Link’s Flagship Sails On

Donald Link opened Herbsaint at 701 St. Charles Ave. in October of 2000. He was assisted in designing the restaurant’s concept and menu by Susan Spicer, who was initially a partner in the venture. Herbsaint has been Link’s alone for many years, and it’s still where he most successfully combines fine dining with Louisiana’s bounty of ingredients and flavors.

That’s no knock on his other restaurants –– Cochon is the restaurant in New Orleans for a modern and innovative take on Cajun and Southern cooking, and Cochon Butcher has earned deserved praise for its charcuterie, sandwiches and the small plates served at the “Swine Bar.”

But as much as I like his other ventures, to me Herbsaint will always be special. In my life as an attorney, I’ve taken dozens of clients for meals at Herbsaint and recommended it to many more folks. I’ve never had a complaint. I think it’s one of the best restaurants in New Orleans because the food is consistently excellent, the service is superb, and it’s one of the most attractive settings for a meal you’ll ever find.

Link refers to the food at Herbsaint in his James Beard Foundation award-winning cookbook Real Cajun as “… a sort of modern Creole: seafood from local waters and hearty meat and pork dishes, along with the game and sausages of Cajun cuisine, crossed with classical French and Italian influences.” That’s as good a description as any, but if I have a quibble, it’s that he doesn’t accurately enough evoke the lightness that frequently turns up on the plate.

The crisp lettuces with crumbled bacon and blue cheese-buttermilk vinaigrette may sound “hearty,” and it is, but the kitchen has a light touch with the dressing, and the diced radish in the dish, with its slightly sweet, slightly spicy crunch, counteracts the richness of the bacon remarkably well. The salad has been on the menu for years, a testament to its popularity.

Both the lunch and dinner menus offer starters that include the aforementioned salad, a gumbo and a soup that change daily, and another salad that changes with the seasons. That salad is, at the moment, arugula with roasted beets, Burrata cheese and a walnut vinaigrette, but it’s soon to be replaced, I hear, by a salad with heirloom red-leaf lettuce.

The second section of the menu is “small plates,” which are somewhat larger than an appetizer but not quite the size of an entree. I regularly have three courses at Herbsaint, staring with soup or salad and then two small plates, and leave sated.

Among the highlights on the small plates section of the menu are the gnocchi with ham and maitake mushrooms, the Louisiana shrimp and grits with tasso and okra and the housemade spaghetti with guanciale and a fried-poached egg.

I’ve had the spaghetti a number of times and ordered it once again at a recent meal. It’s a loose take on the Italian classic pasta carbonara. The breaded poached egg releases its runny yolk when breached with a fork, allowing you to stir a newly-formed sauce into the pasta. The guanciale, which like almost all of the cured meats at Herbsaint is made in-house, is fried crisp, and it may be the best bacon you ever taste. The pasta, also made by hand, is toothsome in a way that only fresh pasta can achieve. It’s a remarkable dish and one I have difficulty passing on when I dine there.

A friend with whom I dined got the shaved roast beef salad with mixed greens, micro-thin fried onions and a horseradish dressing that brings everything together. As I intimated before, this is a dish that could be weighed down by the beef or by the horseradish, but taken as a whole, it’s satisfying and yet not heavy.

At lunch, the kitchen turns out sandwiches, such as roast duck with a pickled pepper aioli, grilled salmon on olive bread with lemon pickle, and a grilled flatbread (think pizza) with toppings that change frequently. There’s a fish of the day, and if you’re lucky, the fried catfish with green rice and red onion chile sauce is still on the menu when you read this.

The dinner menu features a few main courses not on the lunch menu, including slow-roasted pork belly with sticky rice and grilled date agrodolce; Muscovy duck leg confit with dirty rice and a citrus gastrique; and, most recently, a roasted lamb neck with a white bean stew that replaced veal stuffed with ham and fontina cheese served over fresh capellini.

Sides include some incredibly good fries served with a pimenton aioli, excellent onion rings and a vegetable of the day. The desserts are fantastic as well –– the fried apple pie with vanilla ice cream and the banana brown butter tart with fleur de sel caramel are my usual choices, but the coconut cream pie with a macadamia nut crust is pretty incredible. It’s one of those desserts that, on first bite, I think is too sweet but cannot stop eating until it disappears. At dinner, there is an artisan cheese plate available, as well.

Herbsaint is located at the corner of St. Charles and Girod, and both of the restaurant’s dining rooms have windows that look onto the street. The main dining room, which also includes the bar, is an airy, open space. The rear dining room has only one wall of windows and as a result feels more intimate. In good weather, it’s also possible to dine at tables on St. Charles. It’s a very nice setting, one in which you can watch the streetcars trundle along while you enjoy the food.

You can contact Herbsaint at 524-4114 to make a reservation. If you dine at Herbsaint, please let me know what you thought in the comments below or by e-mail. You know that every time you e-mail a food writer, an angel gets its wings, right? Also, if you don’t e-mail or comment, puppies die. I take no responsibility for the death of puppies. That’s all on you people.

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