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Asta | Boston, MA | Feb ’14 | “two highlights, both desserts”

18 Mar
  • Address: 47 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA 02115
  • Phone: (617) 585-9575
  • Rating: 15/20
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $110
  • Courses: (8 main/10 total) 1 amuse / 6 savory / 2 dessert / 1 mignardise
  • Price/Main Course: $14
  • Rating: 15/20
  • Value: 3/5
  • Dining Time: 137 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 14 minutes
  • Chef: Alexander Crabb (ex. L’Espalier, noma)
  • Style: Ingredients-Driven
  • Memory: Carrot+Coconut

I had a recent 8-course tasting at Asta  (crowned Best New Restaurant of 2013 in Boston by Boston Magazine), and I’ve spent some time mulling over what kind of rating Asta should get.

  • One of the dishes I strongly suspected was using inferior quality produce: truffles which had a texture of cardboard, and a volatile chemical smell. On top of that, the dish did not seem well-conceived to me at all – featuring apples and roasted celeriac, but with no umami or salting.
  • Some dishes seemed minimalist for no reason than was the trend – the ingredients (salt cod; warm oyster) did not speak with any degree of clarity. When Alain Passard does minimalism, that is because his ingredients are a joy to behold and taste. Here it seemed done simply because it is the vogue.
  • No main savory dish stood out, except for little technical details, like the crispy skin on dry-aged duck. Somehow there was an unbalanced sense of composition about the main savory dishes. This could be due to a harmful adherence to minimalism for its own sake, for example a beef heart dish that could have been much better with a jus/third-ingredient-sauce. Also very likely, a zest for experimentation, leaving each dish behind before it has been perfected.

But the plus points:

  • A truly memorable carrot juice and coconut foam dessert. Sublime in ingredient pairing and conception.
  • A very good cream-puff dessert based around black sesame.
  • Hints of inspired pairing for the mains (beef heart and beets)

I was hovering between a 14/20 and a 15/20 for Asta, but I think it should receive the benefit of the doubt by virtue of being a young restaurant. There are glimpses of Chef Crabb’s ingredient pairing talent, but his attention is divided between a constantly rotating 3, 5, and 8 course menu, all of which share no overlap. If Asta streamlines the menu options into two menus at most, and focuses on perfecting those dishes, then I can see it becoming better. One thing Asta must do though, is not to serve questionable ingredients: at this price point inferior ingredients are unacceptable.

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Chef Alex Crabb

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8-course menu

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Amuse: Lardo with herbs (3.25/5)

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1. warm oyster: turnip, salted radish (3.25/5)

bland.

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2. salt cod (3.75/5)

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3. beef heart: beets (4/5)

A strong concentrated taste of heart muscle, with sour citrusy beet sauce and beet cubes. Almost a great pairing with the sour beet sauce, but let down by enforced minimalism. Beef heart was dry. Served with chips.

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4. celery root: black truffle (2/5)

Served with apple, and apple+black truffle puree. A befuddling dish. The celeriac had very little salting, and little umami – eating it was like eating a huge wedge of starchy stuff, or the tasteless starchy danggui in a long-broiled Chinese herbal soup. To add insult to injury, the black truffles were cardboard-y. A let down.

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5. duck breast: fermented rutabaga (4.5/5)

Air-dried for 7 days with a fan to reduce moisture, and then cooked on a plancha to achieve a great crispy skin texture. Like Chinese roasted pork. Great meat, though the merits were the duck’s alone.

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6. sunchoke: black trumpets (4/5)

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7. carrot & coconut (5/5)

An inspired pairing. Coconut milk and cream is made into foam, and sits on top of a bowl of carrot soup with a bit of ginger. Sprinkled on top is toasted coconut. Refreshing, and decadent at the same time.

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8. cream puff: black sesame, smoked maple (4.75/5)

A black sesame cream puff on the outside, with black sesame cream, and smoked maple syrup drizzled on top. A dish celebrating black sesame that was really well-executed.

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Mignardises: rabbits and buttered popcorn

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5-course menu pictures

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1. cauliflower: bottarga, anchovy

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2. monk fish: roasted brussel sprouts, bacon broth

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3. braised celery: black garlic gnocchi, chicken skin

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4. lamb: hearty winter leaves, chestnut

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5. black cocoa pavlova: passion fruit, olive oil