After a long day of work, I really don't want to cook. Out for dinner? YES! Time to try the new place that opened up. It's close and within walking distance. This new restaurant is Herb.
Instant points for the immediate greeting and the interior space. It’s pretty with a modern interior. Space is divided into two rooms and each is intimate and cozy. I thought to myself the interior designer made some excellent design choices. Natural varnished beadboard gives a rustic but natural touch that balances a wall of smoked mirror that makes a small place seem expansive. The seating is comfortable and the sound level makes it easy to have a conversation. The colors are warm with neutral olive greens, tans, and yellow. The place feels zen and tranquil — almost like a spa. It puts one at ease very quickly. It is very easy to relax to enjoy the meal. It does not feel stuffy nor do I feel like I have to get dressed up. The designer in me can see this place was exceedingly well thought out as so many things caught my eye but didn’t distract it. I would almost call the restaurant glitzy because there is such attention to design. I say this as I remember an important to note… this is Edgewater.
No, I am not a snob. Hello! I live in this neighborhood so how can I be a snob? I have lived in this neighborhood for years and remember when its noticeable landmark destination status was the Kenmore/Winthrop drug corridor. That destination is pretty been removed thank you to Chicago's finest. It is now more family-friendly. The neighborhood is a multicultural mix. It is not uncommon to hear five or six languages spoken as one walks around the block. The 7-Eleven sells shisha and hookahs as well as lotto tickets and yes, this is America, not Egypt. Within a two blocks walk on Bryn Mawr, one can find an Italian, Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese French, Chinese, Brazilian or American restaurant plus more than a few coffee shops and a Dunkin Donuts.
The neighborhood has taken many years to transform and is very much still evolving. Let’s be clear. It is not Lincoln Park. It is not Andersonville. It is not the Gold Coast. So how did this lovely new restaurant place land end up here? Located at the South end of Edgewater and bordering Uptown, Herb sits comfortably at the North end of a huge Asian community. Other establishments in the neighborhood are a bit dumpy or disheveled. They lack the clean modern esthetics that most think of as synonymous with modern Asian design. Other restaurants in the hood are part of a chain with the interior reflecting a sense of corporate design and don’t reflect a lot of individuality. Herb has design and individuality. It feels slightly lux but yet mildly industrial. It is an economy of space with an eye towards elegance done on a budget. This is very uncommon to see in this neck of the woods. So will I get blown away with the prices? Again, this is Edgewater. Thankfully no. This as it turns out is a Prix Fixe.
Is it pricey?
There are three pricing options at Herb. One can do á la carte, a three-course option, or a five-course options pre-fixe. They are reasonably priced for individual entrees but the three and five-course options are efficiently priced. The menu is slightly limited however there is something vegetarian in every category. The food is very, very clean. By that I mean there are no strange chemicals, corn syrups, fillers, or strange flavor enhancers. Is it organic? I would tend to take it a step further by saying it strives to be nutritious, balanced, and extremely healthy. It is food that would probably take the body to a new level of health if eaten on a regular basis.
But let's be clear, it is not salads and bean sprouts. It's not rabbit food. Flavor has to be present and healthy does not always go hand in hand with flavor.Chef Patty Neumson understands flavors and how the quality of food affect flavors. Many of the recipes on the menu are inspired by foods that her mother and grandmother made for her in Southern Thailand. The foods are lush with flavor yet very delicate in how they are presented. This next shocker however was what arrived on my plate. The presentations on the plate are so beautiful that they feel more in line with what one would get in the Gold Coast of Chicago. They look more like five-star presentations than food slapped on a plate with a parsley sprig or lettuce leaf. Patty says “I like to give my customers food something that is memorable. I want them to feel like they are receiving a gift when the food comes to them.”
This is a very nice sentiment but one that she takes quite seriously. Each plate feels very much like a present. She also starts the meal with an amuse-bouche. For those not accustomed to this, it is an introduction from the chef (a small mouthful of something special from the kitchen) that cleanses the pallet and sets the tone for the meal. I expect it when I have meals that cost three or four times as much as what this will cost — thus it was a shocker. It is these unexpected small symbolic gestures that are the kind of thing one expects from haute cuisine and we are after all, in Edgewater. Chef Patty knows how to get one’s attention.
