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First Impressions: Herb

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Sep 10, 2014 9:15PM

Monosyllabic restaurant names typically signal some fancy shizz afoot. And Herb, an upscale Thai restaurant in Edgewater’s heart, holds true to the rule. This is haute cuisine gone BYOB. It’s also an education in Thai food beyond take-out panang that defines itself as much by its microgreens as by its curries. By showcasing herbs over sauce ordered mild, medium or spicy, Herb has done better than sublimate traditional Thai cuisine. It has made it feel wondrously new.

You can order from the menu either a la carte or opt for a three ($35) or five-course ($55) prix fixe dinner. Normally I’m not partial to tasting menus, which can quickly morph into the gustatory equivalent of educational programming when I really want to veg out to comedy on the couch. Plates typically arrive with an obligation to rhapsodize over every rarefied ingredient that you may or may not be able to actually taste, and by the last two courses I’m plainly petered out. Then there’s the fact that I happen to like takeout panang curry, bastardized with all-American ingredients as it is.

So maybe it was the company. Maybe it was the fact that I opted for the three- rather than five-course meal. But Herb's tasting menu proved light enough on fuss with plenty of flavor to satisfy the skeptic.

A three-course dinner with a free dessert thrown in for $35 felt, by meal’s end, inexpensive too. The service combined with the muted modern ambiance also suggested something vaguely spa-like, so that some fantasist part of me awaited a massage on the tapioca’s heels. You’ll encounter no deep-tissue work, but do expect a serene experience in which the servers describe your dishes sotto voce while the food does all the clamoring.

I started with the winged bean, a scallop and yardlong bean wrapped within a kaffir lime leaf that you’re encouraged to eat with your hands in a single bite. Additionally, I sampled the blue shrimp, the starter alternative looking meatier than my own selection and accented with a chili lime sauce. Both acted as ample palate cleansers well before my palate seemed to warrant a wash.

But this is the beauty of Herb’s cuisine, in a very nontechnical nutshell. It functions as cleansing agent as much as sustenance, a near culinary purification ritual you didn’t know you needed. Each dish, in other words, feels consciously simplified. The cuisine opts for modesty in a way still too rare among upscale restaurants, particularly those that seek to redefine our concept of diaspora cuisines otherwise embraced en masse as comfort food with a delivery fee.

In essence, owner Patty Neumson and chef Kee Chen have stripped traditional American Thai of its dead weight and shifted the focus to fish and vegetables where the sauce is kept in check. Yes, there is a steak and duck entrée option, so you can steer clear of seafood if you must. But the lean menu seems determined to lighten your notion of everything Thai.

Soup, either prawn or turmeric trio mushroom, serves as your second course, and here sauce, broth or liquefied what-have-you has license to shine. The mushroom soup, green as Kermit’s back and as sparing on oyster mushrooms as it was in favor of a few too many hearts of palm, was actually my favorite course. The turmeric-infused curry poured over top of the mushrooms, hearts of palm, coconut meat, galangal and Jerusalem artichoke most clearly recalls Neumson’s southern Thai provenance as well as proved the most familiar taste for low-brow Thai enthusiasts like myself. But then I’m also an admitted curry fanatic. The soup’s generous portion also alerts you to the fact that, self-consciously modern as Herb is, you don’t need to pull out your pince-nez to see what you’re eating. Rest assured from the beginning you’ll go home happy and full.

By the time the main course arrived, I almost could have doggy-bagged it. The protein's flavor quotient also tasted diluted in comparison to the soup just prior. The red snapper came separately in its own dish ensconced in just enough red curry sauce to sweeten but not drown a fish that could no longer swim for itself. Here my inner takeout queen wanted Herb to pack more of a punch, but then I always order my sauce spicy, while Herb is a realm of subtlety. The rice noodles, with mango, galangal and an olio of fresh vegetables, also exhibited another instance of something more emblematic of Herb’s philosophy than mere ornament: the edible flowers, everywhere, and yet another reason to finish your plate, if only this once.

This is one of the few meals I’ve had in recent memory when the edible flowers were worth chewing down to their stems. Nasturtiums, pansies and amaranth all acted as genuine grace notes, some almost teetering on the verge of overshadowing the cuisine by virtue of their surprising flavor that somehow seemed essential after the fact. Neumson also visited our table after we had eaten the last of the blossoms atop our tapioca pudding, gently reminding us that the menu was due to change for autumn in the coming weeks. Much as I hate to see summer sing its swan song, I’m now looking forward to the taste Thailand in the fall.

Herb is located at 5424 N. Broadway.