Restaurant Review: Asta
It was only a matter of time until Boston produced a restaurant in the tradition of Noma, the incessantly celebrated Copenhagen destination where chef-owner René Redzepi’s signatures include radishes peeping out of edible “soil” and garnishes of weeds and live ants. By focusing on seldom-used native ingredients and unusual presentations inspired by the environment—rocks, logs, moss, and the like—Noma’s brand of New Nordic Cuisine redefined the idea of locavorism. But it also spawned dozens of contrived, secondhand interpretations.
I’m both pleased and relieved to report that Asta, our introduction to the spirit of this style, is in the hands of someone as talented, genial, and modestly but unmistakably ambitious as L’Espalier alum Alex Crabb, who spent two formative months in 2011 as a volunteer apprentice at Noma—the pilgrimage that many an enterprising chef feels obliged to make these days.
The Noma influence is clear from the amuse-bouche, which is presented on a handsome flat black rock striated with white bands. There are the aproned and sometimes bandanna-adorned cooks who bring it to you, often bending deferentially as they explain a dish. And there’s the amuse itself, coral-red rice-cracker-like “paprika chips” with preserved-lemon aioli, crisp-chewy little anchovies, a dot of saline squid ink, and powdered seaweed. They’re crunchy, salty, and use secondary New England ingredients that speak of where you are—but in a new dialect that makes you reconsider what’s around you.
As at Noma, Asta serves tasting-only menus—a pernicious trend I’m on the record as loathing. But not when it’s done with the quick but silken pacing, finesse, and careful attention to portions that Asta achieves with its three menus, which are designed to go from least to most adventurous: three ($45), five ($70), or eight ($95) courses. (Wine pairings are available for the five- and eight-course menus, for $40 or $60 extra.) Rare for tasting-only restaurants, which usually require the entire party to have the same menu, Asta will allow any table to order all three variants. There were no overlapping dishes on each of the three menus I tried, so you’ll be tempted to sample them all. For the best introduction to the kitchen’s range, I’d start with the five-course option.
Crabb and his partner, Shish Parsigian, who runs the front of the house, set Asta on an odd, quiet block of Mass. Ave. at the top of the Back Bay, and furnished the dining room with blond-wood tables and plain, barely padded chairs that seem out of a schoolroom. But the tables conceal a neat secret: labeled drawers containing the evening’s flatware, culled from dozens of mismatched sets. A sushi-style horseshoe bar surrounds the open kitchen, where on a recent visit we could see people making friends while discussing the unusual menu, which includes local, native ingredients one might never have seen, let alone eaten, before.
Crabb discovered many of them during his seven-year tenure at L’Espalier, where chef-owner Frank McClelland became increasingly active in sourcing from local growers, including his own Apple Street Farm, in Essex. One conversation-starter is a knife-and-fork-size oyster—“Large Marge,” from Duxbury’s Island Creek—that Crabb serves in the half shell over a bed of seaweed. The amount of natural liquor in the bivalve gives the kitchen a chance to enhance it with a singingly pure celery infusion that is spooned back into the shell. The oyster itself is so big that Crabb smokes the trimmings, which he infuses into an oil that gets drizzled over the finished dish.
More New England reinterpretations: a narrow strip of off-white seafood that looks like a fillet of creamy, firm-fleshed white fish but is instead a diver scallop, roll-cut on its side like the peel of an orange in one long strip. It’s an ingenious technique that Crabb admits he learned watching Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America. (“I was tired of cylinders,” he told me. “You work in New England, you sear scallops your whole career.”) He finishes his scallop on a plancha and pairs it with farro cooked in beet juice and beer; pickled dried blueberries; and pickled mustard seeds.
Some of Crabb’s dishes are plain old-fashioned good—nothing fancy. The first course of the relatively homey three-course menu was a peppery mixed-green salad with raspberries and pickled shallots. The greens, from Sparrow Arc Farm, in Maine, were strong-flavored and fresh, like the main course: a brined and roasted chicken breast, served over an expertly reduced pan-dripping jus strengthened with duck stock. It came with sensational potato disks, whole potatoes that are simmered, hand-smashed, and pan-fried until they seem like the oiliest, crunchiest oven-roasted potatoes you’ve ever had.
Other dishes, along the lines of that strip of scallop, make you rediscover something you thought you knew: The sweetbreads, prepared as Crabb learned them at Noma, are salted; painstakingly de-membraned (so you’d swear they were veal sausage); and served with fennel and an absinthe-and-vermouth-spiked butter. A milk-chocolate coconut-caramel-crunch bar, like all the desserts by Rachel Garrett, was another homey, familiar flavor, but with nuanced technique and a curveball—the addition of rich tahini and black sesame seeds.
The wines are as original, quirky, and carefully chosen as the rest of the menu, and persuasively explained by sommelier Paige Farrell, who pours every diner a complimentary glass of cava to start. The prices, though, are more daunting than the cost of the food, with the chiefly Alsatian, Austrian, and French whites in the $70 and $80 range and many of the California and French reds over $100. I wished that more than two whites and two reds were offered by the glass, even if one of the food-friendliest on the list, a 2011 Leth Roter Veltliner ($10), was among them.
More diners might crowd Asta if the menu offered a bit more flexibility—tasting menus, however deft or quickly paced, aren’t for everyone. But more diners should crowd Asta—now. If I haven’t said it straight out: I haven’t been this impressed by a new chef since Jason Bond opened Bondir and Tim Maslow arrived to help his father at his Watertown diner and revolutionized Strip-T’s. Crabb may be working in a style someone else made famous, even if not yet here. But it’s a style that perfectly suits his own. Go to Asta to make your own double discovery.
47 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, 617-585-9575, astaboston.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.