If you’re an avid follower of restaurant lists and Michelin stars, the name Noma won’t be foreign to you. Noma is a modernist, locavore, Nordic restaurant from Chef René Redzepi in Copenhagen, Denmark. It has dominated the top spot in S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, named the best restaurant in the world in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. It also holds two Michelin stars. Dishes (or shall I call them experiences?) are influenced by hyperlocal ingredients interpreted through the artistic and fastidious lens of a chef who has trained at places like The French Laundry and El Bulli in Spain.
What about Boston? Does Boston, a city that historically has preferred steakhouses, New England seafood, and gastropubs, have an appetite for such modern and cutting edge food?
Enter Chef Alex Crabb, previously from L’Espalier, who in January 2013 opened Asta with his girlfriend, Shish Parsigian. Chef Crabb staged (pronounced “st-ah-ged”, meaning an unpaid apprenticeship) at Noma for two months in 2011 to learn from the best restaurant in the world. He came back, ready to introduce Boston to a menu that most certainly pushes the envelope of Bostonian dining.
Asta only serves tasting menus. You choose between a three course ($45), five course ($70 + $40 for optional wine pairing), and an eight course ($95 + $60 for optional wine pairing). None of the menu items overlap, so you really have to try all of the different menus to sample all the food.
The nice thing about Asta is that each party can order a different tasting. We had a party of four, so we ended up getting a mix of five-course dinners and eight-course dinners (we wanted to try as much as possible!). There are also a few optional add-ons you can order for an additional price. Bryan ordered the extra foie gras dish, which cost $24.
Silverware is kept in a drawer right underneath your table, which makes it pretty convenient for the servers. Instead of bringing a new set of silverware for each course, you just get your own. Noma has the same practice.
Our first pre-course, an amuse, consisted of a pickled mussel served with a rye crisp and chili aoili. It was a fun bite full of different texture and flavors.
At this point, our tasting menus diverged completely, so I will describe them separately.
FIVE COURSE TASTING ($70 + $40 pairing)
Compared to the eight course tasting, this one is less modern and more approachable. It might be a good option for those that have never tasted modern cuisine. It’s also a little less food, but not that much less, than the eight course.
The first course was called Octopus with Chickpeas, and consisted of cooked octopus served with crispy chick peas, a deep squid ink sauce, baby greens, and flower petals. Honestly, this was a disappointing dish. The octopus was quite tough (overcooked?), and overall everything was a bit undersalted and light. The dish was visually beautiful, but overall came up short in flavor.
Thankfully, we absolutely loved our second dish, Beans with Fresh Goat Cheese, Relish. A creative take on a four bean salad, this version was filled with fancy speckled heirloom-esque beans, fava beans, and green beans tossed together in a beautifully bright lemony dressing. The texture on the beans was perfect: nice and al dente (I don’t like mushy beans) and perfectly bound together with the creamy goat cheese, which was not at all stinky.
Similarly the next dish, Hake with Corn and Tomato, was also brilliant. The properly pan-seared hake sat in a concentrated tomato “water” that burst with beautifully intense tomato flavors. Fresh corn added a sweet textural component that rounded out the dish really nicely.
Our main course was Beef with Potato and Parsley Puree. The steak was a simple preparation that was properly seasoned but nothing particularly special. The beef quality was fine, but not as nice as what you would find in a steak house.
I really liked the potatoes with the vivid green parsley puree, which was fragrant and well seasoned.
Our final and fifth course, Berries with Milk Bread and Lemon Verbena, was a winner. The dessert reminded me a bit of a deconstructed bread pudding, but made with a fluffier, less dense bread. I loved soaking up the cream with the absorbent bread and enjoying the milk-infused bread with the fresh fruits and almond slices on top.
EIGHT COURSE ($95 + 60 pairing)
The eight course consists of more smaller bites, more of which are a bit edgy and remind me of places like Noma. If you like trying a lot of little bites, this may be the better choice for you.
The first course was simply titled Melon, and consisted of a few slices of very ripe cantaloupe served with a fresh slice of Zebra tomato and wakame (seaweed). An unusual and creative combination, it worked quite well. The umami from the saltier seaweed balanced out the cleaner, bright flavors of the melon and the tomato.
