So originally we were supposed to eat at Antoine’s, an old school New Orleans restaurant. A chance to taste the classics as they’ve been done for 170 years. However, after checking a lot of the on-line reviews, the major comment by most posters was that the ambiance was fantastic, the food ranged from good to great, the servers from friendly to rude, but the price never approached less expensive. So we shifted to Donald Link’s oldest restaurant, Herbsaint, on St. Charles at the edge of the Central Business District.
Wow. To quote several grandchildren out of context, “that was a good decision.” We had what we all agreed was the best dinner we’ve had this week. When we got there, Donald himself was having a glass of wine with someone at one of the outside tables. Later on, we saw him duck into the kitchen. Now, we’re not thinking he personally cooked our meal, but just the fact that he was around was comforting.
We’ve been eating a mess of appetizers and splitting one or two entrees and that’s what we did here. We started with the chicken and sausage gumbo, a dark, chocolate brown roux with a touch of heat, a gnocchi with lamb Bolognese, soft and creamy gnocchi but not a strong taste of lamb in the sauce, sprinkled with a little lemon zest that kicked it, well, that’s someone else’s shtick. And a rabbit fricassee. There is a lot of rabbit on New Orleans menus and this dish out ate all the others. Some crusty tasso (spiced Louisiana ham) dice, lemon zest, fresh, rolled pasta curls, and chunks of rabbit in a light brown cream sauce. If I had to choose, this would be the best thing I’ve eaten this trip.
We moved on to a crusty short rib of beef on roesti, a touch of horseradish cream under the potatoes, and some flavored oil on the place. Our entrée was a lamb neck. Brought to the table, it dwarfed anything that I’ve seen. Dark and crusty on the outside, tender and moist meat that fell off the bones, a touch of marrow when you separated the bones, I don’t see how one of us could have eaten it alone. It sat on fideo (a Spanish dish that cooks short angel hair-like pasta pieces like a risotto) and was topped by diced tomatoes in vinaigrette, some white mustard seeds adding a little pop.
Dessert was three small Meyer lemon curd filled doughnuts with a strawberry jam and a malted milk dark chocolate mousse ball on a crème Angelaise dusted with more malt. Herbsaint is a nice space, loud without being noisy. The service was prompt and efficient and the entire experience exactly what you want at the higher end of the scale.
I’ll remember that rabbit for a long time, and the other dishes nearly as long.
After dinner, we head over to The Columns to hear David Doucet (currently) and Al Tharp (formerly) of BeauSoleil play an acoustic set. Cajun guitar and fiddle and accordion songs all in French, then bluegrass with banjo and guitar, and then old folk songs. The Columns started as a grand old home, then became a rooming house, hotel, and now is a B n B with some dining rooms and a bar. Bill’s grandmother ran it in the 50’s and he remembers taking the St. Charles streetcar from his house to hang out there. Based on that, we got to walk around and see the murals between the second and third floor and use the giant New Orleans map to review where we’ve been all week. Doucet and Tharp are playing in a side room, ornate and set with small tables.
It is a hometown crowd and the duo seems to know half the audience. I don’t know the Cajun tunes, but the bluegrass and folk stuff is familiar. Doucet’s fingers are walking all over the frets and Tharp’s violin work is first rate. I’m with every riff until one Mississippi John Hurt song comes flying by. A ballad about a mother and a dead son. It brings up a random image from one of our trips around town. A skinny black girl, pig-tailed, no more than 12, in a wheelchair working her way down the potholed street. She looks otherwise OK which probably means a drive-by intended for someone else. No one taught this girl how to take a bullet comes the thought, dialog from Reflections, a play by Oliver Thomas we saw a couple of nights ago, a political rehabilitation he wrote and acted in. All I can see is this girl’s mother and how she must look at her daughter every morning. I don’t even want to know what she must be thinking. This vacation is drawing to a close and real life is getting nearer if it indeed ever left.