I’ve only been in New Orleans for 27 hours and I’ve managed to sample the food of more than 30 chefs. Some 25 of them were at a Friends of James Beard Benefit at Kingsley House organized by JBF trustee Dickie Brennan. More than 500 people braved the chilly weather for the picnic-style, outdoor, walk-around tasting. Tasting highlights included the crawfish and corn boil from Charlie’s Seafood and the sublime seafood gumbo from Stella! Also remarkable were the little open-face pork sandwiches from Cochon. And today we followed that taste trail (and the dining advice of trusted friends) to Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas; 504-588-2123) for lunch. I’m glad we did.
What a thoroughly delicious and satisfying meal we had at Cochon. (Okay, so I’m more than satisfied, I’m stuffed to the gills!) Served in a casual, wood-lined restaurant in the Warehouse District—in terms of décor, think Momofuku Ssäm Bar in NYC or Avec and Publican in Chicago—Donald Link’s modern cajun and creole cooking was a revelation. Housemade boudin with a delicate texture and powerful seasoning was steamed in one preparation and rolled into a ball, breaded and fried in another. A mushroom salad with crisp-fried jerky and fresh mint was ethereally woodsy and fresh. We loved the grits casserole with caramelized onions, the baked broccoli raab and rice casserole laced with nutmeg, and the eggplant casserole that had the texture and sage-tinged flavor of the best Thanksgiving stuffing. Oysters roasted on the shell combined the sweet-tart-salty-bitter flavors of the sea, lemon, and char. An unexpected standout was the fried rabbit liver served on toast with pepper jelly, fresh herbs, and pickled vegetables. Our pleasure didn’t stop with these starters.
A cone of housemade pork rinds, a wooden plank of charcuterie, a casserole of creamy and buttery lima beans, smothered collards with tasso, grilled shrimp with chow-chow, the meal didn’t end and we couldn’t stop eating. Our one entrée, the restaurant’s signature cochon, pulled pork formed into a disk, lightly breaded and served on a rich broth of cabbage with more fried pork rinds on top was superfluous given our excessive appetizer ordering—we basically had one of everything—but too good to pass up. Same with the desserts, which featured a deeply chocolate Mississippi Mud (or “mousse,” really) Pie, an incredible strawberry shortcake, and a muffin-link individual pineapple upside down cake. Only the lemon buttermilk pie failed to captivate us. Or maybe by then the food coma had set in and we couldn’t focus enough to taste it.
Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge fan of the food of New Orleans. Heavy, old-fashioned, monotonously spiced and served for the most part in dingy, dirty restaurants, America’s great culinary destination has always left me wanting. I described it to one friend who’d never been here as “overly thickened, old-fashioned French food with a kick.” And yet this time something seemed different. This is the first time I’ve been to New Orleans since Katrina, though I’m not sure if the sense of coming through such a horrific event is the difference I’m tasting in the food. Most restaurateurs we’ve spoken with during this brief visit—knock on wood—say things are finally back to pre-Katrina levels, business-wise. Maybe my attitude, rather than the taste of the food has changed. The food is still heavy, as evidence by the painful redness around my waistband after just 24 hours of eating here. But if what’s happening at Cochon is any indication, I like what’s going on.
After lunch, we popped around the corner to Cochon’s Butcher shop to pick up a few souvenirs (tasso, Berkshire bacon, bacon praline) and to provision ourselves for the flight home with Cochon’s mufalettas— too sick to think of eating again, but too afraid of regretting not having bought them later when we were on our way.