Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Lunch at l’Astrance

Rue Beethoven, in the 16th arrondissement, must be one of the shortest streets in Paris. It is also one of the most nondescript. But it has one claim to distinction : Number Four rue Beethoven houses l’Astrance, a restaurant with three Michelin stars and, by definition, one of the greatest eating places in the world.

It’s very small. The facade is scarcely wider than a corner tobacconist’s and inside there’s hardly room for more than twenty-five guests, some of whom have to be accommodated on a tiny mezzanine floor. I relish the sheer informality of the place and the sense of fun displayed by the staff, all of whom look like young students of the more idealistic kind. Even the guests look likeable and unpretentious – no suits, nobody with the self-satisfied look of a fat-cat executive with unlimited expense account. Each has the unselfconscious appearance of somebody with an unfeigned love of good cooking.

As to the decor… there’s none, really. The place is elegant enough to provide an agreeable background but efforts have been concentrated on finding  the finest possible crystal wine-glasses, on sourcing the best possible food products. It makes me remember the words of a great Swedish restaurateur, who said, “Decor? A good restaurant doesn’t need decor. That’s provided by the guests!”.

A waiter addresses us as though we’ve been friends for years, handing us a choice of three set menus. What they all have in common is to be an invitation au voyage : not one single dish is named or described but you are asked to trust the chef  to decide the composition of your meal. As we’re about to embark they do, however, take the precaution of asking : “is there anything you can’t eat?” (luckily we are able to answer in the negative).

So it’s to be a a blind tasting? Well, not exactly. The staff introduce each dish as it is placed before you and happily answer any questions as regard the composition or ingredients thereof.

A love of the real and true (as well as a certain humour) shows in the very first dish: toast soup (soupe au pain grillé). A bowl of thickish brown liquid is placed before us, actually smelling of toast made from the finest of farmhouse bread. It has clearly been enriched with (I guess) some fine stock or meat jelly, vegetables, and so on. No spoon is provided: you drink it the way a peasant might drink his potage at his kitchen table.

Various tantalising appetisers come our way – de luxe almond crisps with a sprinkle of hazelnut, slices of apple; a billow of froth served in a spoon, flavoured with white truffle oil and pistachio.

Then a “spécialité du chef” : fresh champignons de Paris (the true, original kind, which have more in common with, say, girolles or white truffles, than the vapid commercial kind) accompanied by foie gras poached in green grape juice, slices of apple and fleur de sel, hazelnut oil and lemon curd purée. Highly sapid.  All very tasty and so light they make no inroads into our eating capacity.

A scallop and oyster arrive next, with kombu butter and kombu confit as well as oyster leaf – a leaf that smells and tastes exactly like a fresh oyster. Kombu is a versatile algae from Japan, which contains glutamic acids, the basis of umami, supposedly the fifth basic taste (the original four being salt, sour, sweet and acid). With a chewy texture, its flavour is somewhat akin to soy and Bovril though much more complex (it is also the base of dashi, a stock widely used in Japanese cooking). Though enjoyable to eat, this dish is intriguing rather than seductive.

But seductive is the mot juste for the miniature grilled cod that now appears. This is a pleasure to the eye as well as the palate. The garnish consists of pear-and-ginger quenelle and a razor-clam inside which, like assorted peas in a pod, nestle baby clams and cockles. The juice of fresh garlic and thyme add zest, and so, too, do globules of citron caviar, which though looking like salmon roe is in fact Australian fingerlime (the pulp of the fruit).

Pork at its best is the equal of any other meat, and this is certainly the case with the morsel that now appears before us… Sweet and succulent, with a superb texture, it has as long an aftertaste as a very good wine. It is partnered by walnut and parmesan quenelles, crème de Parmesan, and Savoy cabbage.

Each and every dish so far has been as light as a feather, with the result that we, too, feel as light as feathers. The various sauces – or rather ethereal moistures – are there to heighten and accentuate flavours rather than to set fish, fowl, or meat afloat. They are too complex to analyze in detail – nor does one wish to do so, with minds wholly occupied with awaiting the next dish.


A constellation of shapely wine glasses at l’Astrance. One of them contains a few precious drops of Chablis.

Magret de canard is a fabulous meat product  but mass production has transformed into a barely edible travesty, a slab of soapy wodge. But l’Astrance’s version is sublime. Tender, flavourful, with a wonderful aftertaste. The garnish, which features braised endive and  black garlic (another Japanese speciality from the Aomori region : garlic fermented in sea water), and  the delectable sauce, completed this mini-masterpiece.

I always describe dessert as “the most silent course of a meal”. Silent because the simple deliciousness of a good dessert reduces the table to quietude – the only noise is that of scraping spoons and the smacking of lips. As Brillat Savarin points out, “sweet dishes are seldom eaten until after the natural appetite is satisfied”. Appetite has vanished at this stage, to be supplanted by childish greed. The desserts are a pure delight – fresh and refreshing, gossamer-light.

The wines are no let-down either. On arrival, I’d taken a glance at the wine list assuming that anything really good would be outrageously expensive. Then I did a double-take. There were plenty of wines, I saw with pleasure, that were very affordable indeed. So I ordered an exquisite 2006 Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre from Raveneau (the region’s greatest producer) and a velvety 2003 Saumur Champigny Le Grand Clos that was longand satisfying.

And long and satisfying is a good description of our first meal at l’Astrance, a restaurant which elevates a drab side street into a noble thoroughfare. In what we can truly call, as we leave the premises, the City of Light.


*

Back home, I was offered a completely fresh, wild sea-bass by my fishmonger. So fresh out of the sea it still quivered. I decided to try replicating a dish I’d eaten at the great Taillevent, Paris, some years earlier. I’d neither asked for nor been given the recipe but felt there was a reasonable chance of producing something edible. This is how I set about it.


I trimmed the fillets and removed any remaining scales from the silvery skin. I patted them dry and placed them flesh-side down on a plate. In a mortar I crushed finely: 10 or so coriander seeds, a few flakes of saffron, one clove, 2-3 peppercorns, a tiny fragment of star anise, and a hint of nutmeg. When reduced to a grainy dust, this was pressed into the silvery skin of the fish.


Meanwhile I prepared some spinach, first cooking it until tender then adding increasing amounts of butter in stages (you let the spinach cool down, then re-heat it, adding more butter). This would be the sole accompaniment save for a little sauce.


At Taillevent, I seem to remember, they served it with beurre blanc, a recipé which can be found in most decent cookery books. I myself simply took some home-made tomato sauce and whisked in quite a lot of butter to achieve a twofold purpose: to thin the sauce and to make it milder and, as a result, more amenable to both fish and wine – the latter being a 2000 Puligny Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive.


To cook the fish (one of the most delicate of all): heat some olive or peanut oil in a pan until almost smoking then fry the fish, skin-side down, for a few minutes until crisp, ensuring that it does not burn. Reduce the heat then flip the fish over, cooking the flesh side for only a moment or two, so that the fish remains almost raw at the centre. Serve up on a hot plate with the spinach on one side and the sauce (beurre blanc or modified tomato sauce) on the other.


If my dish turned out delicious this was less due to my culinary skills, such as they are, than to the spirit of Taillevent, possibly the greatest restaurant, when at its height, that ever existed.


The wine, by the way, was delicious too. But it showed well only because I’d tamed the intense tomato sauce by the addition of a swirl of butter.

© Frank Ward 2011

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