"Bacon is the candy of meat."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A meal to write home about

Day 4 in Paris was also the day of our very special-planned ahead-celebrate the 40th birthdays in style-meal. I had been able to get a lunch reservation at L'Astrance, even though calling 2 months in advance won't guarantee you a spot at dinner. It didn't matter, because L'Astrance showed us an amazing time in the middle of the day, and at least this way we were awake enough to enjoy it.

The restaurant is very small, on two levels on the rue Beethoven in the 16th. The walls are a deep slate gray, the ceiling and upholstery are soft gold. Each table has a small cube of lava rock into which a bouquet of orchids is set, and the chargers are multicolored platters of venetian glass. It's an elegant but playful interior, perfect for the food. The waiters are all young men in suits who swoop over your table and leave behind the most beautiful dishes, but not without engaging in a friendly (and comic) way -- more on this later.

The menus simply list the available seasonal ingredients, not actual dishes, and you can choose from a variety of tasting menus and wine pairings. In fine French dining style, only Mr. Gateau's menu listed the prices. We went with the "Dejeuner d'Ete" menu with paired wines and put ourselves in their hands. And what hands.

Amuse: a tiny square of shortbread decorated with a thyme flower, served on a spoon, which rested on a slate alongside a green grape, a raw hazelnut, and an amber raisin. We also had our bread service of simple bread with butter, no fancy baskets or anything.


To prepare the palate: a small parfait of ginger yogurt, orange melon puree, and cassis foam. Beautiful clean flavors and lovely summer colors.


Seafood: Grilled langoustines served with beautiful paper-thin slices of translucent summer vegetables (pepper, zucchini, carrot, squash), a dollop of spiced peanut butter, and the plate decorated with the yellow and pink petals of flowers. This was served with a white wine from the north Rhone, but of course I forgot to write it down.


Fish: Succulent sea bream, served with a leaf of young bok choi, a baby leek, a small marinated red onion, a circle of red pepper, and finely diced parsnip that looked like rice, in a light, slightly sweet sauce. Alongside was served a bowl of mussels and abalone in daishi. Same white wine.


Meat: The tenderest, pale pink baby lamb, with a beautiful layer of fat, served with an assortment of the season's first wild mushrooms in thin slices, along with a smoked eggplant puree. With this we had a chateaneuf de pape. These were perfect early fall flavors, getting your mouth ready to be reintroduced to rich sauces, mushrooms, game, red wine, and smoke.


Cheese: In front of us was placed a dish of some creamy mousse with what looked like ice cream. The waiter insisted he had no idea what it was, as it was his first day and didn't know the recipes yet. We tasted. It was delicious -- some kind of fresh white cheese mousse with pure vanilla ice cream and maybe a few thyme blossoms. We said we couldn't quite put our finger on the flavor. The waiter returned with a bowl of just the mousse and said he wouldn't bring us the rest of the meal until we identfied it. I dipped my spoon, and nailed it. The most light creamy whipped mashed potatoes you have ever eaten, with the fromage blanc. I have a sneaking suspicion that our "novice" waiter has been around for a long time, and possibly even owns the restaurant.


Dessert: More like 4 desserts. Out comes a giant tray of 8 pink and red items, 4 for each of us. As the plates are being laid out, I gasped. Without a word, the waiters started removing my dishes, until I begged for them to return. The waiter said "If you really think you can...." and I did. We were told to eat from right to left. First, a chili and lemongrass sorbet that was perfectly balanced, mostly citrusy refreshment, with a little chili kick. I wish Ciao Bella sold it in pints. Next was a sabayon with red fruits and -- my hand to god -- Super Sugar Crisp for garnish. Next up was a sponge cake with red fruit coulis, and then a beautiful tart with a mosque-like pointed dome of raspberry mousse decorated with petals. With this we were served an Austrian dessert wine from near the Hungarian border, made from dried cabernet sauvignon grapes.


Coffee: Having completed the gorgeous flower-strewn meal, our coffee and tea were served with a stunning spread of little bites and fruit. The fruit dish was a rectangular platter of tiny translucent green grapes, little golden plums, and orange and red heirloom cherry tomatoes. It looked like it could have walked out of Cezanne's studio. There was a tiny basket of madeleines made with tree honey, and set on a green glass tray were two brown eggshells containing jasmine eggnog. Just as the lamb dish evoked early fall, so did the sepia-toned palette of these last nibbles. The jasmine eggnog was incredible -- perfumed and ethereal.


Of course we vowed we'd never eat again.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Eiffel Tower, past my uncle's place on the Quai Branly and the new Musee du Quai Branly with it's fascinating glass-walled grounds, and along the Seine. We ended up at our apartment for a cup of tea, then decided to have a light dinner at the local cafe -- Mr. Gateau had sausage and frites, I had a salade composee with ham, potatoes, and string beans. Following that, we decided to check out a laid-back bar with live music in what is left of Chinatown, and we enjoyed a couple of beers there on a warm night, then checked out a noisier club near Les Halles for another beer. We got home around midnight, and got to speak to our two little cupcakes at home, who seem to have learned to pepper their conversation with "Bonjour!" and "Au Revoir!" in our absence.


Meg said...

This last post reminds me of the scene at the end of "Big Night", after the meal, when the woman sits on the table weeping--"My mother was a terrible cook." After a meal like that, do you wonder how you'll ever eat "regular" food again?

pam said...

Oh my god, you're killing me. Jealousy is oozing from my pores.

Ellen said...

what a fabulous way to celebrate!

k said...

this restaurant and this meal as you so beautifully describe it make me proud to be a human being. We are worth something after all!

mamele said...

meg totally nails it.

what a divine read that was. thank you!! just curious: did the waiters speak to you in english or french?

Mlle Gateau said...

The waiters spoke some English to us, but mostly French. There were also at least 3 tables of well-heeled Japanese visitors, speaking both English and French.

wuvyou said...

oh my god. i am dead from reading that.