Friday, June 24, 2016

Asta Restaurant: Tasting Menus For The Win

With an unassuming store front, you might just walk by Asta and never check it out. That would be a serious mistake. I feel bad that even though the restaurant has been open for a few years, I hadn't dined there until earlier this week. I had read the raves, heard plenty of people recommend the place, but I just hadn't been there and there was really no reason why. Fortunately, my good friend Adam Japko, who has dined at Asta numerous times, convinced me to join him for dinner there this week. And now I can't wait to return.

Chef/Owner Alex Crabb (on the left side in the above photo), previously worked for about seven years at L'Espalier and also spent a couple months in 2011 working a stage at the famed Noma in Denmark. Alex's partner, Shish Parsigian, runs the front of the house, and I had the chance to meet both of them. They bring a certain energy to the restaurant and Shish was very personable. There is no pretension here, instead there's a casual and fun elegance. It is a place to relax and enjoy great food & wine.

When I dined at Asta, I didn't take any notes, though I took numerous photos, as I wasn't planning to do a detailed review. Instead, I was more there just to spend time with a friend, enjoying a nice dinner with a few wines. However, the experience was so compelling, I needed to write something about it, to share my positive experience with my readers.

The small dining room has lots of wood tables and chairs, with numerous furs on some of the seats. When's the last time you saw a fur covering your chair at a local restaurant? There are also two small counters near the kitchen, each seating about six people. We sat at one of the counters, allowing us a better view into the open kitchen area.

Much of the kitchen is open, with a smaller, enclosed area in the back. You can watch all of the prep work, seeing the Chef and other cooks ensure each dish looks perfect. You'll probably also see dishes from the various menus pass by, making you yearn for something which isn't part of the menu you ordered. You'll have to return to try another menu.

Asta only serves three different tasting menus, a three-course ($50), five-course ($75), or eight-course ($95). Each menu has different dishes, with the more adventurous items on the eight-course menu. You can also get a supplement of Seared Foie Gras for an extra $30. Wine Pairings are available for the five-course (+$45) and eight-course (+$60) meals. You can also order wine, by the glass or the bottle, or beer.

The wine list is relatively small but well-curated, diverse and interesting. Wine geeks are really going to enjoy this list, and Shish can help you navigate through the choices. There are 6 wines by the glass ($10-$16), from Soave to Grignolino, Cinsault Rosé to Dolcetto. There are 20 wines available by the bottle, including 2 Sparkling, 8 Whites, 1 Rosé  and 9 Reds, priced $60-$167. There are also 7 other wines available by the glass, including Sherry, Madeira and Dessert wines. You'll also find 8 beers on their menu, priced $6-$14, from countries including Japan, Belgium, Germany and more.

When you are first seated at Asta, they deliver a small glass of bubbly to you, a fine way to begin your meal. We opted for the eight-course dinner, ordered a couple bottles of wine (a white and a red), and also opted for a couple of wine pairings with specific courses.

For a white wine, we selected the 2010 Luis Rodriguez Vina de Martin Escolma Blanco ($104) which is from the Ribeiro D.O. in the Galicia region. Luis Rodriguez has been producing wines in this region since 1988 and currently owns about 5 hectares of vineyards. He ferments his wines with native yeasts and all of his white wines are aged on the lees. The Escolma Blanco is a blend of 20-40 year old vines of Treixadura, Albariño, Torrontés, and Lado. This is a quality cuvée that is only produced in excellent vintages. It is fermented in French oak, sits on the lees for 12 months, and then ages in the bottle for another 3 years. I very much enjoyed this wine, with its intriguing complexity, with some apple and tropical fruit flavors as well as plenty of minerality. It had a strong, floral aroma and a lengthy, pleasing finish. At a retail price of $60-$65, the mark-up on this wine is low and is highly recommended.

As for a red, we chose the 2011 Domaine Rene Rostaing Les Lezardes Syrah ($77), a Vin de Pays Collines Rhodaniennes.  Rene has been a grower since 1971, eventually inheriting over ten acres of very old vines in and around Côte Rotie. This wine, one of his more value wines, is made from 100% Syrah, which was aged in old oak barrels. This is an elegant Syrah, with delicious flavors of plums, black fruits, deep spice notes and some herbal elements. The tannins are well integrated, there is good acidity, and a lingering, satisfying finish. Also highly recommended.

During the dinner, we also enjoyed a glass of the 2014 Denis Lattard Roussanne, which is from the Drôme region, located on the western banks of the Rhone River in the northern Rhone. Denis Lattard, with a oenology degree, took over his father's chicken and vegetable farm in 1995 and realized the land once had grape vines. He decided to plant grapes, and now grows certified organic vines, producing about 15,000 bottles annually. This Roussanne is made from 15 year old vines, fermented in old oak and then aged for a time in more oak. This was another compelling white wine, with lush tropical fruit flavors, some citrus, and a touch of mint. Easy drinking and lush, this was a delicious wine that went well with our food.

