A Southern Revelation: Cochon, New Orleans
I don’t want to start off this blog by bragging, but E (the partner) and I have done some major eating in our young-ish lives. Living in Manhattan and Brooklyn for a decade certainly helped; as did our travels together in Europe and around the US. I’ve upped him by living abroad in the Philippines and South Africa, and traveling a lot in my pre-college years gave me an edge, too. Between the two of us, we are a household of down-right food (and wine, beer, and spirits) snobs. Meaning it takes a lot to impress us these days, and it’s more than just the food: presentation, service, wine and beer pairings make up a big part of my fine-dinging judgment. I’m not paying out the nose to be snubbed by the staff, you know!
So, when we got married in New Orleans just a short week ago, I knew one thing: that we would make time for a meal at Cochon, hell or high water. How could I resist: a James Beard award-winning restaurant, in one of America’s food capitals, that offered more than new renditions of jambalaya (I mean, I love Cajun and Creole food but there’s more to Louisiana cooking than the tourist-trap standards, no?). I tried not to psyche myself out- it’s happened many a time before- but dammit, this was exciting!
Even in the thick of a (still ongoing) cold, I was not disappointed by Cochon. E’s and my lunch here was really, truly, a revelation in contemporary Southern cuisine. This is definitely not Arnaud’s, nor does it attempt to be. Just good, clean Southern comfort food, with a twist.
First, the decor. Modern, unfussy, but still retaining a bit of rustic charm. The seats and tables were gigantic, perhaps augering the spreading of waist and rear that happens during the course of a meal here? I fell in love with the bar in particular- still need to find out who made the stools, as they remind me very much of work by a Brooklyn-based design duo, whose furniture line Scrapile I discovered a few years ago (and still covet today).
Before deciding on our lunch, E and I began with some beverages. Though the bourbon menu was lengthy and promising, my destroyed liver protested much (we’d been in Nola for five days celebrating our wedding by this point!). So, instead, I began with a kolsch-style ale by Covington, LA-based brewery Heiner Brau. I’ve never seen a domestic brewery attempt this German style, and this brew gave a much better showing than I expected. Heiner Brau’s Maerzen, however, stole the show; I had it with my meal, and its perfectly balanced honey and darker wheat flavors went perfectly with my cochon…
It’s a pity this brewery has not expanded its distribution past the local New Orleans area- I think it would do well in other locales like New York, where microbrews are appreciated. Meanwhile, E enjoyed his usual Saison Dupont, a Belgian farmhouse ale appearing on more and more menus these days (yay!)
Shortly after our drinks arrived, so did our first round of food:
A friend of ours from New York in town for the wedding had raved about the rabbit livers, and they lived up to the praise, and more. It was a strong but not pungent liver taste, very delicately breaded and garnished with a beautiful pepper jelly and fresh mint leaves. Each bite literally melted on the tongue, and if I could have eaten nothing here but these livers, I would have been satisfied.
I came to realize during the course of this meal that I am not a huge fan of pork cheeks. Just a few days prior, I had had another dish featuring this meat (a grits-and-grillades dish at Hookah Cafe, that I’ll review shortly), and was less than impressed. Perhaps in comparison to the liver, these cheeks, so reminiscent texturally of a hard meatball, could not compete? In any case, it tasted just fine but was not the highlight of my meal.
The oysters- wow. Spicy! Like I said, I had a cold so my palette was more dull than usual. Even so, these oysters seared my nostrils. I absolutely loved the heat on these, but E was less thrilled. Perhaps if I was at full nasal capacity, I wouldn’t have enjoyed these oysters as much either? From what I remember, red pepper, garlic, paprika (harissa too perhaps?), and some hot sauce were major components of the oil these oysters were roasted in. They had a lovely bit of extra smoke from being in the wood oven (which you can see, with the open kitchen layout of the resto), but again, you might want to watch the heat.
At this point, E and I were ready for our mains, and what a treat we received!
and, of course:
Rabbit and dumplings- solid. Very nice, dense but flaky biscuit dumplings, thick and flavorful stew, good chunks of rabbit and vegetables. Hearty and warming on a cold day, and a nice twist on the Southern staple of chicken and dumplings.
The creamy grits and smothered greens blew the pants off the rabbit. In general, I’d take side dishes and hors d’oeuvres over entrees any day, and lunch at Cochon was the same. The grits had this fantastic texture- very thickly ground, but still smooth at the same time. Whatever their secret, I must know! And the greens- heavenly. Even E, who could care less about things that don’t moo, couldn’t have enough of these. Bacon, garlic, and a touch of maple syrup on perfectly cooked greens (soft, but not wilty, maintaining its structure)- this may have been the best vegetable side I’ve eaten in my twenty-odd years.
You must be wondering about the pork- this, after all, is the namesake of the entire place. I am almost scared to speak so about it, as it might constitute blasphemy: I loved the pork, but I didn’t love the pork, you know what I mean? Perhaps I’ve been spoiled on growing up with both Filipino and Cuban roast lechon, but this cochon, while excellently cooked, seasoned, and served, did not elevate me as I thought it would. It might be that I prefer the texture and flavor of lechon, falling off the bone- the smoothness, its oily, pure flavor. This cochon was shredded, formed into a patty that you could pull apart; had the smokiness of that wood fire; and was served over braised cabbage and topped with cracklins (best cracklins ever, though- you could really taste the skin and it was so fresh and well-salted). Would I get it again? Absolutely. Is it the best pork I’ve eaten? Nope, but it sure was damn tasty for what it was.
You still with me, readers? I’m almost done, I promise. Actually, E and I should have finished when we got through the entrees, but we didn’t. This was our last meal in New Orleans, and you better believe I was going to get dessert! I’d read mixed reviews about Cochon’s pastries, so we went another way:
Surprisingly light, the chocolate cream and whipped topping floated over the gelatinized root beer- making this a hybrid between a root beer float and a sundae, but better. With a cup of Community Coffee (perfectly brewed, and served with fresh organic cream- so don’t be worried about its appearance, as we were at first, until they told us the deal!), it really hit the spot.
All told, E and I escaped with a bill less than $120 (before tip), a nearly impossible feat to accomplish anywhere else we’ve been in the US with similar calibar of cooking, given the volume of food we ordered. The experience overall was just about perfect- a beautiful room with good acoustics even when full of happy, loud customers; friendly, knowledgeable servers; excellent presentation and quality of food and beverage; and even better prices to boot.
I’m sure many of you have already read up on this gem of a restaurant by now, but I have to add my voice to the chorus. Do not miss Cochon if you’re in the greater New Orleans area. You won’t regret it, though your waistline might.
930 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA 70130