As a serious eater with a commute where a MetroCard is no help at all, I was pleased to see restaurant critic Frank Bruni go beyond Gotham with his Coast to Coast series in the New York Times dining section. I was more pleased to see that one of the spots was in New Orleans, which happened to coincide with a previously planned day-job-related trip there. Make no mistake. Unless it's during Jazzfest or Mardi Gras, it's hard to eat badly in New Orleans.* Pound for pound, it's hard to think of a place that has such depth of excellence from haute to street. I lived in New Orleans for a year in the 1990s, return as often as I can, and had many excellent meals there long before Bruni had to worry about the diacritics on crème brûlée. While I knew that there were dozens of options within yards of the conference I was attending, I was excited about Cochon, and excited about being part of the conversation about Cochon.
The short summary—make a reservation, book a flight, and start fasting. The details are somewhat more complicated. Cochon seems very much in the genre of the porkcentric, heavily lauded restaurant that seems to be the rage recently—serious cooks cooking serious meats in a relatively informal setting—think Au Pied Du Cochon in Montreal, the Chang Dynasy in New York, etc. But there's something else going on in New Orleans. Despite the name, and despite its residence in a city associated with excess, what impressed me was the finesse. Donald Link cooks like a Martin Picard who has learned how to box, rather than punch.**
To Start Things Off
My companion, Raquel, and I worked our way through a considerable portion of the menu, and regretted not having more. We ordered more or less at random, and a lot, and our server gracefully suggested a coherent sequence of dishes. We started with the boucherie plate, and the pickled tongue and pig ear salad. I am not sure of the difference between "boucherie" and the more familiar "charcuterie," but boucherie gets used in Southern Louisiana as one would use "charcutier" and "charcuterie." My gracious host mentioned his favorite boucherie out in Lafayette. Thus, what we had was a charcuterie plate, and the only dish that did not transcend expectations. In my experience, charcuterie plates tend to be like the Sugarcubes or 10,000 Maniacs, where an exceptional performer is surrounded by less compelling and basically interchangeable supporting players. And why not? It's hard to have four or five really distinctive pâtés or cured meats on hand simultaneously. The star here was a duck terrine, with wafer-thin slices of tasso a close second fiddle. However, the salami, head cheese, and rilletes were solid but unremarkable.
The salad, however, was was the surprise hit of the meal. The ears were as crisp as advertised, and the pig tongue offered a chewy counterpoint that also harmonized well with the almost austere green salad accompanying. In the incipient rage for nose-to-tail eating, it's rare to see a dish with ingredients like this so tastefully composed. The only other chef I can think of who treats ingredients like these with care like this is Tony Maws.
With deep regret, we skipped the entrées and split three items from the top of the menu. This meant no Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins, no rabbit and dumplings, and, saddest of all, no oyster-and-bacon sandwich. (A neighboring table had one, and it looked pretty compelling, what with the oysters and bacon and all.)
Instead, we got the fried gator with chili garlic aioli, spicy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle, and pork cheeks with cornbread bean cake and mustard cream. The pork cheeks inspired that feeling of confidence and well-being that only being fed rich food can provide—considering that the cheeks are to guanciale what the belly is to bacon, it's not surprising it was on the hearty side.
The ribs were more surprising—living in New Orleans for a year in the late 1990s, I was shocked that a town in the South, or at least near the South, with a serious interest in gastronomy would have a less compelling barbecue culture than, say, Somerville, Massachusetts, but it was thus. No longer, (and more on that to come). The ribs were smoky and tender and thrived from not being shoehorned into one or another extraneous barbecue idiom.*** They were delicious but not distinctive—if memory serves, there were a few scraps of meat still clinging to bone when we allowed the server to clear the plate, which would not have happened at, say, Charlotte's Rib in St. Louis.
The fried gator, on the other hand, was hard to stop eating. This was, perhaps, the most downmarket item on the menu—you can also get fried gator at spots further uptown where Tulane undergrads are likely to puke on your shoes, but these were executed with a bit more care. "Ethereal" is not a word one can use responsibly referring to deep-fried reptile meat doused in mayonnaise, but it is tempting in this case. The aioli had the right level of spice to balance the mild flavor of the gator—the whole thing ought to have been vulgar, but managed to transcend vulgarity. In defending the dish to a friend, I was forced to allude to Madeline Kahn's performance as Lilli Von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles. It was like that, except in fried seafood form.
Locals Balk at Fancy Prices
I did use the word "defend." During a relatively short visit, out of town friends reacted with jealousy to news of my plan to lunch there, while local reaction ran to the bemused. Donald Link, the chef and co-owner, conceived of Cochon as a less formal alternative to his Herbsaint, while offering more amenity than, say, a po'boy stand. He succeeds, and the Boar's Nest meets Helsinki airport decor is a visual manifestation of this effort. However, this effort, if read less charitably, can come off as charging fancy prices for food that can be had not so far away for much less. If I wanted to make this case, I'd use the $17 ham hock with lima bean hoppin' John and mustard onion jus as exhibit A. In a city like New York, Peter Hoffman or Gabrielle Hamilton could put such a dish on a menu without any fuss, but in New Orleans, I can see how it would seem de trop.
However, I'd give Link a pass on this one, as I'd worry he might kick me with the special "crazy bastard" Golden Clog award that Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman bestowed on him for sneaking back into a ravaged city after Katrina to open his restaurant. If you read Serious Eats, and have read this far, you would do well to close this browser window, and do what I suggested at the outset, which is to make a reservation and book a flight.
*One great failing of urban barbecue places in general is their hubris in attempting to serve multiple styles at once. It would be nothing to have a party order Carolina pulled pork, Texas brisket, and Memphis dry-rubbed ribs at a barbecue restaurant in New York City. It would be surprising to see the same table order cassoulet, omakase, and osso bucco at a single white tablecloth restaurant.
**In fairness to Au Pied du Cochon, which is high on my list of candidates to cater my death row meal, the bulk of the meals I've had there have been in winter, when foie gras poutine seems like just the thing.
***Lots of good things to eat at the fairgrounds, but very hard to get into any sort of restaurant during these festivals.