Herb, A Savoury Thai Spa

One of my favourite spots in Chicago is the Bryn Mawr area in Edgewater between Sheridan Road to the East and Broadway Street to the West. With ongoing growth in the area, it would seem that some new restaurant, coffeehouse, or boutique has sprung up and such was the case with a restaurant called Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street. Since I was going abroad for personal holiday, I wanted to squeeze in a dining experience so that I would be reminded that I live in one of the most spectacular cities in the world, albeit ruined by overgeneralization and convenient stereotypes.

Herb

Having read a few reviews, I was curious as to how there would be any kind of twist done to Thai food. There is a restaurant in Chicago’s Albany Park neighbourhood called Arun that supposedly added a fine dining component to Thai food. Most of the time you find that making food chic is nothing more than a gimmick. As I discovered at Herb, it just means the chef is damn good at his or her craft. Minus the aesthetics of the interior, I had what I will call my first Thai spa ever.

Betal Leaf with Toasted Coconut and Apricot

Betal Leaf with Toasted Coconut and Apricot

I was in a mood for a full experience and opted for a six-course degustation. To whet my palate, there was betal leaf with toasted coconut, peanut, some diced fruit, and apricot purée. Served open-faced, you roll the betal leaf up and plop it into your mouth in one bite. The first thing I noticed was the tartness of some of the diced fruit along with the leaf, later followed by the sweetness of the coconut, and then finished off with a tangy hint from the apricot purée. There were no competing flavours all at once on the initial bite, each one taking turns, and I must admit that I have never had that kind of experience before in my culinary jaunts.

Moo Yang

Moo Yang

Neau Yang

Neau Yang

Leading into the appetizers, I started with moo yang. This was a dish of grilled pork that was served yakitori style on skewers. Visually, it looked like dishes you see in food magazines. Food magazines can never begin to capture how well coriander root, lettuce, roasted banana pepper, and spicy tomato sauce work on the meat. Each bite starts with a spicy kick and ends with a mild sweet finish from having been soaked in coconut milk. By the time I had the neau yang, I noticed a theme of alternating flavours playing on the palate. With this appetizer of grilled beef highlighted with shallot, cucumber, coriander leaf, carrot, mint, red chili, toasted rice with chili lime dressing, there is a rising action of tanginess followed by a climax of sweetness and then a denouement of spiciness with a finale of wow — if wow can be described as a flavour.

Yum Tour-Pu with Lemongrass Ginger Tea

Yum Tour-Pu with Lemongrass Ginger Tea

One may think that having flavour come and go while other flavors alternate in a single bite could become old hat quickly. I could become a vegan cold turkey eating the yum tour-pu salad. This salad came as sawtooth coriander, grape tomato, yard long bean, fried shallot, kaffir lime leaf. There was go-between of faint tartness and spiciness. Again, for the flavours to have been complex, the profile of the salad had been prepared such that you experience multiple sensations on your tongue without ever feeling like there was a bit too much to the dish. It was nothing short of Willy Wonka greets Asian dining.

Tom Hed Ka-min

Tom Hed Ka-min

On to the soup, the tom hed ka-min was akin to tom ka gai but prepared with mushrooms instead of with chicken. This bowl came as enoki, shimeji, king oyster mushroom, heart of palm, herbal coconut broth, and highlighted with a desire to get patrons addicted. As the server poured the broth, I thought the soup was stunning visually. It was after the first slurp that I realized even photography could do no justice to the richness of the dish. Not only did the broth taste like coconut, and I don’t mean coconut soup from a can, and the mushrooms were indeed fresh, but this was not a small portion. Coming from the restaurant’s summer menu, I could indulge this all year round.

Fruit Salad

Fruit Salad

L'Amuse

L’Amuse

Before moving to the main course, there was some time to allow the stomach to get accustomed to so much damn good food and to entertain a few palate cleansers. The first was a medley of fruit. Although it was called a fruit salad because it consisted of strawberries, red grapes, purple grapes, white grapes, passionfruit, tomatoes, and grapefruit, this was another dish that could have me become a vegan convert. The surprise came when I discovered three different profiles: sweetness, spiciness, and tartness. The fruit provided a natural sweetness, shredded chilis gave a spicy kick, and the vinaigrette had a mild salt base. Later there was another l’amuse of a jelly with peanuts and mint wrapped in a thin layer of cucumber. Yet again, there was sweetness followed by a passing tartness. Clearly the chef has perfected generating sensations and waking up your taste buds linearly.

