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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Thursday, May 20, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Herbsaint Bar and Resturant

The shrimp was, quite simply, a revelation -- still tender and carrying a taste that made me dream of salt air and tall ships, but prominently balanced among the vibrant flavors combined around it. In truth, I have never had better.

How can you help but like stories of people who have bootstrapped their way from the bottom to the top? Case in point: Donald Link, the proprietor and executive chef of Herbsaint, the Louisiana bistro with a decidedly French accent – or should that be the other way around?

A truly local talent, Link’s culinary career started at age 15 washing dishes and scrubbing pots in a cramped restaurant scullery. In a story with so many Horatio Alger overtones that no self-respecting Hollywood producer would ever think of filming it, Link kicked around New Orleans kitchens, picking up a trick here, a technique there until he had learned enough skills to start developing a reputation of his own.

In 1993, he headed west to San Francisco, where he attended the Culinary Institute of America and started broadening his horizons in Bay Area restaurants. He returned to New Orleans in 1995, lured by the opportunity to work with Susan Spicer, whose five year-old French Quarter restaurant, Bayona, was already one of the city’s most celebrated places to dine.

After a two-year stint that saw him rise to sous chef at Bayona, Link returned to the Bay Area, working for three more years before once again returning to New Orleans for the opportunity that would make the Crescent City his permanent home. Working with Spicer again, but this time as collaborator and partner, he opened Herbsaint near the heart of New Orleans’ Central Business District (CBD).

Within a few years, Spicer sold her interest to her partner and refocused her energies on Bayona, a new cookbook and a less formal restaurant in the city’s Lakeview section. Link continued keeping Herbsaint on track and also expanded his circle of operations to include a stylish new restaurant named Cochon (French for “pig”) with an accompanying charcuterie.

Were this indeed a Horatio Alger story, years of hard work, gumption and pluck would have followed and Herbsaint would have slowly grown into a beloved mainstay of the New Orleans restaurant scene. The truth is, Herbsaint was an overnight sensation, that is, if it took that long at all.

While no one will ever mistake Herbsaint for one of the grand palaces of haute cuisine New Orleans style, there exists a natural synchronicity between the city and the bistro that is undeniable.

Should you stand across the street and look at Herbsaint, it looks as if someone scattered some tables and chairs in front of a prepossessing, utilitarian building. But as you look longer, you’ll notice the tables have white linen tablecloths, while the building has a small gallery and sits behind a stand of leafy trees. The thought that someone might have lifted the whole street corner from a Paris backstreet is almost unavoidable. But every few minutes, the rumble and clatter of an aged green streetcar rolling down historic St. Charles Avenue serves to remind you that you could only be in one American city, and it is “the city that care forgot.”

Should you choose to dine inside, Herbsaint is a decidedly understated room. There are some postmodern light fixtures interspersed along the walls that keep the room from feeling blank. A screened fabric depicting tuxedoed jazz musicians subtly blends into the large wall at the back end of the dining room. The bar itself is small and tucked into a corner of the main room, out of the main traffic, and making the place’s appellation as a “bar and restaurant” seem reversed. Whether by accident or intent, there is a feeling that the room itself is understated so as not to detract from the main event, which is most assuredly the food.

Like the physical restaurant itself, Herbsaint’s cuisine seems to have one foot in France and its other in Louisiana. This is not surprising, considering that both Spicer and Link spent the bulk of their formative years in New Orleans and had the early parts of their careers shaped in restaurants with pronounced Gallic influences. The result is a fusion that is at once local and global, contemporary but with a classical pedigree. Although it has been a number of years since Spicer’s departure, the plates at Herbsaint still reflect the natural collaboration of two chefs with comparable backgrounds yet divergent points of view.

The menus for both lunch and dinner are relatively short, with each offering less than a dozen small plates and main courses in addition to soups, salads and sides. These are complemented by two or three off-menu specials that appear to revolve around seasonal specialties.

The language of the menus is both spare and matter of fact, adding an air of elegant simplicity to the cuisine itself. With such offerings as “sautéed Louisiana jumbo shrimp with mushrooms, bacon and spoon bread” and “Muscovy duck leg confit with dirty rice and citrus gastrique,” adjectives designed to rouse an appetite would seem not only superfluous, but downright silly.

About the only place the simplicity of the menu language fails is the “antipasto plate” located on the small plates section of the dinner menu. When I ordered it without asking what items or ingredients were included, I had done so with the suspicion it might contain a morsel or two from Link’s charcuterie at Cochon, duly famous for using “every part of the pig except the squeal.” Once it arrived, the waiter pointed out each item and explained what it was so rapidly that my memory could not absorb, let alone retain the inventory. To my delight, I was served what effectively amounted to a sampling platter from Cochon, containing a petite ramekin of a rabbit terrine, a pâté, shaved slices of a hard sausage and three or four other items with names I can’t recall, but the flavors of which I’ll not soon forget.

The antipasto plate was an effective curtain-raiser for the Muscovy Duck, which had a deep, smoky flavor evocative of Cajun country, an effect that was amplified by combining the duck with dirty rice, the regional specialty cooked with chicken livers and gizzards, onion, peppers and garlic. The citrus gastrique glazing the duck, a reduction of caramelized sugar and oranges, finished the dish with an inspired whisper of French culinary classicism.

The Levelheaded One (who has a knack for ordering what I really wanted but didn’t know it) opted for a simple green salad, followed by a shrimp risotto with capers in a buttery sauce. The shrimp was, quite simply, a revelation -- still tender and carrying a taste that made me dream of salt air and tall ships, but prominently balanced among the vibrant flavors combined around it. In truth, I have never had better.

If anything, balance seems to be the watchword at Herbsaint. From its beginning in 2000, the restaurant has seemed to effortlessly balance the culinary classicism of La Belle France with the Cajun and Creole cooking traditions of New Orleans. Herbsaint’s exceptional owner/chef Donald Link has balanced the pressures of maintaining the standards not only of such an extraordinary restaurant, but also of Cochon, its accompanying charcuterie and a private dining facility, Calcasieu, named for the Louisiana parish in which he grew up. In the process, he was named a James Beard Award winner for both his work in the kitchen (Best Chef: South, 2007) and as the author of Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana (Best Cookbook, 2009).

Horatio Alger would be mighty proud.

Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant, 701 St. Charles (at Girod Street)

Lunch served Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Dinner served Monday-Saturday 5:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.

BISTRO open Monday-Friday 1:30 – 5:30 p.m.

All major credit cards accepted and reservations strongly advised.

Telephone: (504) 524-4114; Website: www.herbsaint.com

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