Faced with a beautiful spring day, Tom and I decided to head across the lake for lunch. We dropped into the new Four Seasons Hotel to visit the somewhat ballyhooed Donald Link restaurant, Chemin a la Mer.
The sheer amount of people at the hotel that day was surprising and definitely heartening. The San Antonio Spurs busses arrived while we were there and enormous amounts of gear filled the elevators for a while. There was a definite buzz to the place everywhere we looked.
Chemin a la Mer is located on the fifth floor beside the pool. A balcony now offers outdoor dining, though on this first visit it did not. The restaurant was busy and very noisy. Amanda Shaw fiddled and sang in a corner, accompanied by other musicians. Amanda Shaw is a lovely and charming young lady, but that kind of music is best as a garnish. To me, anyway. It made conversation difficult and was a big distraction to the meal. I am, generally speaking, not a fan of live music in restaurants. That goes double for zydeco. Lucky for us, we came at the tail end of her sets. Thankfully she stopped, right after Tom’s complaining made me think we might have to bail.
It was a long time before anyone greeted us at the table. The waiter was amiable but lacked a basic knowledge of the food he was serving. He was from out of state, arrived three months ago, and was a total novice at all things New Orleans, especially the food. In a place with a price point this high, such a thing is really annoying. His sweet personality and genuine desire to be helpful ameliorated my frustration a bit, but what about training?
After all the bad stuff I just said, it might surprise that I loved this experience. The space is handsome in a mid-twentieth-century-meets-2022 kind of way. Wood-paneled walls and green marble lavatory counters, and an overall spartan vibe make a definite statement. The room feels good. A wall of windows to the terrace and the Mississippi River beyond give diners a definite sense of place. You are eating in New Orleans. Watch the timeless mighty Mississippi in all its glory.
I am a latecomer to the Donald Link fan club, but if enthusiasm is the main credential, I’m in. Peche and Gianna don’t really move me, and I’ve never been to Herbsaint, (yeah, I can’t believe it myself) but I’m kinda nuts about Cochon and its spawns. And even though Boulangerie is not a Link creation but an acquisition, I love what he’s done with the place.
So I was curious upon entering Chemin a la Mer. Would I like it? Despite Donald Link’s celebrity, the restaurant has kept sort of a low profile. It opened somewhat quietly amidst COVID, and right before Ida, so for a long time,, it was only media people talking about it to other media people. At least that’s what I determined since it’s only media people who have mentioned it to me.
A quick look at the menu also made me wary. There wasn’t a lot on it, which I admire in a new restaurant. It shows the restraint of the bosses. But it makes it a little harder to find something to love. I did find something, and I did love it, but I get ahead of myself.
We started with an artisan bread basket for two, which I could have polished off myself in a few bites. It was good bread though, so I gave it its due and savored it. This basket included epi bread from Bellegarde, as well as slices of rustic olive bread and another two slices with nuts. The special butter, hand-cranked in Normandy, France, is none other than Rodolphe Le Meunier, known worldwide for its exceptional cheeses and butters.
We ordered the crabmeat au gratin (which is now crawfish) and the Pate Grand Mere (named for Link’s grandmother.) Both of these were decadently rich. The crabmeat came in a ceramic crock with crusted cheese bubbling around the edges. It was accompanied by more Bellegarde crostini. I say “more” like it was too much of the same thing, but there is no such thing as too much Bellegarde.
The lumps of crabmeat were plentiful mounds throughout, covered in cheese and cream. The cheese was assertive but mellow, (sounds oxymoronic, I know) meaning it imparted a pronounced flavor that did not overtake the delicate crabmeat, blending into a perfectly-balanced deliciousness. The dense Bellegarde toasts were exactly the right heft to handle this treat.
And I’m a sucker for pate anywhere I see it. If Donald Link is offering a pate, it is a foregone conclusion that it will be great. And it definitely was. The recipe is his grandmother’s and I can see where he gets his gifts. It was also very rich, so the portion was just right. Packed tightly and full of pork flavor, this couldn’t have been better.
This also came with more dense and chewy Bellegarde crostini toasted just so, as well as not enough of the exceptionally great coarse mustard, and definitely not enough cornichons, which are essential to any pate experience for me. (The crispness and acidic tartness of the pickle are perfect counterbalances to the texture and meatiness of the pate.) I did ask for more of each and was happily obliged.
Tom continued the rest of the meal, which was over for me with my two intense appetizers. He got duck confit with cannellini beans. This may be the premier duck confit in my experience. It was pricey at $38 for one (admittedly large) duck leg, but it was the pinnacle of this dish. Crispy skin tightly enveloped meat so tender it should have fallen off the bone, but didn’t. What was presented was as beautiful as it was sensational in taste. The beans were sweet-spot firm, with a properly creamy consistency and great flavor. There was nothing peasant-like about this plate of food. Soul-satisfyingly delish!
