Aspic, which would appear to be just a tiny (seats 20), unassuming neighborhood restaurant, is anything but. Opened four years ago, it built a reputation for itself online and attracted a clientele of 80 percent Americans and other foreign visitors, according to its manager. That all changed last month when it was awarded a Michelin star. Ironically, thanks to that, it is now attracting more French people, many of them from the neighborhood. The night we were there, apart from us and one other couple, everyone was French.
What’s the appeal? The food! The service is lovely and the decor simple – one mirrored wall, one stone wall and some designer light fixtures – but the joy here is in the plate, as my dinner companion put it, in a series of complex, beautifully judged dishes. Customers are given no choices here: the restaurant is open only in the evening and serves one option: a seven-course tasting menu. Personal tastes are not catered to. Says the restaurant’s website: “We cannot provide vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, gluten-free or lactose-free menus. We offer no ‘children’s menu’.”
The meal began with mini-brioches straight out of the oven, served with amazing combava-flavored butter. I want all my butter to be flavored with combava (kaffir lime) from now on, even at the risk of flirting with obesity. Alongside it was a little dish of the best pancetta (with fennel) I have ever tasted. That was followed by individual scallops with brioche breading.
After those sublimely simple dishes, things quickly became more complicated with a gourmet version of a crab salad, with Greek yogurt, balsamic vinegar, watercress dressing, horseradish mousse and tiny croutons. It all worked perfectly together to create a subtle, refreshing dish full of varied flavors and textures.
Another fish-based starter featured mackerel, its strong flavor tempered by mild goat cheese, served with scrumptious sesame-and-hazelnut wafers and dollops of hibiscus jelly.
Then came the main fish course: melt-in-the-mouth lieu jaune (pollack) with a crunchy herbed topping and purée of celery, a sprinkling of cockles, white-wine sauce and cockle jus with lemongrass.
For the next course, the chef (Quentin Giroud, who worked in the world of finance before learning to cook) demonstrated what he could do with a humble vegetable: great things. The caramelized salsify was served with veal jus, bits of chorizo, a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and pieces of orange, as well as a slow-cooked egg yolk topped with dried black garlic.
Then came the meat course: amazingly tender quail prepared two ways – a roasted fillet and a confit thigh – and served with citrus-braised endive, bits of orange, dried fruits and a ginger paste (rather too strong for this delicate dish) and roast-chicken jus.
The lovely “cheese course” consisted of goat cheese mousse with caramelized almonds, arugula pesto and lemon confit, with a nasturtium leaf on top.
At this point, we became aware of how each course transitioned to the next. The mild fishy flavor of crab in one dish was followed by the stronger mackerel, then the milder pollack. The veal juice and chorizo with the vegetable dish prepared the palate for the meat dish. The dishes were also judiciously linked by certain reappearing ingredients, always in different guises and never repetitive: notably goat cheese, citrus and various nuts.
Thus the sweet caramelized almonds in the cheese course prepared our palates for the desserts to come, starting with a festival of chocolate. The chocolate ravioli was a clever idea but a bit disappointing. Not so for the intense and wonderfully flavored chocolate ice cream and chocolate polenta crumble, pannacotta (speckled with ground coffee beans), grapefruit marmalade and pear compote.
The final dessert consisted of a little chou pastry with crème pâtissière and lime zest, and a scrumptious mini-Tropézienne (a little brioche/whipped cream sandwich), both divine.
So far, the recently awarded Michelin star doesn’t seem to have led to any pretensions at Aspic, where the service is attentive but easygoing and the entire staff, including the chef himself, help out by delivering dishes to the table, always with a smile. And I am pretty sure the restaurant is not going to coast along on its reputation by remaining preserved in aspic.