Posts Tagged ‘Vietnamese in Paris’

Scallops at L’Astrance

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.

Seating at L’Astrance

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.Trout at L’Astrance
  • 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.

Veal at L’Astrance

  • 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.

Chili-and-Lemongrass sorbet at L’Astrance

  • 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.
    • Desserts:
      • 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.

      Jasmine eggnog and petits fours

  • 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.

Overall, a very good lunch, and the fact that Lauren didn’t have a meltdown during the time it took to serve all those courses was icing on the cake.Eiffel Tower walk

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.

Pho 14, Paris

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.

Beef pho at Pho 14

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.

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It was a gorgeous day today in Paris. Sunny, high in the low 70s. Perfect for walking around.This morning, like yesterday morning, I went for a two-lap run along the perimeter of the Luxembourg Gardens nearby. I loved feeling the bright late-autumn sunshine as I ran past the Luxembourg Palace and watched all the kids playing with their toy sailboats in the fountain. Thanks to From Paris to the Moon, seeing the Luxembourg Gardens makes me think of Adam Gopnik and his son, toodling around. It’s a charming, oh-so-Parisian kind of image, I think.Chez Catherine exterior

The highlight of today was our lunch at Chez Catherine, 3, rue Berryer, which is on a small side street that connects the Avenue de Friedland and Rue de Faubourg St. Honore.

The restaurant is sleek, but in warm colors of red and dark orange. I felt like I was at Craft Restaurant in New York. The décor is a far cry from the traditional lace-curtained-bistrot look that I remember from when Jon and I dropped by (in 2001) Chez Catherine’s old location near the Galeries Lafayette department store.

There are three smallish dining rooms. The second dining room you encounter while walking from the front of the restaurant to the back has views of the busy kitchen through a very trendy glass wall. If you go, try to sit in this second room. (We ended up in the third room, farthest back).

Despite appearing to be a magnet for suited business lunchers, the restaurant was extremely accommodating of 18-month-old Lauren. The maitre d’ set up set up a chair with an extra-high cushion for Lauren, and then the waiters gladly hurried up a plate of risotto and spinach that we custom-ordered pour la bebe (and didn’t charge us for it). Lauren and me at Chez CatherineIt was also a tasty lunch – certainly for me, anyway. The rolls were hot with a yeasty crust and airy interior, so I couldn’t resist munching away on two or three of them, even though I wasn’t very hungry and had a two-course lunch ahead of me. Maybe I can partly blame my lack of willpower on the creamy, cheese-like butter that went so well with the rolls.I started with zucchini flower beignets served with a concentrated tomato-and-red-pepper spread, which were light and crispy and managed to preserve the flavor of zucchini. I love when something this delicate stays intact with all this dipping and frying going on.

And my duck with fig sauce was rare and salted the way I love, but balanced by the thick sweetness of the fig sauce and accompanying roast figs. The crispy, salty double-fried frites weren’t a shabby addition, either, and a refreshing glass of a 2005 Domaine des Entrefaux Crozes-Hermitage completed the goodness of my meal.Cathy’s fricassee de girolles (mushrooms) were tasty, but more a testament to the high-quality raw ingredients than anything else, and then her noix de Saint-Jacques d’Erquy (scallops) could’ve been great, but came with a passion fruit sauce that neither of us enjoyed very much. The sauce added sourness that masked (insead of highlighted?) the sweetness of the scallops.The lunch prix fixe was 42 euros for two courses, and the girolles and scallops carried supplement charges.

Our total for two was about 110 euros. I thought the meal was worth every penny, though Cathy agreed on the basis of the attentive, thoughtful service, rather than on the food.  Overall, it was a delicious lunch, but I guess there is very little about it that was uniquely “French.” Once you get into a certain level of gourmet restaurant, your points of comparison are global, rather than country-specific. So in a lot of ways, our lunch at Chez Catherine might as well have been at, well, Craft Restaurant.

We walked off our lunch by heading southeast along the Rue de Faubourg St. Honore, lined with fancy shops – including a branch of Dalloyau, the Dalloyau cakes in the windowfancy pastry-deli-shop. For no articulable reason, I am guessing Dalloyau’s goodies look better than they taste, but the cakes certainly look beautiful.  As we got closer to the Place de la Concorde, we noticed a whole lot of uniformed officers directing street traffic, which I thought was funny. For example, in front of the Place Beauvau (Beauvau Square), there must have been five officers at a four-way intersection. Cathy pointed out that someone important must live in the gated entrance opening out onto the square, so I asked one of the officers, and she confirmed that the Minister of the Interior lives and works in the large palace beyond the gate.

Just a few steps further, we passed an even larger gated entrance – this time to the Elysee Palace, where the President lives and works. I thought it was funny that even after so many visits to Paris, not once have I thought to see the Elysee Palace. It’s like going to DC and not seeing the White House, perhaps. Or maybe this is a commentary on how many other attractions there are in Paris when compared to DC. OK, a more loyal thought is to say that nobody cares anymore about Paris’s political power!

After browsing an enormous Tod’s store just past the Elysee Palace, Cathy took Lauren home for a nap, and I sat Primo Seating in Tuileries Gardensin the Tuilerie Gardens by myself for a few hours, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I grabbed a prime seat by the big octagon fountain and had a straight-ahead view of the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde and of the Arc de Triomphe further afield. The minute I stood up, a hovering guy swooped in on my seat – that’s how prime it was.

I was going to go to check out the Orangerie museum (newly reopened with snazzy Monet paintings), but I had to get home so that Cathy and I could take Lauren out for some quality Vietnamese food in Paris’s “Chinatown,” which is in the 13th arrondissement, near the Place d’Italie.

We hopped on the 27 bus and forty minutes later, we were sad to discover that our destination (the Chez Pim-recommended Le Bambou) is closed on Mondays, so we settled on the restaurant around the corner – Le Vieux Saigon, 104 avenue d’Ivry. It had a promising divey look, but the food was so-so. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. Cathy’s pho, my vermicelli and pork, and cha gio totalled 20 euros. At least it was cheap.

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