Donald Link is a thinking man’s chef, a lifelong reader forever trying to connect history with what’s on the plate. He’s also a native son, with a respect for the Mississippi river as deep and long as the estuary itself.
Which is one reason he is over the moon about Chemin à la Mer, his new fine-dining French restaurant opening November 26 in the swanky Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans. (Reservations are now open.) French for “path to the sea,” the fifth-floor restaurant embraces jaw-dropping views of the river, something locals diners aren’t used to, unless they’re sitting on a bench facing the river eating beignets out of a bag from Café du Monde.
“For a city so defined by the river, views are hard to come by, which is crazy,” says Link, a serial restaurant entrepreneur whose flagship Herbsaint earned him a 2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Known for his collaborative management style and penchant for promoting from within, Link and his business partner Stephen Stryjewski own Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Calcasieu, an event venue, Peche Seafood Grill, La Boulangerie, and Gianna.
Chemin à la Mer represents their first foray into super high-end dining. “This gives me the chance to play with a new concept,” says the chef, who brought David Rouse, formerly at Herbsaint, aboard as chef de cuisine. “David’s worked his way through the ranks and he’s super talented, a rare gem. He’s one of the most gifted chefs I’ve seen, especially when it comes to French food.”
Although Link’s been approached by hotels in the past, the river views, coupled with the integrity he found in the Four Seasons’s management team led by general manager Mali Carow, made the difference. “I met Mali when she came to town in the middle of COVID,” he recalls. “I wanted to welcome her to New Orleans, and although we weren’t talking about doing a restaurant, I always suspected that she had ulterior motives.”
Initially, he thought it was a crazy idea. “We were hemorrhaging money trying to stay afloat,” he says. “But the more I thought of opening a year out, I figured things had to get better. And I have people who need more places to grow, so that had appeal.”
The menu was fomented by two research trips to Paris, Burgundy, and Barcelona. “I wanted the fine French food that has its origins here in New Orleans, when Creole cuisine and New Orleans fine-dining merged,” he said. “But I’m a Louisiana guy, so I can’t get too far away from my roots. And we’re a Caribbean city, too, so the West Indies also comes into play.”
The team took inspiration from the Clover Grill in Paris, a French steakhouse from chef Jean Francoise Piege. “It’s a great French restaurant with a few amazing steaks,” Link says. “That’s our vision, too, along with fresh seafood sourced both locally and from other places.”
The menu, showcasing a grand oyster bar, specialty steaks, and Gulf seafood, is steeped in French tradition and includes signature dishes such as Ōra king salmon with French lentils, pan-seared jumbo shrimp with white beans and pistou, and charcuterie and foie gras. There will be carvings of classic cuts of steak, including A5 Kobe strip steak and a côte de boeuf for two, carved tableside. A West Indies crab salad is bright and peppery with chile. Seafood gumbo, made without a roux, is inspired by the wonderful Cajun cook Alzina Toups, now retired, out of Galliano.
“New Orleans has always been an international city, and our menu reflects that,” says Link, who is keeping the opening menu compact and executable, as staffing continues to ramp up. “We might be a special occasion restaurant for most people, which is ok. But you can still come and have a drink, take in the views from the bar, and order a burger.” The bar menu also services the pool area, offering a few more casual options.
Decked out with original art from John Alexander, burnished wood-accented interiors from designer Bill Rooney, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river’s famous crescent, Chemin à la Mer adds up to one stunning dining experience.
“This restaurant is very personal to me,” says Link. “And the river views are incredible. I watched the sunset the other night from the terrace. I am always amazed and could literally sit out there all day.”