It has been more than 20 years since Herbsaint opened its doors, formally introducing New Orleans to a young chef named Donald Link. As time passed and accolades accrued, Link went on to open a series of other restaurants collected under the umbrella of the Link Restaurant Group. Yet through it all, Herbsaint has remained the flagship, setting the pace and tone for the group’s approach to fine dining. Such is the task that falls upon the chef de cuisine. This person has to pull off the deft task of balancing expectations while also making their own personal statement, as the role is often a proving ground for new executive chef talent.
Herbsaint version:2022 is Tyler Spreen’s baby. Since mid-2021 he has helped navigate the establishment through the throes of a pandemic, Hurricane Ida and the New Normal of an industry landscape hamstrung by lack of staff and soaring ingredient costs. With challenges like this on the plate, perhaps the last thing on his mind would be the menu. Yet through it all he has kept a firm hand on the tiller, ensuring that the only problems a diner faces is a choice between a seasonally attenuated gumbo or a summer special of jumbo lump crab gazpacho with watermelon.
Spreen does this by hewing to a simple philosophy. “Herbsaint is considered ‘fine dining’ but it is also simple, straightforward and kind of rustic,” he explained. Seasonal ingredients procured through rigorous sourcing provides the kitchen with, “the best of what we can get locally. Then we present it nicely on a plate with clean flavors – the basic balance of acid, salt and fat.” It can be more about execution than innovation here, coaxing the fullest expression out of the ingredients on hand.
Food doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. For his gem lettuce salad, Spreen employs a vibrant, herbaceous green goddess dressing. A creamy soup of fresh corn and cubes of smoked drum pairs sweet and salty in a satisfyingly summery way. “I’m a sucker for a really great salad or soup,” Spreen said. “I think those things are often overlooked.”
Classic dishes are accented with Cajun undertones with his duck leg confit, its skin side seared to crisp perfection then plated atop a bed of dirty rice and drizzled with a citrus gastrique. “To prep the duck legs, we first put curing salt on the flesh side and confit them at 220 degrees until fork tender,” Spreen said. “The gastrique is an orange-juice caramel reduction into which we emulsify olive oil.” A small plate of chicken fricassee is another good choice, plated with a sauce Américaine boasting an incredible depth of flavor that in a recent meal was augmented with Louisiana crawfish tails.
It helps that the Link Restaurant Group carries weight. Purveyors strive to be featured on their menu, generating an efficiency of procurement. Internally, breads and desserts can be sourced from pastry chef Maggie Scales at La Boulangerie. That andouille in your gumbo? It comes from Butcher. It’s a virtuous cycle that buffers the group somewhat from external forces while offering advantages within the system.
Going into summer look for the menu to feature jumbo lump crab, fresh tomatoes and peppers. And as the industry continues to reawaken from COVID, expect the menu to broaden as well. Herbsaint has evolved into a bellwether restaurant for the city of New Orleans. Here’s to hoping it remains for another 22 years.
Herbsaint, 701 St. Charles Ave., Warehouse District. 524-4114. Herbsaint.com.
About the Chef
A native of Jacksonville, Illinois, Chef Tyler Spreen’s outdoorsy background makes him a natural fit with the hunting and fishing ethos that lies at the heart of the Link Restaurant Group. After visiting New Orleans a few times with his wife, they decided to take the plunge. “We just fell in love with the culture and the food and all those things that make New Orleans great,” Spreen said. “We also loved that there was always a party going on.” On his days off, such as they are, he enjoys fishing from his kayak along with Jared Heider, Chef de Cuisine of Gianna.