Do you know what an amuse-bouche is? Don’t worry. Your server at Herb does, and whether you know or not, he’ll earnestly explain the concept at the start of your prix fixe meal at this new restaurant in Edgewater that alleges to have “redefined” Thai food. Right now that particular amuse-bouche is what’s commonly referred to in innumerable American Thai restaurants as a one-bite-salad, but properly in Thai as miang kham. Your server won’t mention either name when he ceremoniously appears tableside with the ingredients arranged on a tray and begins to assemble it with all the deliberation of a spinal surgeon, meticulously spooning toasted coconut and sticky-sweet sauce onto betel leaves, then tweezing individual peanuts and bits of lime rind, red onion, and chile on top.
Assuming you don’t seize the tweezers and plunge them into your own throat before it’s all over, you’ll bundle each leaf up with its contents and pop it into your mouth, acknowledging the familiar bursts of sweet, sour, spicy, toasty, and herbal before realizing that the only thing that’s been redefined here is the farcical sense of solemnity attached to this humble snack.
That’s how the three- and five-course meals ($35 and $55, respectively) begin at Herb, a partnership between chef Patty Neumson and Kee Chan, the chef/designer known for short-lived, high-concept Chinatown endeavors like the late Mulan and Lure Izakaya, and the extant Strings Ramen Shop. Chan is in the background on this one, though the sleek, minimal design—no murals, statuary, or portraits of King Bhumibol—and the anodyne new-agey soundtrack both seem familiar. Neumson, a less recognizable figure, grew up learning to cook in southern Thailand, according to the restaurant’s website, with an approach that draws from holistic medicine. The ever-solicitous servers tell yet another story, repeatedly emphasizing that this food is “home style.” Many of the dishes are given their proper names in Thai, but anyone with a glancing familiarity with the city’s more celebrated, less formal Thai restaurants will recognize about half of them. Yet in English they’re described with an opaque itemization of ingredients (think Next’s Tour of Thailand menu) that hints at anything but granny’s cooking.
It’s a short menu—three starters, two soups, and five entrees—and it begins more or less auspiciously, even though a finely shredded green mango and green apple salad that approximates the more common green papaya som tam leans far too sweet at the expense of sour and spicy, and with no sign of more umami-rich ingredients like dried shrimp and fish sauce. However, three fat raw shrimp dressed with a blazing hot chile, lime, and fish sauce dressing and mint chiffonade—a dish commonly known as in the U.S. as “naked shrimp,” or kung chae nam pla—are as fresh and searing as any I’ve ever had. Relatively uncommon spiky winged beans turn up in a spicy salad with cherry tomatoes, long beans, tiny scallops, and culantro—something the menu incorrectly refers to as “Laotian coriander” (it’s really dill).
Dill does in fact turn up in a mushroom soup in the second course. The herb garnishes a pretty arrangement of king, oyster, and enoki mushrooms along with hearts of palm and sunchokes in the bottom of a deep bowl. A server ceremoniously pours the broth on top, brandishing more needless formality. OK, it’s not so much a broth but a thick, rich, mild turmeric-infused curry, the clearest nod to the chef’s southern Thai roots, and also is the tastiest thing on the menu.
The other soup—also a pour-over—is hardly recognizable as tom yam, though that’s what they’re going for. Lemongrass and chiles do little to boost the flavor or aroma of this timid brew, with shrimp and mushrooms submerged in a broth devoid of acid and spice. It’s something of an anomaly on a menu that doesn’t generally shy away from assertive flavors, even as the servers constantly check in to determine whether your spice levels have been breached.
An entree titled “red snapper” turns out to be the fish, curry, and rice noodle dish khanom jin, fish minced and mixed with red curry and poured over soft noodles. The “redefinition” here appears to be the addition of microgreens and tart, pink heart-shaped apple blossoms as a garnish, and an understory of julienned green and ripe mango, but it’s a good version nonetheless, rich and satisfying. And don’t be fooled by the twisted arrangement of golden bean sprouts that climb above the “smoked fish” entrees. This is kaeng pa, or jungle curry, the fish in this case lightly smoked salmon broken up in the bright, thin curry (no coconut milk in this one).
While none of these dishes are served family style, the latter two entrees are typical Thai one-plate meals. And while their featured proteins are part of a homogenous whole, other third courses are presented with a more formal, Western, fine-dining approach: duck breast is sliced thin and arrayed over a mango-plum sauce, garnished with a strip of fried banana, a few sliced grape coins, and a single blueberry hanging out on the plate like it fell from the sky, while the steak is sliced and similarly plated on a roasted banana pepper sauce. These two entrees have other things in common—the meat is overcooked (the kitchen recommends the duck cooked to medium, oddly), and they’re the most boring dishes on the menu.
Desserts billed as the “chef’s whim” on both occasions were mysterious bets; the servers couldn’t offer any hints as to what was in store. On one visit it was a small dish of coconut sticky rice topped with a few audacious batons of pungent durian fruit, the next a small dish of tapioca infused with green pandanus leaf imparting a floral, jasminelike aroma, each time served with a side of mango and rambutan.
Right now Herb is cooking a summer menu, and the plan is to change with the seasons, though it’s an open question as to how Thai food can truly adapt to the capricious midwestern cycle. What’s clear is that the restaurant doesn’t know what it wants to be yet. Is it “home style” or “redefined?” Is it southern Thai or midwestern seasonal? And what exactly makes these well-known dishes uniquely “holistic” when they incorporate many of the same ingredients that are used everywhere else they’re served?
Despite these affectations, it’s difficult to call Herb pretentious. It’s too earnest for that. The servers aren’t yet able to determine whether everything is OK without interrupting to ask every third bite. Take it easy, guys. This is the big city. We’ve eaten Thai food before. Sure, with the exception of the soups, every single dish on the menu is garnished with some species of edible flower. But for the most part, underneath that “redefinition” this Thai food isn’t too bad. Once Herb settles on an identity, the rest of us just might see it for ourselves.