Chef Pascal Barbot of Michelin-starred L'Astrance shares recipe for steamed toothfish with leeks, white miso and brown butter

Ask Pascal Barbot how he stays at the top of his game in the competitive fine dining scene and the Michelin-starred chef shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly. "I just cook. There is no pressure and I am always relaxed."

Chef Barbot runs the three-star restaurant L'Astrance in Paris, which received its first star in 2001, a year after its opening, and its second star in 2005. At that time, the chef's minimalist cooking style was a minor revolution - his dishes contain no hint of the heavy, complex and opulent character usually associated with French cuisine.

That same year, he earned the prestigious Best Cook in France, and in 2007, L'Astrance earned its third Michelin star. L'Astrance is presently ranked 36th on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list.

It is an anomaly that the restaurant has retained its three stars despite a lack of pompous decor and menu. Each evening, guests are served a surprise menu which is determined by the availability of the freshest ingredients of the day.

  • STEAMED TOOTHFISH WITH LEEKS, MISO BUTTER AND BROWN BUTTER

  • INGREDIENTS

    500ml of pure water (use filtered or Volvic)
    1 sheet of kombu
    10g of grated bonito
    1 tsp yuzu or tangerine zest
    1 tsp sliced ginger
    1 tbsp soy sauce
    1 tbsp three-year-old mirin
    6 leeks
    1 piece of toothfish, at least 450g
    300g rock salt
    100g sugar
    olive oil
    lemon zest
    100g brown butter infused with rosemary
    100g sweet white miso
    2 hard-boiled eggs (cooked eight minutes), mashed
    lemon juice to taste
    garlic and ginger juice to taste
    60g flour
    10g cornflour
    10g icing sugar
    50g egg white
    60g unsalted butter
    50g heavy cream
    1 tbsp chopped rosemary

    METHOD 

    Dashi stock
    1. Rinse the kombu under water, and leave it to soak in the pure water overnight.
    2. The next day, bring kombu to a boil, and set it aside. Skim the scum off the liquid, add the grated bonito and then turn the heat off. Steep for one minute and drain.
    3. In a separate pan, bring the mirin to a boil then turn the flame off immediately. Add mirin to the kombu-bonito broth, together with ginger, yuzu zest and soy sauce. Let it all infuse with the heat turned off for 30 minutes before straining. Reserve dashi broth for leeks.
    Leeks
    1. Peel away the outer layers, using only the hearts. 
    2. Cook the leeks in salted boiling water for nine minutes. Remove leeks and refresh immediately in ice water. 
    3. Dry leeks and submerge them in dashi broth to infuse with flavour overnight. Remove from stock when done and slice into pieces.
    Toothfish
    1. Mix the rock salt and sugar together. Cure the slab of toothfish in salt and sugar mixture for two minutes.
    2. Rinse the fish, pat dry with kitchen paper and set aside. Portion into pieces of approximately 65 grams per person.
    3. Steam for three minutes on high heat just before serving. Brush with olive oil and some grated lemon zest.
    White Miso Butter
    1. Dry white miso over a low heat until it becomes a thick paste. 
    2. Pass eggs through a fine sieve, mix in the miso and warm brown butter. 
    3. Season with garlic, ginger and lemon juice to taste, and reserve.
    Rosemary tuile
    1. Mix the flour, cornflour, icing sugar together. 
    2. Incorporate the egg white into the powder mixture. Next add butter and then heavy cream in and mix till it achieves a smooth batter consistency. 
    3. Spread the batter in a thin layer on a silicone baking sheet, sprinkle the chopped rosemary on top and bake at 175 deg C for seven to eight minutes.
    4. Once cool, break into large shards. Reserve.
    To plate
    1. Place sliced leeks on plate and brush with olive oil. Place a shard of rosemary tuile on top of leeks. Pipe white miso butter on top of the tuile. Place toothfish on the plate, apart from the tuile.
    2. Finish the plate with artistically arranged drops of green parsley oil and black sesame paste around the dish.
    3. Garnish with nasturtium leaves or micro herbs.

"We just try our best," says the chef on how he retains his stars. "Getting Michelin stars was never my goal. What's most important is making the customer happy. Nothing pleases me more than customers making reservations for a return meal."

While he makes running L'Astrance sound like a breeze, there are factors that have led to its success.

Keeping it small is one. The restaurant only has seven tables that seats 25 diners. It has only 14 staff, including the stagiers and dishwashers. And oh, it is open only four days a week. It has been like this since it opened in 2000.

"Why would I want to open more days a week? No, I don't want to do that," says chef Barbot. "The lesser risk I take, the less stress and trouble I have."

He doesn't hog the limelight when it comes to explaining the restaurant's success. Instead, he gives credit to his partner, Christophe Rohat, a former maitre d'hotel from L'Arpege, where the two worked previously.

"It is not only the food that matters in a restaurant. The service is very important too; so is the wine pairing," he says.

And he also gives plenty of acknowledgement to his food suppliers, of which there are over 140 that deliver items to the restaurant daily."

Building a relationship with his suppliers is of importance to him. "I'm guaranteed the best quality and the freshest ingredients," he says. He visits the suppliers and farmers on the days when the restaurant is closed.

