Sometimes, sitting at a restaurant's bar allows just enough distance to see the place for what it is. Your angle sharpens the further you move outside the immediate clang of silver against china, the disorienting disco ball of flavors that spin from the kitchen and the structure of little shoves that so efficiently propel diners from one end of a meal to the other.
Gaining this removed perspective is like getting the feel for a land by sailing along the curves of its coastline; it's why even the best athletes have coaches on the sidelines. Already having eaten at Herbsaint twice, I was sitting at its bar when I finally found the restaurant's pulse. High on the "wine flight" sampling of three different Pinot Noir planted like red tulips in front of me and observing the Saturday night clamor from a distance, I heard echoes from an earlier conversation with Herbsaint's investor and co-chef, Susan Spicer. This recollection, coupled with my perspective from the bar, drove home Herbsaint's greatest success: that it is what it set out to be.
Shortly after Herbsaint opened in January, Spicer told me that she and Chef Donald Link (a former sous-chef at Bayona, among other titles), hoped to broaden the narrow niche of New Orleans restaurants that fit in between the cheap and the extravagant; between the catfish po-boy and the filet crowned with foie gras; between Franky & Johnny's and Bayona. They wanted Herbsaint to exist in the "Hey, let's go out for dinner" category while maintaining a high standard in food and drink. I had been working at home an hour prior to my revelation at Herbsaint's bar when an inspiration struck: "Hey, let's go out for a glass of wine." I'm probably not the first privileged victim of Spicer and Link's plan.
It took me (and I know I'm not alone) several trips to get in tune with Spicer's latest venture, more because of what Herbsaint isn´t than what it is. When greens wilt under an equally limp sherry vinaigrette, when oysters disintegrate into a bitter gumbo, when spoonbread is cornmeal bland and when service is slow or defensive, the easiest reaction is, "This wouldn't happen at Bayona." But know this: Herbsaint is not Bayona II. Spicer and Link do use many of the same ingredients employed in the refined cuisine of Bayona (top-notch produce, free-range chicken and fancy cheeses). But the preparations, the presentations and the intentions -- not to mention that Link, not Spicer, is Herbsaint's primary workhorse chef -- invalidate comparisons between the two restaurants. Don't even bother. Better to judge Herbsaint for what it is.
Herbsaint is a casually hip spot for foodies in the mood for flair but not flashiness, who are willing to forgive small glitches in taste or service for convenience and reasonable (not inexpensive, mind you) prices. It's the kind of place that wins out on the evenings you considered sushi, because it's got a better wine list. It's bright, it's loud and it's all happening. Herbsaint's charm includes regular quakes from the streetcar passing outside, the likelihood that you'll make friends at the close tables around you, and walls of solid windows or sweet pea green paint (both of which culminate in an illusion of outdoor dining).
Herbsaint is romantic, but it's not the place to go on the one night all year you splurge for a sitter. It's romantic in a sunnier, more literary way. Clear glasses of bright yellow Herbsaint and a rustic terrine of duck and pork invoke afternoons with Pernod and Hemingway in Paris. Like the unsullied side of New Orleans, Herbsaint is romantic in a way that smells clean like camellias or a freshly swept street. Herbsaint's sensuality of simple earthiness and spice shows up in flavor combinations like golden grouper with a dry saute of potatoes, portobellos, pea tendrils and andouille sausage, or in saffron, orange zest and semolina fluffed into a souffle-like cake.
Herbsaint is indeed the restaurant you dash into without reservations, dripping from a springtime thunderstorm, when everyone else is booked. You wait in the standing bar clenching your drenched jacket, and you order a parchment-lined cup of flawless frites and a Herbsaint frappe from the bartender whose frazzled state surpasses Lucy's on the candy factory assembly line. Herbsaint is also the restaurant you climb into after a movie for an espresso and an order of bready, white dusted, chocolate beignets with dark molten chocolate centers.
Sure, there might be a celebrity chef in the kitchen, but she's the one wearing a bandana instead of a chef's hat. She and Link take more pleasure in tweaking classic combinations -- like lamb with tangy kalamata olive and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, or steak with fries and smoky aioli -- than in reinventing the mashed potato.
So relax that temptation to compare, and order those straightforward braised short ribs. They're even better chunked at lunch, making a soggy show on open-faced crusty bread with strings of pickled onions. Examples like this defy comparisons and demonstrate exactly what Herbsaint is.