The answer at Herbsaint

A little over a month ago, I celebrated my birthday again at Herbsaint. As dorky as it may sound, I was looking forward to my 42nd because for a whole year, I would be the “Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” You see, I had this little pipe dream wherein during this auspicious year, I would find the answer. Perhaps not the answer to everyone’s “Life, Universe and Everything”…but maybe, at least mine? A positive self-fulfilling prophecy? We’ll shall see…

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been feeling a little lost lately, like I’ve been settling into yet another predictable pattern and I need something to shake it up, something to shake me up. But very recently, over the past month, I feel like I am glimpsing bits of possible futures, paths to embark upon if only I’ll just take that next step forward and I was reminded of one of those possibilities during my birthday lunch at Herbsaint.  

Instead of our usual table near the bar, John and I chose to sit outside. We ordered a couple of drinks and tried to narrow down our choices to a reasonably-sized lunch, but we still ended up with our own appetizer. John chose the Louisiana shrimp and fish ceviche with cucumbers, fresh tomatoes and crunchy pepitas (pumpkin seeds). It was served in a clay-colored ceramic dish and the morsels were tart, light and far too easy to scoop into your mouth. I picked something equally wonderful (like that’s difficult at Herbsaint), smoked salmon with crisp green beans in a creamy sauce gribiche.

For his entree, John really wanted the grilled tuna sandwich on olive bread and he sighed audibly when our server said they were all out. He settled for the cold roast beef on foccacia with horseradish aioli. The roast beef was rare and his sandwich was scrumptious, but I could tell he was still yearning for the grilled tuna. I ordered the crispy goat with curried lentils, cucumber and tomatoes. I was expecting an Indian-flavored dish but from the first bite, I felt like I was tasting home. It was like the chef had raided my childhood memories of Persian and Turkish food and combined it into this dish. Instead of having each ingredient separate like they do with Persian kebab (rice, grilled meat, onion & cucumber yogurt salad), everything was mixed together in perfect proportions.

The reason this dish touched my soul was two-fold. Not only did it remind me of home, but it triggered in me an increased desire to tell my story … a story I’ve been tossing about in my brain for sometime. A story about growing up with an odd mix of Southern values, Persian mysteries and American ideologies, and how food played such a major role throughout…in good and not-so-good ways. I think it would be highly therapeutic, if nothing else, and I finally feel ready to try. Letting the flavors of my youth roll over my tongue at Herbsaint felt like a beginning….and an end.

Well, there was certainly an end to our lunch, and a typically divine one at that. A sudden thunderstorm broke and we endured a few sprinkles while devouring dessert (thank you Rhonda!), a Duck Egg Crème Brulee with Pecan Lace cookies. The sugar crust was perfect, a hard tap of my spoon breaking through to a thick, smooth custard. We enjoyed dipping the crunchy pecan cookies into cups of freshly brewed French Truck coffee while watching the streetcars rumble by.

I realize that neither Douglas Adams nor lunch at Herbsaint Restaurant necessarily hold the secrets of life, but they both make my life feel more fabulous and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Herbsaint Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Still sexy at Herbsaint Restaurant

Maybe it was because leaving behind another decade of my life was a little unsettling…okay, a lot unsettling, but I could not choose where I wanted to eat for my birthday on Saturday. I asked folks on Facebook, put up a post on a local food forum and received numerous, excellent suggestions, but I simply couldn’t choose the one that screamed “Yay! You’re 40!” I mean, is there such a place?

Finally, John decided to take matters into his own hands. Sick of hearing me whine in indecision, rattling off various menu items, weighing tried and true over something new, he picked up the phone and made reservations at Herbsaint Restaurant and I felt as if a weight had been lifted.

He made reservations for an early dinner, knowing I would want to catch the afternoon light for photos and right after we sat down at a small two-top by the bar, we decided to kick it off with a drink. John went with an Old Fashioned and I got a Dark & Stormy…I just love rum and ginger beer. We had just taken a few sips when our first plates arrived.

John chose the beef short rib that was served with a sharp knife, much to our amusement, seeing as it fell apart at his touch. Yes, really. This frigging, fatty, fantastic fabulous piece of meat that burst into your mouth was topped by salsa verde and served with rösti, a fried potato dish that is very similar to thick hash browns. My dish was no less wonderful, a small mountain of Louisiana jumbo lump crab meat piled atop two thin, crisply fried eggplant medallions. The forks were flying across the table and after several bites of each, neither of us could decide which was better.

I’m pleased I was able to save some of the warm, ciabatta bread on purpose for the spicy, bacon-laden sauce on my Sauteed Louisiana Jumbo Shrimp. The arancini or fried rice patty with nibbles of corn was able to soak up some of it, but not quite enough. While inhaling my shrimp, I managed a couple of bites of John’s Muscovy Duck Leg Confit. The crisp skin and rich, moist meat with the citrus gastrique was like a melody in my mouth and I’m pretty sure the dirty rice was laden with some of their own, delectable sausage. We also shared a side of butter beans and their smoky, thick-cut bacon. Could the dinner get any better than this?

Well, yes…yes it can.

Pastry Chef Rhonda Ruckman might very well be a magician. I’d already become a die-hard fan from tasting that Banana Brown Butter Tart, but I was enchanted when I first put my lips around this spoonful. A Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake supporting a pool of salted caramel, accompanied by a smooth sphere of cashew ice cream and cocoa nib caramel corn. I never thought I’d spell this out, but OH-EM-GEE! A friend of mine used the word “mouth-gasm” and I feel it’s appropriate in this situation.

So “40 is the new 30,” huh? It’s sure starting out that way!