PARIS - It has been years since an up and coming Parisian restaurant came out of the starting gate with such a bang. One-month waiting lists may be common for grand and exclusive Michelin three-star restaurants, but a tiny newcomer run by complete unknowns?
Astrance, a small, discreet, simply appointed restaurant near the Eiffel Tower in the 16th arrondissement, is just that place. With the gentle, self-assured Christophe Rohat in the dining room and the able, agile chef Pascal Barbot in the kitchen, Astrance is headed for nothing but success.
How did this happen? Both Rohat and Barbot worked together at Alain Passard's modern and audacious Arpege in the 7th arrondissement. They dreamed of someday having a place of their own. Finally, with the help and encouragement - even insistence - of their former boss, they took the plunge and opened Astrance last October. Passard also gave the young restaurateurs a client list of 500 faithful Arpege diners. In the fall, cards went out announcing the new restaurant, and the phones have not stopped ringing since.
Astrance is tiny, just six or seven tables downstairs, two or three on a mezzanine floor. That means no more than 40 diners per service. The décor here is simple, modern, comfortable, with gunmetal-gray textured walls, giant gilt-edged frames set with beveled mirrors, finely textured white linens, chairs and banquettes in solid yellows and oranges, and a collection of modern glass and porcelain plates in bright colors and uncommon shapes.
And the food is as crisp, direct, and sure-footed as the restaurant itself. While you can see Passard influences in Barbot's cooking, the combinations, presentations, and menu itself are purely original . As with most modern French menus, the ingredient stars, and so we have crab and mussels, salmon and codfish, duck, lamb, guinea hen and veal all playing a starring role. What's best is that here we find uncommon use of the most common ingredients - from Granny Smith apples to almonds - treated with a rare self-assurance.
Eating Barbot's food makes me think of something chef Joel Robuchon used to say: ""As chefs, we don't have a right to make a mushroom taste like a carrot. Our job is to make a mushroom taste as much as a mushroom as we possibly can."
At Astrance, the flavors are pure and unmasked, but always supported and assisted by a complex cast of culinary characters. My favorite dish on the entire menu is the glorious crab and avocado "ravioli." In place of pasta we have paper-thin, round slices of the ripest green avocado, flanking mounds of sweet, brilliant pink crab. All is accompanied by perfectly salty mounds of almonds and anointed with just a touch of sweet almond oil. It can't get much better, much simpler than this. Could I have this for lunch every day for a month, please?
And life does not slide downhill after that. The plumpest, most moist mussels are embellished with butter and dotted with a mixture of chervil and breadcrumbs, and set on a bed of a tangy mix of carrots and cumin, all rich and refreshing, familiar and yet born anew at the same time. Perfectly seared scallops float in a steamy, chestnut flavored broth, while giant chunks of chestnut add a touch of sweetness, of weight, and texture. A portion of guinea hen comes crisp as can be, as though it had just been sliced from a whole-roasted bird, teamed up with just a handful of sweet, moist baby clams.
But the most brilliant is one of the chef's newest dishes, a warm buckwheat blini covered with a mound of the sweetest confit of shallots you will ever find, served with a cup of frothy, alabaster, oyster cappuccino.
The array of golden, crusty, hearty hearth breads from master baker Eric Kayser on Rue Monge in the 5th arromdissement are so good that when they give you a slice you wish they would leave the entire linen-lined basket with you.
The wine list is brief but carefully chosen by Rohat, who spends weekends and vacations combing vineyards in search of good buys, particularly in the up and coming Languedoc region of southern France. Two wines definitely worth trying include the white Minervois Domaine de la Tour Boisée, a floral blend that includes both chardonnay and viognier grape; and a simple vin de table made near Montpellier, Domaine Belle Pierre, a golden, highly flattering, faintly sweet wine made from both the viognier and petite negrette grapes.
The name Astrance is a result of Parisian restaurateurs obsession with restaurants beginning with the letter A, on the assumption that the earlier you are in the alphabet, the better chance you have of diners calling you first. It works: Think of the former Archestrate, as well as Arpege and Apicius. But when Rohat and Barbot went searching for a name, they found that all the good A words had been taken. Then one day Rohat was hiking in the mountains of the Auvergne and came upon a wild flower named Grand Astrance. He called his partner to claim the name, and the rest is history.
4 rue Beethoven
Tel: 01 40 50 84 40.
Fax : 01 40 50 11 45.
Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. 180-franc lunch menu. A la carte, 250 francs, including service but not wine.