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Nation’s Restaurant News

2009 Fine Dining Hall of Fame – Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant
By Ron Ruggles

With the St. Charles Avenue streetcar rumbling by mere yards from its front door, Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant gives its patrons not only a broad taste of modern French-Louisiana fare but a big helping of New Orleans’ atmosphere. Chef-owner Donald Link’s roots and roux are seeped with Louisiana culture, and 100-seat Herbsaint has become a Lourdes for those making culinary pilgrimages to New Orleans. “The concept has always been to have a neighborhood French bistro with a New Orleans flair and character to it,” Link says. “We didn’t mean for it to be an over-the-top fine-dining restaurant. We wanted it to be a classic bistro.” “When Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, named the restaurant to one of his Top 10 lists, he wrote: “No New Orleans restaurant this millennium has sat further ahead of the culinary curve than Herbsaint. …Yet among the reasons Herbsaint is a great restaurant is that trend-setting is not its raison d’être.” Link was raised in southwest Louisiana, learning Cajun cooking from his grandfather and then heading to San Francisco in the 1990’s and attending the California Culinary Academy. He was drawn back to Louisiana in 2000. “I really like the hot, long, brutal summers here,” he says with a laugh. “All that nice weather started to bug me, so I had to get out of there.” The real reason was family, he says soberly. “I grew up here. When I was a kid, I was in a big hurry to get out of here. I wanted to see the world. But after six years, I felt like I wanted to be home with my family.” He opened Herbsaint with chef Susan Spicer of Bayona, and then after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, he opened the more casual Cochon restaurant about eight blocks away. Katrina closed Herbsaint for five weeks, but Link says, “business is actually a lot better now than before Katrina. It’s hard to explain. The city got a lot of attention. If there is good thing to come out of Katrina, if there is such a thing, it is that the locals are galvanized about their own city.” He credits much of his success not to the many visitors who pass through Herbsaint’s doors but the dedicated locals. “The locals have really been supportive though the years,” Link says. “It really shows the true significance a restaurant has to the community.” While he has long sourced locally, he’s trying to do that with greater intensity. “I’m always looking for new farmers,” he says. “We’re looking at buying some land to plant a garden.” He recently has been looking for someone local to catch amphibians for frogs’ legs. “I went out last weekend and tried to catch my own,” Link says. He says Herbsaint continues to be his passion nine years after its opening. “We get our Mardi Gras parades in front of the restaurant,” he says. “I’ve got people who have been with me a long time now. It’s a place to call home.” Or as New Orleans’ long-passed denizen playwright and frequent streetcar passenger Tennessee Williams wrote: “Enthusiasm is the most important thing in life.”