Gang Gai Tai

Gang Gai Tai

Gai Sa-Mu-Pri

Gai Sa-Mu-Pri

The first main course was gang gai tai. I love my Thai curry to be thick. Herb did not disappoint. A recipe consisting of Southern-style coconut curry, fuzzy melon, butternut squash, Thai eggplant, red bell pepper, kaffir leaf, and sweet basil, and served with jasmine rice, I was amazed at how light it was. The dish that I thought looked bland was anything but bland. The herbal chicken over jasmine rice made very good use of coriander and lemongrass marinated with spicy-sweet chili garlic sauce. Being curious about why the ingredients were so profound in the dishes, I inquired of the chef who responded that they grow the herbs and spices in the garden behind the restaurant. I think it also explained why there was an absence of salt and MSG in the dishes. The discriminating palate knows.

Flight of Fruit

Flight of Fruit

For the finale, there was a flight of fruit. There was rambutan that reminded me of lychee. There was mango over sticky rice, which is a staple dessert in Thai dining. Because I only asked for a flight of light dessert, there were two that I did not get a name for and since I have not developed enough familiarity with my new cellphone, I did not get the voice recorder started so that I could have the chef give the names. However, one was like gelatin coated in coconut and the other was a gelatinous cake, both bite size and both a new, tasty experience. The final dessert was taro root that put me in mind of tamarind. All light, all natural, all a perfect ending to what was the best Thai dining experience I have had to date.

Herb is not a restaurant where you go simply for a sampling of Thai dishes prepared differently than what you expect at commonplace Thai restaurants. Here is where you go for a culinary spa. Well, that is what I would call it. There is no rush, no pressure, and no disappointment. You pamper your appetite, indulge yourself, and relax thereafter because any good meal here is guaranteed to induce food comatose. I can say with certainty that Herb will make my top 10 list for 2015 because of such fantastic service in addition to some fine dining that does not come as a hefty price. I treated myself well to a Thai spa. I highly recommend you try it also.

Herb Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pasteurized Foodist

More and more I am discovering a lot of restaurants in Chicago that have a bit of an experimental edge to them. It seems that these restaurants are popping up as a result of chefs who are of a certain ethnicity studying culinary arts in countries far away from their native lands. One such restaurant that comes to mind is Sushi Samba Rio. There is a blend of Brazilian and Japanese in the food, but I have a feeling a chef who grew up in São Paulo or who had been there is responsible for that creation. There is a very large Japanese population in São Paulo. Another restaurant with a blend of two very different cultures is Vermilion, which marries Latin and Indian flavours. A third restaurant to add to the list is Pasteur, at 5525 N. Broadway Street in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood.

Pasteur

Pasteur is a Vietnamese restaurant that has a French influence in the recipes. While wandering around in Edgewater, my stomach was doing the usual growling. As it turns out, I was passing by a building that had a façade blending chi-chi and European. In the window – lo and behold – was a menu. That meant that there was food and I was standing in front of a restaurant. Imagine that. After a brief perusal of the bill of fare, I entered an amazing room that definitely had a rustic European feel to it. Having arrived shortly after the doors had opened for business, I had the pick of seats in the empty great room. I told the server that I was pescatarian, didn’t have any food allergies but HATE NUTS, requested two appetizers, a soup, and an entrée, and told him to surprise me. I pulled my camera from my camera bag, took my white balance, and exhaled as I waited. This is my routine. In addition to my little personal preamble, a group of four came in and sat at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME. This whole “sit next to Gino when the restaurant is EMPTY” thing is starting to get tiring. Nevertheless, I injected myself into their conversation. (Sigh) They didn’t mind, but rather enjoyed it.

