Shish Parsigian came up to us at Asta, where she is co-owner, a few minutes after we sat down. "Do you know about your drawers?" she asked. "There are drawers under each place setting that contain all the flatware you'll need for dinner."
It was but one detail about Asta that reminded me of the intimate restaurants burgeoning in Copenhagen—particularly Relae, where a Noma alum, Christian Puglisi, cooks abridged but sumptuous tasting menus, serving whimsies like a study of carrots or beef tartare with oysters and lovage. Chef Alex Crabb, who runs Asta with Parsigian, spent two months apprenticing at Noma before opening his own place and clearly absorbed some of the Danish aesthetics. He borrowed the silverware-drawer conceit from Relae, and both restaurants sport scruffy exposed brick and buffed concrete floors. But Crabb and Parsigian also threw in some American quirkiness for their spare, 41-seat room. Spray-painted birds and bunnies flit on the walls of the restroom hallway, and they left an image of Zeus, hoisting a lightening bolt, etched by previous occupants and uncovered during renovation.
Crabb also worked at Boston's starry L'Espalier for five years, and his food is a rewarding sum of his experiences. He offers three tasting menus for dinner, each tailored to different appetites: a $45 three-course meal full of comforts like deviled eggs, braised lamb or duck confit, and coconut cream pie. The five-course $70 option veers more to the conceptual, a polished sequence of dishes fully in Crabb's repertoire, heavy on au courant vegetables. The eight-course $95 prix fixe is for the open minded, a chance to taste ideas in progress and notions, like beef heart with potatoes and whey, culled from the New Nordic lexicon. Obligingly, a group can order any combination of menus.
Asta opened in January 2013, and Boston's critics lauded Crabb as one of the city's most promising new talents in recent years. After one of his five-course progressions, I can see why. His food has bravura but isn't uptight. The meal kicked off with mussels escabeche, set in a squid ink-stained broth as black as the mollusk's (absent) shells. Small potato spheres rolled around the bowl, with a few raw turnip orbs, identical to the spuds, tossed in to playfully booby-trap the palate.
Parsigian is in good company on the floor with sommelier Paige Farrell, who connects Crabb's cooking with some strikingly compatible wines. For the mussels and potato dish, she poured a flinty Weingut Robert Weil Riesling. The pairings soon moved into French varietals. A fragrant, floral Domaine de Reuilly Pinot Gris Rosé from the Loire fell in with the flavors of hard-seared monkfish made earthy from black sesame puree and a grilled garlic scape lassoed around the fish. A lemony Savagnin (not Sauvignon) Blanc from the Jura counterbalanced a handsome splay of duck confit with various fresh and cooked local onions alongside a pool of beer-cheese sauce: It was Strange Brew meets Now, Forager. A Pinot Noir from Burgundy's Côte Chalonnaise brought springtime strawberry notes to the breast and leg meat from D'Artagnan's Green Circle chicken. (The birds were crazy pricy and Crabb didn't buy them for long.)
All this food and drink hit the Goldilocks sweet spot: I wasn't hungry, glutted, or overly buzzed at the end of it. I was just right. Elated, in fact, by dessert: a slice of toasted cinnamon milk bread, somewhere between the texture of brioche and tea cake, topped with fresh and revived dried apricots, speckled with almonds, and bathed in vanilla bean milk. No shenanigans, no deconstruction—only simple deliciousness.
The restaurant, wedged between a cupcake shop and a convenience store, resides on a curious nether-block in Boston's Back Bay: It's near the hustle of swank Newbury Street but apart from it, and flanked by six-story apartment buildings. The relaxed, multi-generational crowd in Asta that night indicated that, cues from Denmark or not, Crabb and Parsigian's sophisticated mom-and-pop approach seems to be winning over the neighbors.
Photographer: Bill Addison