It doesn't seem like there would be an apex of culinary delight in the building that houses Ozone Records at Burnside and NE 7th. Just out of sight from a wonder-glut of hip thrift stores, coffee shops, and the Doug Fir, it feels like the part of the garden that isn't getting any sun. No restaurant should be able to thrive there, and yet, like the weeds that grow through cracks in the concrete, they are finding a way. Colleen's blossomed into a beautiful flower in that same space before re-potting itself in bigger digs across the way. And now, a new, equally promising seedling is sprouting there—the Parisian-themed L'Astra.
With promises of beer and wine in a month or two and Saturday brunch in a week or two, L'Astra offers a pleasing array of sandwiches, salads, soups, and omelets, in a cozy, vintage atmosphere with comfortable booths, big windows, pinstriped pink-and-green walls, and ballerina artwork.
Hungry as hell at lunchtime, my friend and I ordered an impressive spread of edibles that all arrived simultaneously, allowing us to leap between dishes like reckless spelunkers. The soup of the day, a spinach concoction, came in what appeared to be a small casserole dish, which, while not without its retro mama's-kitchen charm, also resulted in a volume of liquid that both our stomachs couldn't contain. With thick slabs of toasted garlic bread on the side and a hearty, creamy texture, the huge portion of soup could have been a meal in itself, though the flavor, outside of the tantalizing earthiness inherent in spinach, was on the bland side.
This relatively small disappointment was a minor setback, however, as everything else we ordered was excellent. The beet salad was sizeable and cheap ($2.50), with large chunks of tenderly roasted beets, delicate strips of pickled red onion, and the requisite sprinkling of dill. It nicely complimented my grilled sandwich with gorgonzola, tomato confit, and basil-walnut pesto, all framed by slices of mouth-watering olive bread. My only complaint regarding this succulent item was that it was sided with a rather lackluster pile of limp salad greens, when the menu promised that all sandwiches "come with handmade chips."
The real star of our meal, however, was the hazelnut and Roquefort custard, a dish I would never have thought to order without the learned tastes of my dining companion. It sounds like something you'd have for dessert and what showed up certainly did have a rich, velvety consistency like some sort of divine mousse—but the flavor of the custard was utterly savory, the sharp notes of the Roquefort cheese struck deeply, followed instantly by the smoky crunch of the hazelnuts. Whew. This is a gourmet, completely satisfying plate of food that can be had at L'Astra for $4.
Indeed, all the food at L'Astra is extremely affordable and high quality. Our entire lunch, which was more than enough for two people, came to a pithy $16, and featured fresh ingredients and loving preparation. Almost literally a hole in the wall, the only downside to L'Astra is its spatial limitations—it has at most five tables and won't be able to hide for long if this keeps up. People are going to start seeking it out in the very near future, and when they do, there's not going to be any room for you, and more importantly, for me.