Spring Roll

Spring Roll

I started with a spring roll. This was not just your ordinary spring roll, but one with sugar cane for the main ingredient. When I was a kid, sugar cane was a delicacy that I enjoyed throughout the summer much the way kids nowadays gobble dangerous snacks of chips, cookies, and pop to excess. The spring roll was made with a ground shrimp paste wrapped around the sugar cane and then grilled. It was served with a plum sauce that I was glad did not come across as competitive with the spring roll. You would be surprised at how some chefs can make the accompaniments more appealing to the palate than the main dish. Where I frowned was with the sprinkles of peanuts on the dish. The good thing is that they made the dish photograph well. However, I shook them off without complaint and commenced to gnashing away on the spring rolls.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

My second course was a plate of egg rolls that I had to eat in the traditional manner. The egg rolls were mixed salmon and dill within the rolled, crispy pastry. They came with lettuce, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled radish. To eat the egg rolls, I had to roll them in the lettuce with the other vegetables and dip them in a fish sauce before having them suffer the chomp of my beautiful white teeth. I have dined at countless Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago’s Little Vietnam and this is certainly the way you eat some of the appetizers. As high-end as Pasteur projects itself, there is perhaps a clause in their mantra that says they WILL retain authenticity.

Coconut Soup

Coconut Soup

The third course was a curry shrimp soup. I know that this was not a traditional pho. And when I had asked the server if it was Thai, he assured me that it was Vietnamese. I guess there are similarities, but I won’t overgeneralise and say that the flavours of Thailand and Vietnam are synonymous. The soup reminded me of tom ka gai. I had shrimp in this curry soup rather than chicken and I was quite okay with that. When the server had inquired as to whether I was okay with my dishes being spicy, I had replied in the affirmative, so the soup had a bite to it that made the autumn nip outside bearable. By now, the party of four that had sat next to me had begun to eye me with suspicion. Not only was I snapping photos from every possible angle of everything that had arrived at my table, but I was eating all of it without a struggle.

Calamari in Pineapple

Calamari in Pineapple

The fourth course was calamari and vegetables in a carved pineapple. The calamari had been dipped in flour and cooked in a wok with a calamari soy vinaigrette along with mixed vegetables of red and green bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and fresh lemon juice. The insides of the carved pineapple had been cut into chunks. There was a natural sweetness to the whole dish. When it had come to the table, I could hear my neighbours making remarks as quietly as they could. That looks so delicious. I couldn’t eat it because it looks like art that should be behind a red velvet rope. He didn’t eat all of that other food. I can’t stop looking. That’s a man who enjoys food. I assured them that I did indeed devour the previous courses, albeit slowly, thanks to the aid of hot ginger tea. Plus, this was nearing the two hour mark, so I had everything spaced out to allow my stomach to settle in between. That is what degustations are all about. And the pineapple with calamari and vegetables met a slow end along with the cup of rice that had accompanied the dish.

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

The fifth course was a plate of fried bananas drizzled with chocolate syrup and strawberry syrup and served with a scoop of green tea ice cream. I have had this particular dessert at numerous Thai restaurants and while I cannot say that it is specific to Thai cuisine, I will acknowledge that it may be influenced by the palates of Asia. The bananas were sweet without the addition of sugar. The texture from having been fried was not such that you’d think the chef was thinking about frying chicken. It was crispy without being crusty. I loved the green tea ice cream, so rich, so creamy, so screaming “This was made with loose leaf green tea.” It may have been bought from a local Asian grocer and I don’t care. It was good. DO YOU HEAR ME?

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

Because I was in a mood for food roulette, I may not have gotten anything with a true French influence. Then again, it may be that the chef is French and he or she has a great love for the flavours of Vietnam. Instead of applying a fusion, the French aspect may be faint so that there are no competing ingredients in the recipes. My appetite didn’t complain. For the ambience, those who go ga-ga for aesthetics would love Pasteur. The price was so much less than what I had anticipated. The service was outstanding and I say this after my server had hit the right mark with every dish that came to my table. Remember, I simply gave my interests and let him come up with the courses. By the time I was ready to stumble out into the chilly temperatures of the autumn weather, the restaurant had filled with several patrons who were making their growling bellies shut up. And before the party that sat next to me left, I took a picture of them. I used their camera, of course.

Pasteur on Urbanspoon Pasteur on Foodio54