PARIS – As cooks, I am convinced that most of us look at the ingredients before us with a single dimension. My asparagus are always blanched and cooked whole (rarely steamed or roasted). My baby leg of lamb is often roasted whole, on the bone, with need of nothing more than a streamlined seasoning of salt and pepper.
Apricots are halved and pitted for a tart, always cooked with their sunshine face up; and my classic vinaigrette varies little, just red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, olive oil and salt.
Habit? A rut? Lack of imagination? Perhaps a bit of all three. In defense of all of us, part of the pleasure of cooking a dish, and revisiting it again, is the simple memory, the pleasant familiarity, of how the food looked and tasted and pleased us the last time. There is also a touch of anticipation involved and, for sure, a dose of security.
But it is clear that chef Pascal Barbot of the Michelin-starred Astrance has a totally other vision. What we mortals see in black and white, he sees in Technicolor. While we look at things straight on, he seems to stand on his head, hang from a bar, cock his head to permit a whole new take on ingredients.
I was amazed by his food when I first visited the newborn restaurant in the winter of 2000. A recent revisit only suggests that this talented, modest chef has grown and grown and grown.
Like many contemporary chefs he focuses on the ingredient first, the process second. But its in his combination of ingredients as well as his pristine, even exciting presentations that he distinguishes himself from the rest of the pack. And no one has thought through the very idea of how an ingredient is cut and presented the way Barbot has.
Along with partner Christophe Rohat, this young chef is one to follow, for sure.
A recent lunch included samples of a good portion of the summer’s menu, and ran the full range of seasonal fare. Crab and avocado, zucchini and baby turnips, fava beans and langoustine, tomatoes and arugula, tuna, barbue, pigeon and veal. As good as ever is his signature crab and avocado “ravioli,” really thin slices of avocado masquerading as pasta, layered over a brilliantly season salad of crab enhanced with lime zest, chives, fleur de sel, and the most delicious, sweet and fragrant almond oil.
But the single dish that sent me into rave mode was his astonishing combination of turnips, begonia flowers, fava beans and marjoram. Big deal, you say? The dish has to be seen and sampled to be believed. The combination arrived in a pure white soup bowl, an artistically perfect color blend of red, white and green. So pretty I waited a full minute to indulge, appreciating the aesthetics of the moment.
The baby turnips had been blanched and sautéed, the same for the brilliant green fava beans. The bright intense flavor of the begonia petals, touched with a bit of black pepper seemed to say that summer was on its way.
Color played a role again in the daily special barbue – the turbot-like brill – standing tall and on end, its alabaster skin offset with bright spring green lemon verbena oil, and a raw, sweet onion salad paired with fresh lemon verbena.
But it’s not just color and show here. Somehow the newness of all the combinations force us to think about what we are eating, and contemplate the incredible variety of ingredients, colors, flavors, textures that nature has given us.
Rohat’s ability to surprise never stops, as zucchini skins are sliced paper thin and layered like a millefeuille with shavings of cool and salty feta cheese, thin slices of white button mushrooms, all set on an ultra-thin layer of crunchy, sweet pastry.
Langoustines are so gently sautéed, served with a juice made from tomato skins, offset by a singular green puree of arugula.
The cool and soothing grey dining room, the starched linens, the gilt-framed mirrors add a restive backdrop to all this modern excitement. Rohat’s choice of wine – a deep red Pic St Loup, Château de Cazeneuve, with overtones of dark red fruit and a touch of gingerbread --- was a totally fitting match. Reservations at Astrance are hard to come by, so plan ahead for your next exciting meal.
4 rue Beethoven
tel: 01 40 50 84 40
Fax: 01 40 50 11 45
Closed August 1 to 21, February school vacation, all day Monday and Tuesday at lunch. All major credit cards. 30-euro lunch menu. A la carte, 55 to 75 euros, including service but not wine.