The second course was Oyster Stew, and came in a tiny skillet over toasted dried grass (or is that hay?), yet another nod to one of Noma’s most famous dishes. Rich and buttery, the stew overall had nice, robust flavors. You could taste the freshness of the oysters. There were also crunchy bits (maybe croutons of some sort?) that added a fun textural component that made the dish fun to eat.
One of my favorite courses of the evening was the Mushroom + Rock, which consisted of different interpretations of mushrooms on top of a large hot stone. There were three components: a crimini mushroom cracker, a piece of chicken mushroom, and a smoked eggplant purée.
All three parts were excellent. The cracker had a nice, solid crunch and was full of that deep, earthy mushroom flavor from the crimini mushrooms. The chicken mushroom was pretty much served “as is”, but surprisingly really tasted like chicken, both in flavor and texture. It was fun to try. The eggplant puree was deep and smoky. There were also tiny crunchy bits of grated and dried mushroom “dirt” that were really flavorful and elevated the enjoyment of this course to yet another level.
The next course, Broccoli + Lardo, was a single charred broccoli floret topped with a thin layer of lardo and served with a tart horseradish cream. Again, there were small crunchy bits that added a really nice textural component to the dish. I especially liked how the tart cream and crunchy bits added needed contrast to the rich lardo and charred broccoli.
The Sweet & Sour Eggplant was a single roasted eggplant marinated with a sweet and sour glaze, hyssop, and topped with chopped peanuts. The dish was almost reminiscent of a chocolate bar (some say Snickers), with crunchy peanuts and a sweet cream.
Bryan and our friend Peter ordered the extra course, Seared Foie Gras ($24). The foie gras was seared with a coffee crust and served over a slice of sweet potato in a coffee flavored broth. It was excellent. We were surprised that such unusual components would go together so well, but it worked beautifully. The sweet potato paired well with the coffee-crusted foie gras, adding just a right amount of sweetness to the dish.
The biggest fail of the evening was the Pork Belly with Black Walnut. A single slice of pork belly came topped with walnuts and cape gooseberries. The pork belly was inedibly tough. We were pulling at it with our teeth and still having trouble chewing it. It reminded us of jerky, with dried out fat and meat that was more suited to be shredded into pork floss.
We weren’t sure if that was the intent of the dish, so we inquired about it. The server said that the pork belly is meant to be well done: not super soft, jiggly, and fatty (which is common with a lot of pork belly dishes). However, we said it was hard to chew. She said she would ask, but we never heard from her again regarding the disappointing course. She actually seemed a bit confused by our questions, unsure of what to do. Most restaurants would take the offending dish off the check (or offer a free dessert), but I’m not sure how you would handle that when there’s already a tasting menu that includes everything.
The first dessert, a refreshing palate cleanser, was a Concord grape sorbet with rose. The flavors were lovely, with a pronounced flavors from both elements.
The main dessert, Fig Leaf with Tomato and Hazelnut, consisted of a fig leaf panna cotta topped with hazelnuts, fresh apples, and tomato jam. Overall it was a pleasant dessert that was light, fruity, and easy to finish.
The check came with a plateful of cute cookies, which we polished off.
There’s clearly a lot of talent in the kitchen here. Several dishes were superb – creative combinations of flavors that worked really well in surprising ways. My personal favorites were the beans, the hake, the mushrooms + rock, and the foie gras.
Yet at the same time, there were certain courses that were either near misses or total misses. Meat was sometimes overcooked, and certain courses just didn’t have the oomph of other dishes. We also found the bill a bit confusing because it was not clearly itemized. The foie gras extra (which is $24), automatically comes with its own wine pairing if you’ve ordered the wine pairing, but they don’t clearly state that they will charge you an additional $8 for that glass.
All in all, I think it’s a restaurant with a ton of potential. In general, I really like what Chef Crabb has done here, introducing a new, more adventurous style of dining that’s pretty missing in Boston. I think the restaurant just needs a bit more time to iron out execution kinks. I know there’s a ton of creativity going on in the kitchen, and I like that. I’d prefer to have a daring chef that’s not afraid to take risks, even if sometimes those risks fail. There’s serious room for greatness here, and in general, it’s already coming along really, really nicely.
47 Massachusetts Ave
Boston, MA 02115
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