He was in Singapore recently for a four-night, pop-up dinner at Shangri-La Hotel. The menu included steamed toothfish with leeks, brown butter and white miso paste and roasted duck with morello cherries, spring cabbage and juniper berries.

For him it is not only important that the ingredients are at their best quality.

"I respect the produce greatly," he says. By that he means that the dishes are kept simple, and the focus is on the main ingredient. For example, the toothfish is simply steamed, so that its natural flavour comes through.

"I don't like to mess with the taste of the ingredient, but I like playing with condiments on the side," he says. For the toothfish dish, he placed some white miso and black sesame on the side, and it is up to the diner which condiment and how much he wants to add to his fish.

Chef Barbot's cooking methods and ideas are all inspired by his travels.

While serving his national service with the French Navy, he spent a year in New Caledonia and visited Indonesia, Fiji and Tonga.

It was in Indonesia that he first came across chilli and was amazed by its flavour. Coming from Vichy, in the middle of France, he had never seen anything like it. He now uses it to create a chilli sorbet as a palate cleanser at L'Astrance.

In New Caledonia, he recalls going fishing and cooking the fish with coconut flesh and lime juice. Even now, he often travels and takes his team with him. For chefs, he says, it is good to have an open mind and be curious and to want to see what's abroad.

"Now when the team sees an exotic fruit, they know what it is and how to use it," he says. "When I have unusual combinations on the menu, people say I am so original, I am such a genius."

But he dismisses all that. "I'm not a genius, I didn't save the world, I'm just a chef," he says. "For European diners, some of my combinations are exotic, but it is the norm in other parts of the world."

He says that since young, he always knew he wanted to be a chef. At 14, he went to a cooking school, and later trained at Maxim's in Paris, Clave in Claremont-Ferrand, Les Saveurs in London, and Troisgros in Roanne. He then worked with Alain Passard at L'Arpège, followed by two years at the now defunct Ampersand in Sydney, before opening L'Astrance.

He hopes to move L'Astrance to a bigger place, but has had difficulty finding the right location for the last two years. "There are just too many restrictions, and the French government doesn't care," he says.

For now, the status quo will have to prevail.

"Knowing that I can make customers happy, and knowing there is a two-month wait to dine at L'Astrance is a real highlight for me," he says.

taysc@sph.com.sg


INGREDIENTS

• 500ml of pure water (use filtered or Volvic)
• 1 sheet of kombu
• 10g of grated bonito
• 1 teaspoon yuzu or tangerine zest
• 1 teaspoon sliced ginger
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon three-year-old mirin
• 6 leeks
• 1 piece of toothfish, at least 450g
• 300g rock salt
• 100g sugar
• olive oil
• lemon zest
• 100g brown butter infused with rosemary
• 100g sweet white miso
• 2 hard boiled eggs (cooked eight minutes), mashed
• lemon juice to taste
• garlic and ginger juice to taste
• 60g flour
• 10g cornflour
• 10g icing sugar
• 50g egg white
• 60g unsalted butter
• 50g heavy cream
• 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary

METHOD

Dashi stock

  • Rinse the kombu under water, and leave it to soak in the pure water overnight.
  • The next day, bring kombu to a boil, and set it aside. Skim the scum off the liquid, add the grated bonito and then turn the heat off. Steep for one minute and drain.
  • In a separate pan, bring the mirin to a boil then turn the flame off immediately. Add mirin to the kombu-bonito broth, together with ginger, yuzu zest and soy sauce. Let it all infuse with the heat turned off for 30 minutes before straining. Reserve dashi broth for leeks.

Leeks

  • Peel away the outer layers, using only the hearts. Cook the leeks in salted boiling water for nine minutes. Remove leeks and refresh immediately in ice water. Dry leeks and submerge them in dashi broth to infuse with flavour overnight. Remove from stock when done and slice into pieces.

Toothfish

  • Mix the rock salt and sugar together. Cure the slab of toothfish in salt and sugar mixture for two minutes.
  • Rinse the fish, pat dry with kitchen paper and set aside. Portion into pieces of approximately 65 grams per person.
  • Steam for three minutes on high heat just before serving. Brush with olive oil and some grated lemon zest.

White Miso Butter

  • Dry white miso over a low heat until it becomes a thick paste. Pass eggs through a fine sieve, mix in the miso and warm brown butter. Season with garlic, ginger and lemon juice to taste, and reserve.

Rosemary tuile

  • Mix the flour, cornflour, icing sugar together. Incorporate the egg white into the powder mixture. Next add butter and then heavy cream in and mix till it achieves a smooth batter consistency. Spread the batter in a thin layer on a silicone baking sheet, sprinkle the chopped rosemary on top and bake at 175 deg C for seven to eight minutes. Once cool, break into large shards. Reserve.

To plate

  • Place sliced leeks on plate and brush with olive oil. Place a shard of rosemary tuile on top of leeks. Pipe white miso butter on top of the tuile. Place toothfish on the plate, apart from the tuile.
  • Finish the plate with artistically arranged drops of green parsley oil and black sesame paste around the dish.
  • Garnish with nasturtium leaves or micro herbs.


This article was first published on April 23, 2016.
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