On a Friday evening in Paris, as we walked to Astrance from Passy metro station, the Eiffel Tower stood ahead, lit up in all its splendour. But as we turned off avenue de New York into the cobbled rue Beethoven, sloping steeply uphill, both my wife and I suddenly had the feeling that we were in San Francisco.
How the three-Michelin-starred Astrance came to be in such an unlikely setting was explained to us by its restaurateur, Christophe Rohat, who patrols the floor of this intimate space in a dark suit, open-necked white shirt and waistcoat. He has obviously trained his staff, particularly long-serving sommelier Alexandre Jean, to a very high standard.
“Pascal [Barbot, the chef] and I worked together at L’Arpège and then for chef Pierre Gagnaire before we decided to go on our own in 2000,” he said. “We looked at over 30 possible sites and then were shown this one … It is such a lovely, quiet part of Paris that I have now moved here too with my family.”
Though a large, pungent Piedmont truffle sat on the reception desk, and though there were Japanese influences evident in the cooking, this was a meal that could not have felt more French – nor, at €230 for the multicourse tasting menu, more expensive.
But by a third of the way through the “surprise” menu (the only one on offer), we were already pretty satisfied. Our first course was Barbot’s signature dish of a millefeuille of raw mushrooms interlaced with foie gras, followed by a stunning combination of raw scallop and oyster alongside bone marrow, sea urchin and kombu (the seaweed essential to Japanese dashi or stock).
A steamed fillet of turbot with chrysanthemum flowers and green shiso mint was followed by a thin ravioli layer on top of an intense bowl of spicy crab. Both were excellent – the former showed a real lightness of touch, while the latter was rich and intense.
By contrast, the two subsequent meat courses, a round of lamb with black olive and liquorice and a piece of Challans duck with miso-flavoured aubergine, were arguably a little too similar in terms of texture and flavour. Desserts and tiny chestnut madeleines were excellent alongside a plate of sliced fresh fruit.
Two very different factors had by this point supplemented our pleasure. The first was the wine list that Jean has cleverly assembled, solving the challenge of so many different flavours emanating from Barbot’s kitchen by sourcing older vintages from some of France’s lesser-known regions to enhance the complexity of the food.
We drank two mature Loire wines – a Montlouis, Le Volagré 2007 from Stéphane Cossais, and then a Saumur-Champigny, Le Clos 2004 from Clos Rougeard. Together these came to a reasonable (by three-star standards) €110.
The second factor adding to our enjoyment was our elevated table on the restaurant’s small mezzanine. We had a great view of the tables below, particularly one where seven French gastronomes were savouring the three main courses of a game dinner: horse, then woodcock and finally hare à la royale. And we could also inhale the lovely aromas of everything from the costly white truffle to the far less expensive but nevertheless delicious sautéed onions.
This dinner, enjoyed when we arrived in Paris, could not have differed more from the lunch we had just before we left. Our three-course Sunday lunch at Fish la Boissonnerie on the Left Bank cost €32 – unbeatable value from a highly cosmopolitan partnership in this quintessentially Parisian location. Fish is owned by a New Zealander, Drew Harré, and an American, Juan Sanchez (whose parents are from Cuba), while in the kitchen is 23-year-old Ollie Clarke, a talented Englishman.
Clarke delivers characterful dishes such as a pungent fish soup with mussels, fillet of mackerel with harissa, and hake with fregola, a Sardinian pasta, and walnut relish. Best of all was a fillet of John Dory with salsify – two ingredients that are particularly fiddly to prepare at home.
But most inspiring to me was the sight of Clarke and his two chefs as they sat by the bar preparing for that night and the following day’s business. They were full of enthusiasm and delight in their profession, cognisant of the hard work it involves but aware too that it brings huge pleasure.
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4 rue Beethoven, 75016 Paris, 00 33 1 4050 8440.
Open Tuesday-Friday; astrancerestaurant.com
Fish la Boissonnerie
69 rue de Seine, 75006 Paris 00 33 1 4354 3469.
Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday