out more of the sweetness of the scallops. This course was my favorite of the meal. Citrus was a theme of the day.
- Second plate: Sauteed lake trout served with porcini and a garlic-herb puree. The lake trout was cooked so that the meat was flaky and juicy; the porcini added more earthy meatiness; and the garlic-herb puree added a nice saltiness and flavor kick.
- Third plate: Veal and baby leeks with soy-based sauce and olive tapenade. The veal was so juicy and pink that I was sure I was eating pork because I usually encounter veal in its dark-colored form. The leeks and sauce added salt and savouriness to an otherwise simply-prepared cut of fresh, quality meat. The most Asian-influenced course of the meal, with the olive tapenade as a surprise twist.
- Palate cleanser (photo above): Chilli and lemongrass sorbet. Spicy, yet cool and refreshing thanks to the sorbet and lemongrass. In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought of chilli as a refreshing ingredient, but it works.
- Molasses mousse floating island in crème anglais – my least favorite part of lunch. The molasses was very sharp and acidic, and even though the sweet creaminess of the crème anglais should have balanced out the molasses, there was an aftertaste that made me feel as if I were suffocating from the oppressive smell of fake air freshener in a bad taxi. Molasses and me, not perfect together.
- Chocolate mousse-type layers divided by ultra-thin layers of “cake,” served with peach marmelade. Delicious, but I need to find out what the thin layers of crunchiness were – they had the fine. slightly-gritty texture of ground coffee, but tasted chocolatey and nutty.
- Mango sorbet vacherin. Apparently, vacherin is not only a cheese, but also it’s a meringue-ringed dessert like the one we had today. The mango sorbet was pure concentrated mango sweetness, and the meringue “skin” added a light crunch.
- Petits fours: Jasmine-infused “eggnog” and assorted fruits and madeleines. I was surprised we were served fresh fruit at a fancy place like this, but everything was delicious (except the grapes, which were bruised and not fresh) and it was a perfect way to end a long, filling meal. The madeleines were forgettable, but the jasmine-infused eggnog was genius – a flowery scent brought down to earth by the sweetness of the egg and cream.
After lunch, we walked along the Seine and crossed the bridge towards the Eiffel Tower. It was nice walking by the tower this way instead of making it a destination of the day. I felt like it was “just” another beautiful thing about Paris.
We rounded out the afternoon with some window shopping in St. Germain-des-Pres. (I’m sure Sartre shopped all the time at the Bon Marche.)You’d think that after a big lunch, we wouldn’t eat the rest of the day, but it turns out that Cathy is a pho fanatic. So for dinner, we ended up back in “Chinatown,” which I put in quotes because the area should really be called Vietnam-town. Not as catchy, I guess.
We ended up at Pho Banh Cuon 14, 129, avenue de Choisy, 01 45 83 61 15 (M: Tolbiac). It’s impossible to miss this place, because it’s lit up in neon lights and is surrounded by crowds of people waiting around to get in for some slurping of soup.
I ordered the “raw beef” pho, which included rice noodles just past al dente, a rich, meaty broth, and paper-thin slices of uncooked beef that the broth cooks to perfection while you eat. Chili peppers, crunchy bean sprouts and sawtooth herbs are served separately so you can keep the crunch by adding them to your soup at the rate that you want.Cathy also introduced me to the joys of the “Vietnamese ravioli,” which was delicious. The ravioli skin is thin rice noodle paper (like the kind you wrap summer rolls in), and the filling is minced pork and shitake mushrooms, I think.
The first server we had was not a happy camper and kept mumbling angrily to himself whenever we asked if we could order. Est-ce qu’il y a un probleme? It turned out he was mad that we’d taken an extra stool to put our bags and coats on, so we returned the stool, ate with our coats and bags on our lap, and ended up with a marginally-friendlier waiter.
This place is 100% dive, but the food is good and cheap, as you’d expect at a quality dive. So join the crowds and check it out when next you’re in Paris.