Taste buds are primed.
The food is flavorful. The menus change seasonally. The foods I sampled from the menu were stunning. The lemongrass chicken starter came with cucumber relish and a peanut sauce. It is not the typical peanut sauce I have had at other Thai restaurants. This is homemade, chunky with texture. It was so flavorful and unusual I had to ask what it was. It was not like the beige gravy that some places serve. It was dark and deeply rich. I wanted an entrée of it. It balanced the cucumber relish very well. All things combined, the chicken was a party in my mouth. The Green Papaya Salad took my mouth in a new direction. It was cool and crisp yet hot and a bit spicy. I didn’t expect that much heat to radiate from a salad. It was a wow experience.
Soup is something that most will overlook on a menu or get instead of a salad if they hate iceberg wedges. I am like that too. The soups on the menu a choice of Beef & Tamarind or a Vegetable & Coconut. The Beef with the Tamarind had shallots and mushrooms. It is a hot and sour soup. It packs some heat but it delights. It is has a light beef stock that gives the body without weighing down the ingredients. The beef chunks are very moist and tender. The Vegetable and Coconut tasted a bit like corn chowder and has lots of variety in the bowl. It is visually really interesting and the taste on the tongue is light in texture but heartiness in flavor. Both hit the pallet on many levels as one feels satisfied without stuffing. The portions are perfect as they set up for the entrée perfectly.
This is where Chef Patty really cuts loose and goes out to impress. The Chicken comes wrapped in an edible bowl. It is lovely to look at and yes, feels very much like a present from the kitchen. There is some turmeric curry paste in the mix and you feel the flavors of Thailand. A Beef entrée comes with sweet potato, purple yams, onions, and also has turmeric. Both are packed with flavor from natural ingredients. There are other things on the menu that will get one to stand up and take notice. There is pork, crab, red snapper, and also bean curd with eggplant that will pull at your taste buds. All entrees come with amazing presentations and flavors that will set your mouth on edge. At this point, one is really quite full. As I mentioned, portions are ample. One will not starve or be running to a burger joint after experiencing this haute cuisine. The desserts are a surprise. They are left to the chef and labeled Chef’Whim. They are mouthfuls of sweetness — similar to the amuse-bouche. Tonight they are serving a pineapple/coconut pastry confection that is chilled icy cold but is very cake-like in texture.
I was really impressed with Herb on many levels. It was hitting on all cylinders for me. It was relaxing and extravagant without an extravagant price. There was so much incredible thought behind the restaurant I had to investigate some things and make mention of them. As it turns out the interior was done by interior designer Siri Jenthanomma. Her work at the restaurant is incredibly thoughtful and lovely. The graphics, identity, and signage are by the design group of KeyConcept Design. They nailed the look and feel of the place with perfection.
The final shocker of the evening: Michelin, the bastion of good taste, reviewed this Herb after five months. YES! Herb put Edgewater on the map of good eating. One does not need to spend a fortune to get Michelin recommended food nor do I need to spend $25 on a cab to get there. It is in my very own neighborhood. Michelin put Herb on the list of Bib Gourmands list of good eats in Chicago. Bib Gourmands designates very good restaurants that offer good value with great food. Bib Gourmands recommends food that is two courses and a glass of wine for $40 or less. When one thinks of all the food establishments in Chicago, there are less than 60 that make the Bib Gourmand list, getting this distinction is really quite impressive for a restaurant with a track record of less than a year AND in Edgewater. Yes, now you can call me a Snob.
Final note: for the boozer in you. Herb is BYOB. I am typically not a fan of bring-your-own places. I will make an exception with Herb. A glass of wine would have really touched this off nicely — so keep that in mind when you come. You will want to pack a wine that stands up to flavors and perhaps some heat. Thai can get a bit spicy as it is an authentically exquisite cuisine. Those that love flavorful experiences will want to pack liquors that will bring out the food flavors. Select a Vouvray/Viognier (white) or a Barbera or Beaujolais (red) if you want a glass of wine. Avoid anything oaky but go for more fruit and fewer tannins. Some folks might also like a Reisling or Gewurztraminer as a touch of sweetness can offset the heat. Relax and enjoy.