The caliber of the ingredients and primo execution of the above-described dishes were such that we were definitely satiated, but Tom cannot pass up a creme brulee. It maintained the standards of the rest of the meal. Besides the sheer beauty of a well-made creme brulee, (sharred-glass-hard) torched sugar offset by big ripe and contrasting colored berries, this one came with a little Lagniappe: two puff pastry hearts buttressed on top.
Once inside the shell, thick, eggy, custard emerged to please any dessert lover and delight fans of creme brulee. Tom is both and was indeed delighted.
It took months for us to get back to Chemin a la Mer. The opportunity presented itself when I had to get my car serviced. Having a shuttle simply drop us off and pick us up is the best way to visit the two excellent restaurants at the Four Seasons.
We went for breakfast. I had already had what I wanted from the other menus, and the idea of sitting on the patio watching the river in the morning seemed very appealing.
When I tried to make a reservation it said outdoor seating wasn’t available, so I called the restaurant to ask to be put on a list. I was told that they “discourage” outdoor seating. HUH?
This space was added to the building, and you don’t want to use it???
Fortunately, when we arrived, someone else had broken through this absurd barrier, and we were seated outside on a beautiful morning. As we sat, absolutely everyone else was seated out there too. The balcony was completely full, and the restaurant mostly empty. Please take note, management.
There is nothing unappealing about the restaurant. It is absolutely beautiful in almost a riveting way. Tedious detail everywhere. The colors reflect the marsh and bayou that is Link’s signature, but it is totally glamorous. The walls are batten throughout. Absolutely arresting. Nothing cliche.
But outside the activity on the river (less so lately) was also captivating. We sat in sumptuous outdoor seats under a large umbrella and ordered pretty much everything.
We started with another baked goods basket. I was surprised by this basket, which I would rate as ordinary. With Boulangerie under the Link umbrella, I expected perfect croissants and Danish, and they were nothing special. The crumbly blueberry muffin was better but unspectacular.
We ordered a breakfast quiche which was indeed spectacular. Tall, light, fluffy, and flaky around the edges, this was outstanding. It was crabmeat, which wasn’t immediately apparent, so that gives an idea of how much crabmeat was in it. Don’t care. Loved this. A dollop of creme fraiche with a hint of tarragon slowly melted on top. This was accompanied by a large pile of lettuce overdressed in a tart French vinaigrette.
Tom got pancakes, which were definitely underwhelming to me, but he liked them. Pancakes should be light and fluffy throughout. These were not especially voluminous, and a little too seared on top. Like you might make at home, but this is not home. They did not come with a garnish of berries or a light dusting of powdered sugar, as seen in most other fancy places. These need some work.
I passed on some of the fancier offerings (like eggs with a Chicken Tinga tortilla) and went with my usual two eggs…
The Southern, as it is called, comes with two eggs, a choice of meat, biscuit, and gravy. Country gravy is something I don’t understand, but if there was ever someone who could do country gravy well, it has to be Donald Link, I assumed. That goes double for bacon, my choice of meat.
The country gravy looked awful, as it always does. This was not white but brown, with bits of meat popping up throughout the bowl. This sounds horrible but it was terrific. I didn’t want to look at this, but I definitely wanted to eat it. The biscuit was a large cut biscuit, not especially flaky but good enough. It did not need to be stand-alone sensational to accompany this gravy. The eggs were perfectly over easy, and the bacon was everything I would expect Donald Link to serve. Thick and smoky, this was great, and it was a generous portion.
There were two sides I wanted to try. I also ordered “crispy hashbrowns” and was shocked to see something I’d expect at IHOP, a patty of frozen potatoes crisped on the outside.
The grits were much better, though they didn’t look like much. Stoneground, these grits had a lot more flavor than they appeared to. I liked them rather well.
The waiter earned most of his money just refilling Tom’s coffee, which he declared fantastic. He went through a few little pitchers of cream as well.
While we were there an adjacent table got a visit from management, who marveled that everyone was sitting outside. And this is a surprise? Why?
A guest enlisted my assistance to convince her husband to sit outside. He must be like mine (who no longer has a choice.) Within minutes he was standing up taking pics of all the sights.
It was an utterly delightful morning meal (Tom was absolutely giddy) that turned into hours as we waited for the shuttle. It was lunchtime when we left, and I was just about to order the hamburger. It’s the only thing I haven't tried that calls to me.
Next time. There will definitely be a next time. And a next…