When the national spotlight shines on New Orleans food, the focus is often on the grand, old dining rooms and restaurant legacies that have carried on the traditions of the city’s world-renowned cuisine for generations. In just over 10 years, Herbsaint has waltzed into that spotlight on the charms of chef/co-owner Donald Link’s vision of a modern Southern bistro.
And a vision it is. At night, windows flanking the restaurant throw a soft glow on the tree-lined corner of St. Charles Avenue. When a slow-moving trolley rolls by, the restaurant can feel like every gorgeous cliché that makes people fall in love with this town.
But atmosphere is the lesser part of the equation that keeps Herbsaint at the top of the New Orleans dining scene. The greater factor: Chef Link may be a country boy who grew up in the rice fields of South Louisiana, but he has been a frontrunner in merging the soul of our regional cuisine with the spirit and sophistication of these foodie times. Herbsaint was ahead of the curve among contemporary New Orleans restaurants in showcasing house-cured meats, putting local ingredients to good use and introducing the city to high-end, small plates dining. Today, the restaurant employs a full-time forager who connects and cultivates a network of farms that supply Herbsaint (and all of Link’s restaurants) with meat, fish and produce, and it is apparent on the plate.
Link and chef de cuisine Ryan Prewitt’s menu exemplifies country come to town by transforming humble classics into simply chic dishes. The shattering, buttery batter on fried frog legs (which are easily the best in the city). A crispy-skinned confit of duck leg perched on a bed of dirty rice. The strong, dark roux-thickened daily gumbos like chicken/andouille or blackeyed pea and pork. Other standouts include a pairing of crab meat and bright watermelon gazpacho and a deconstructed carbonara made with a tangle of house-made spaghetti and guanciale dressed in little more than black pepper and a gush of yolk from a fried poached egg.
In New Orleans restaurant years, Herbsaint could be considered young, but it easily ranks among the best restaurants this city has seen, past and present.
Chef Donald Link's vision of a modern Southern bistro merges the soul of Louisiana's regional cuisine with the spirit and sophistication of these foodie times.