At the tables in the main dining area, there are supposed to be drawers at each seat with all of your silverware. At the counters, the silverware is brought to you with each course, laying atop a bone.

As I've said before, a great chef can get me to eat just about anything, even items I usually dislike. They have a way of transforming ingredients into delectable combinations which will appeal to almost anyone. Chef Crabb certainly qualifies as I enjoyed a couple dishes during the eventing that generally I would have avoided elsewhere.

It started with an Amuse Bouche, a Radish Sandwich, and though usually I'm not a radish fan this was a tasty opener. Thinly sliced radishes, with interesting seasonings, on very soft bread (without any crust).

Our first course was an Oyster Cracker, lying atop a piece of pottery. It was a crisp, over-sized cracker and contained an intriguing, creamy center, with a mild briny taste. So much tasty flavor hidden within this cracker shell.

They gave us an extra course, which was on the five-course menu, Fluke with a cucumber dashi. I was expecting a warm dish but this was a cold dish instead, though quite delicious, The firm, flaky fluke was enhanced by the cucumber notes and the umami of the broth. We were served an ochoko of Sake with this dish.

I was pleasantly surprised that Asta has two Sakes in stock, a Junmai and a Nigori, which they pair with various dishes though it isn't listed on their menu. We were served the Kaguyahime Junmai, which is produced by the Yamamoto Honke which was founded in 1677 in Kyoto. It was made with Biwaminori rice, milled to 60%, and made from soft spring water called Shiragikui, which translates as "water of white chrysanthemum." This Sake is smooth and light, with subtle flavors of melon, pear and mild honey notes. It goes great with seafood and has a nice umami taste that pairs well with umami dishes, such as those including dashi.

 The tender Squid, with parsley and fennel, had fresh and clean flavors.

I was a bit hesitant about this dish, Poached Baby Onions with fermented rhubarb, as I'm picky about the onion dishes I like. However, there was no reason for trepidation as it was tasty, with a sweet onion flavor and the creamy cheese beneath the onions. The rhubarb added a little umami and herbal accents to the dish too.

Mid-meal, we were delivered some fresh, house-made bread with a soft butter sitting atop a rock. the bread has a nice crusty exterior with a soft and chewy interior, enhanced by the flavorful butter. I enjoyed several pieces of bread.

The Fava Beans with duck confit of course bring to mind Hannibal Lector's infamous line, except there wasn't any liver here. This dish was a nice blend of textures and flavors, and the small duck pieces were quite crisp and savory.

Another surprising dish was the Dandelion with ricotta & raspberry, which didn't sound enticing with its brief description but in the execution it was amazing. Creamy and herbal, with mild fruity elements, I nearly inhaled this dish. The photo doesn't do it justice, and it shows what Chef Crabb can create from such a disparate group of ingredients.

Another savory dish, the large Duck Egg, hidden beneath the sprouts and greens, had a soft, gooey yolk. Who wouldn't enjoy such a delicious egg with that strong yolk?

With also got to taste another course, from the three-course menu, a Chicken Taco (and I don't have a photo). Two fresh corn tortillas held the chicken, sauce and slaw, and it was absolutely delectable, with such rich flavors, everything working harmoniously together. If these were sold out of a food truck, there would be a long line to buy them. I don't know much of the details of what goes into the sauce atop the chicken, but it was savory, with a little spice, and a touch of sweetness.

We also enjoyed a couple palate cleansers, the first being a Sassafras Float with Fennel Sorbet. Wow, the bubbly drink had hints of root beer but was more dry than sweet, with clean flavors that were amplified by the compelling fennel sorbet.

The Cucumber with frozen yogurt was a little bit creamier than the Sassafras though clean and refreshing too.

Our first Dessert was Santa Rosa Plum, thin slices of tender, ripe plum atop a soft, moist cake. A light and fruity dessert which will satisfy your sweet tooth.

I also got to taste the Smashed Peas with cornbread, which you might not even think of as a Dessert. Somehow it worked, with a sweet pea taste complemented by the moist cornbread.

Finally, as a little extra, we received a plate of caramel corn, a peanut butter square, and a candy rabbit. The caramel corn was addictive and a sweet way to cap off a delicious and intriguing dinner.

Overall, I was very impressed with Asta, including the service, its casual atmosphere, the cuisine and wine. Chef Crabb is creating inventive and delicious dishes while Shish has designed an intriguing wine list. I highly recommend you dine here and let yourself be open to the tasting menus, finding the adventurous diner within yourself. I'll certainly be back, seeking to try even more of the tasting menus.

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