I have no doubt that this is going over already well-trodden ground -- but I was so pleased with actually getting a table at Astrance, and really so happy with the meal, that I'm going to subject y'all to yet another drawn-out description. You have been warned ...
I'd read the reviews of Astrance here and elsewhere, and I was READY TO EAT. At the same time, I was coming off a disappointing chow weekend in Bologna, so I was also leery of having high expectations come plummeting down two weekends in a row (whereupon I would probably have committed chowa-kiri and thrown myself upon a sharp bottle of ketchup). Loic, my husband, likes food, but isn't as obsessed as I am, so he was eager without being desperate ...
We sat upstairs (there was only one other table on the mezzanine), ensconced in a butter-yellow banquette. The look is soothing without being dowdy -- very clean lines and great lighting.
Service was exquisite: always two servers per table, in order to make sure that plates are delivered symmetrically and to deliver not-in-the-slightest-bit-condescending instructions as to the composition of a dish and the proper way to eat it. Plus, they're happy to discuss the food, the restaurant and the people; and the Christophe Rohat roams the dining room like an exceedingly cordial shark, making sure all the little fishies are happy.
Might as well state the obvious: this place serves excellent, creative food. But the menu surprise (84 ) apparently hasnt changed much we ate some things that featured prominently in reviews that came out just after the opening in fall 2000. One disappointment was that both the wines included and the unlimited pour policies seem to have fallen by the wayside.
This said, the unexpected highlight of our visit was the amazingly good, amazingly versatile white mystery wine chosen for us to accompany the seafood-oriented menu: after guessing Bourgogne, dry riesling, Australian chardonnay, we were stunned to find out it was a Languedoc (Domaine de lEgarran 2000) that went for 30 at Astrance and retails for something like 6 . To find -- soon!
But on to the chow:
1. Amuse-bouche: shatteringly crisp friture. Love them little sardine-y things.
2. The infamous crab ravioli: perfect crabmeat, seasoned only with chives, sea salt and a touch of lime, sandwiched between thin, ripe avocado slices, drizzled with almond oil. Lived up to its billing! Accompanied by a salt cod milkshake in a shot glass. I know, I know, but its the only way to describe it and it worked! This began a theme that continued through the dinner chefs impeccable use of sweet elements in savory dishes never enough to overwhelm, always exquisitely calibrated.
3. Tarte fine of pears and cèpes, seasoned with marjoram and dusted with cinnamon. Like a walk in autumn woods, all nutty, sweet and earthy.
4. Perfectly cooked langoustine on a bed of green-walnut purée, showered with julienned granny smith apple. Accompanied by a tiny spoonful (on mother-of-pearl spoons, no less) of vin de Jura sorbet. The sorbet didnt work particularly well, but the idea was nice.
[I may be missing a course in here, but I cant remember what it is ]
5. Highlight #1: tiny, sweet mussels served on a pool of brilliant green curry sauce dotted with coconut oil and tiny thai basil leaves, with a dollop of ripe- and green-mango granita (but room-temp). And the whole was frothed in curry suds looked like the mussels were taking a bubble bath. The aroma was the only word I can think of is époustouflant. Staggeringly delicious. We both had idiotic grins on our faces at this point.
6. Sandre (the tiniest bit overcooked) served with a sauté of girolles (an even deeper-flavored mushroom purée hid underneath the sauté) and what I thought was a very clever play on words/traditions: hazelnut butter (au lieu de beurre noisette).
7. Highlight #2: soupe au pain grillé an improbable wager upon first consideration, but toast crumbs were often used to add body to soups in the "cuisine grand mère" of generations past. A little nod to forgotten tradition, I guess.
8. Highlight #3: The Apotheosis of Root Vegetables. A pool of immaculately white purée surrounded by a brilliant green sauce, with tiny white vegetables scattered over. Vegetables: turnips, parsnips, and caraway root (!), all very nutty and toothsome. Sauce: parsley sauce a perfect, slightly bitter counterpart to the nuttiness of the veg and the incomparable sweet unctuousness of the purée celery root, as it turns out. But celery root that has achieved a greatness unimagined by its humble brethren. I make celery root purée often. I KNOW celery root purée. I have NEVER imagined it could taste like this. Had we not been under the polite surveillance of the waiters, I would have licked both plates clean.
9. Half roasted guinea fowl with a stuffing of brioche crumbs and fruits confits. Loic liked it; I was unimpressed. The stuffing was disturbingly reminiscent of a mouthful of sand. But the pintade skin was brittly crisp and and the flesh succulently juicy.
10. Now began the parade o desserts, led by Highlight #4, a lemongrass and hot pepper granité.
11. Fresh groseilles, ground cherries, oranges, tomatoes (!) and grapes.
12. Fresh corn madeleines. This is what Proust was thinking of, I know. Gently crispy on the outside and then you bite into an ethereal pillow of warm air.
13. Highlight #5: le lait dans tous ses états. A quenelle of milk sorbet floating in crème anglaise, with a dollop of dulce de leche nestling next to the Platonic ideal of pain perdu. If I could have this every day, I would die fat and happy.
14. For Loic, a chocolate thing (of no interest to me), and for me, since theyd asked at the beginning whether there was anything I didnt eat, a compote of fresh figs in a caramel-balsamic sauce with a tiny scoop of groseille-tomato sorbet. Mmmmmm
15. Jasmine-flavoured egg-nog served in egg shell, in egg carton. Not so impressed by this (maybe my nose was a having an off-jasmine night) and the presentation was a little precious (stood in stark contrast to the parage of lovely, elegant, often Asian-influenced plates and serving dishes that had graced the table all night).
Bottom-line: three hours wed love to relive (we went at 9, among the first to arrive, and stumbled out in a haze of well-being at midnight, the last to leave) -- IF we knew the menu had changed. Ironically, the waiter assured us that the menu is in constant evolution and I didnt have the heart to tangle with him on the issue.
But for any Chowhounds looking for a great special place, time to add two more thumbs up to the already long list of positive experiences.