This cute little bistro is definitely doing something right. I mean sure, a chef thinks “I love cooking, I love pork. I’ll take my culinary heritage and a couple of pigs and open a seriously awesome restaurant.” That don’t mean it’s gonna happen but it certainly worked for Chef Donald Link.
On our most recent trip to New Orleans, we made some special arrangements to ensure that we wouldn’t miss a visit to Cochon, the newest enterprise from the man who started Herbsaint. We decided to go for lunch since our schedule was packed.
Walking in, the place was a blend of new and old. The seating was light wood with very modern styling but the feel was kind of like a gathering of picnic tables. The casually placed homemade bottles of hot sauce added to the relaxed, informal vibe.
First on the agenda was a perusal of the cocktails. Yes, I know I said it was lunch but it is New Orleans and not drinking may actually be against the law. The Cochon drinks list is interesting. We sampled a variety including a Mulefoot- Hendrick’s gin with mint, lime and ginger beer; a Dancing Outlaw- with bourbon, Creole Shrubb, and peaches muddled with mint and honey; and finally a Bayou Beer with catdaddy (some sort of fancied up moonshine) and draft Abita rootbeer. This was an excellent start to the meal.
Our waiter quickly brought us over a little metal bucket of rolls as we made our orderin’ choices. Deciding was not easy as most of the menu was extremely enticing.
See, here’s the thing about Cochon. The restaurant has a strong Cajun and Southern style which is good, but what really got me excited was that the chef frequently has whole pigs delivered and then oversees an in-house boucherie where they make their own versions of yummies like boudin, andouille, smoked bacon and other pork goodies. That Fergus Henderson nose-to-tail thing always gets me. How to choose?
We started with what I felt was possibly the strangest item on the menu; a shaved mushroom and onion salad with fried beef jerky and fried lemon. This may have been one of the best salads of all time. The mushrooms and onions were served just lightly sauteed tossed with bits of parsley and a tangy dressing. The fried jerky and lemon added pops of chewy savoriness and bright crispness respectfully. I killed the other people at the table and polished this one off myself.
The lady, freshly resurrected and still an utter okra freak (for good reason I might add) ordered the okra and cornbread fritter with pickled corn and tomato jam. I loved the pickled corn and could have used a bit more of the tomato jam, but I wasn’t crazy about the fritter. It seemed a little doughy and I think it could have used some extra okra. I was out-voted though as both of my dining companions loved it.
Expecting a brief lull between courses, I was surprised to be presented with a big ol’ plate of wood fired oysters. For whatever reason, the kitchen seemed to be flirting with us.
Normally, the less you do to an oyster the better I like it, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Topped with a rich and lightly spicy sauce, these little guys were just warmed through. They were plump, juicy and had a bit of tart heat. We almost ordered more.
Before we could however, out came a crisply fried oyster and meat pie and an extremely intriguing salad of headcheese, baby red mustard greens and fried strips of pig ears. The oyster pie was good. A nice buttery flaky pastry wrapped around an oozy filling of oyster and ground meats with various vegetably flavorants. The meat pie is somewhat of an art in parts of Louisiana and while it didn’t blow me away Cochon can totally hold their own.
Now the pig’s ear salad on the other hand. Damn. I’ve caught myself drifting off in mouthwatering remembrance on more than one occasion. The headcheese was thinly sliced and arranged as a base for the greens. It had a nice, tender gelatin texture and a light, aromatic flavor. The baby mustard greens were soft and adorably delicious. Having mustard greens raw was a pleasant twist on an underutilized but wonderful local ingredient. The fried pig’s ears were the kicker though. Crisp and chewy at the same time, they delivered a pure pork flavor that left me curious about their absence in my life for all these years.
Just as I was regaining my senses our waiter delivered a plate of onion braised pork cheeks with grits and horseradish herb dressing quickly followed by some grilled andouille with sweet potatoes, mushrooms and a pear vinaigrette. Jealousy won’t help I promise.
The pork cheeks were ridiculously tender, falling apart at the merest touch. The grits that accompanied them were rich and pillowy in high grit fashion. The horseradish dressing could have been more pronounced in my opinion as the intensity of the other flavors would have benefited from a spicy foil.
The andouille was nice but fairly unremarkable. I was, however, excited by the choice of sweet potatoes and mushrooms for the sides. The sweetness and earthiness of both ingredients really played to the fatty spice of the sausage. The pear vinaigrette was a good bridge too, adding a bit of zip.
As we all sat back loosening our belts and waiting for the check, I couldn’t help but notice a pile of unidentifiable friedness growing conspicuously larger and larger right in front of the open kitchen. “My god that’s a lot of calamari,” I exclaimed in a moment of pork fuel idiocy.
Robert, our New Orleans guide calmly reintroduced reason, “Dude, those are cracklins.” Thankfully he let “and you’re a moron,” go unsaid. My curiosity piqued, I struggled from my seat and went to investigate. The towering mountain of fried pork skin was like nothing I’ve ever seen. In contrast to the deep caramel brown hunks that one normally finds with excellent cracklins, these specimens appeared to be delicate curlicues of honey blonde.
Coyly, I asked our waiter if they came by the piece or if they were only served with some of the entrees. “Actually, our chef is perfecting his recipe for a state wide cracklin’ competition next week, why don’t I bring you some samples?”
Dear lord, if ever pork rinds were a good idea for desert, Cochon is the place. They were so light with a perfect snap. Well salted and not greasy at all, our small plate full disappeared in an alarmingly short amount of time.
Next time we’ll be back for diner.