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Sugar & Spice: Herb
by Meghan Streit

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If you're looking for the standard pad Thai-and-spring-roll routine, then stick to the Thai joint on the corner you rely on for takeout. But, if you're in the mood to expand your horizons with authentic and upscale Thai cuisine that is really more of an culinary adventure than a simple "meal," then you've got to check out Herb, a restaurant that opened in Edgewater over the summer.

The Broadway Avenue space is sleek and modern, so much so that it almost seems out of place in the casual neighborhood. I personally think it's nice to have some upscale dining options on the Far North Side, and perhaps Herb will usher in some more of them. The dining room is a study in soothing earth tones, accented by green potted plants on the tables in lieu of flowers. It's the perfect calm and sophisticated backdrop against which to serve colorful Thai food—and there's lot of that to come.

You can order a la carte, but you're better off choosing one of the prix fixe menus. You can select three courses for $35, or seven for $55—a far cry from what you may be used to paying for Thai food, but an excellent value considering the quality of the dishes. Order all of your courses at the beginning of your meal, which won't be difficult because the menu is a tidy selection of carefully curated options. With your ordering complete, you can sit back and be guided through your culinary experience. Should ever you have a question or an unmet need, the waitstaff will never be more than a few feet ( inches, possibly ) away. The servers are extremely knowledgeable, professional and attentive. However, their vibe is almost a bit intense, and while I appreciate that they take the job seriously, a bit of levity could go a long way. ( It's only food, after all! )

My waiter highly recommended the blue shrimp appetizer but, not having the stomach for raw shrimp on that particular evening, I opted instead for the vegan spring roll. ( Vegans, rejoice! There's an entire vegan tasting menu at Herb. ) I don't necessarily regret the spring roll, but it was remarkably bland—so bland, I didn't bother to finish the roll, and couldn't even pawn the remaining bites off on any of my dining companions, who were too busy enjoying the blue shrimp.

Fortunately, the spring roll was the lone flavorless item I tasted at Herb. Everything else was bursting with flavor and spice. In fact, a few of the dishes were too spicy for my tastes. But, if you like well-made spicy food, you will be in heaven. Herb is BYOB, so bring a beverage you like to guzzle. Even if you're into spicy food, you're going to want a cold drink to chase the intense flavors of your meal.

The winged bean is an interesting mix of shrimp, tomatoes, fragrant green herbs and ever-so-slightly cooked baby scallops. The flavor profile is complex and intriguing, but you have to be able to tolerate some serious spice to enjoy this dish. More up my alley was the one-bite salad, a lovely scoop of shredded carrots, fresh ginger and chopped peanuts served atop a bright green leaf. You wrap up the leaf and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Even taken as one big bite, you can still detect the coconut and chile notes within. I also enjoyed the pork dumplings. The juicy meat is stuffed inside a pleasantly gummy tapioca dumpling.

There is one cool and creamy dish among all of the hot and spicy offerings—the mushroom soup. Lots of tender oyster mushrooms swim in the coconut-y broth, which is thinner than a typical cream soup, and far more flavorful. If only my bowl were a bit warmer, this soup would have been the highlight of my meal.

If you embark on the seven-course journey, you'll be starting to feel full before your entrée arrives ( even though portions are appropriately on the smaller side ), but persevere. The expertly seasoned steak is a standout. I ordered mine medium and it was perfectly tender. The thin slices of meat come with a ( by now predictably ) spicy banana pepper dressing. I wised up and ordered mine on the side, which allowed me to add just the tiniest drop to each bite, and I'm glad I did because the stuff is delicious.

Dessert is the listed as "chef's whim" and, after such a lovely meal, you'll be quite content to submit to her whims. When I visited, dessert was a surprisingly complex and rich-tasting tapioca pudding, a sweet and creamy ending to a spicy meal.

Every morsel at Herb is presented like a work of art—carefully arranged slices of meat, expertly chopped vegetables, beautiful edible flowers. The duck is served with a blood red-beet root meticulously carved into a rose. ( It's stunning! ) You can tell that everything from the amount of spice to the particular dish each course is served in has been thought about ( agonized over, perhaps ) in advance. It's an ambitious and eager kind of place that feels like it is the manifestation of someone's lifelong dream—and, because of that, I am betting that it will have a long and successful run in Edgewater.

Herb is located at 5424 N. Broadway; call 773-944-9050.

Do you need some more Sugar & Spice in your life? Follow me on Twitter @SugarAndSpiceMS for inside scoop and commentary on Chicago's dining scene.

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