Friday, August 20, 2010

Croquer: Cochon

Once night fell over the French Quarter, the bayou heat took on a downright sultry character. Storm clouds broiled above as we approached Cochon Restaurant's glowing marquee on a dark corner of the warehouse district, the red hot sign seemingly scorching the thick air.
I had great expectations for Cochon... Following my last visit , I had heard nothing but raves about James Beard Award-winning chef Donald Link (Best Chef: South, 2007), the Cajun comfort of Cochon, and his first restaurant Herbsaint. I greatly regretted missing it, and thus it rose to the top of my to-do list for this trip.
The single-room concrete-floored warehouse was bursting at its bricks with a roar that translated a strong sense of community and much jubilant feasting. Diners filled every table and lined the open kitchen bar, a wood-fire oven blazing behind a roasted suckling pig, which was slowly being carved and served as the night's special.
Though the menu is only one page (same for both lunch and dinner), I found it difficult to focus at all on what to get, from the small plates to the boucherie to the wood-fired offerings... Everything sounded divine. Luckily our group of four decided to start with a handful of starters which eased my anxiety. As did the brisk Sazerac...
The fried Boudin balls arrived first, served with pickled peppers and Abita beer mustard. This Cajun variation on a Boudin Blanc, instead of using sausage casings, rolls the white pork and rice mixture into balls, batters and fries 'em up. Scrumptious!
The Crawfish Pie was only slightly underwhelming to me, but perhaps because I was inappropriately expecting a dish along the lines of Jacques-Imo's intense Shrimp and Alligator Sausage Cheesecake (one of the tastiest things I've ever eaten). This was a personal-sized hot pocket-type pie, to its credit housing a nicely savory crawfish goulash.
My favorite dish of the night (dare I say, possibly the trip?) was Cochon's Wood-fired Oyster Roast. I don't know WHAT they slather on these bad boys, but sell me a bottle, we're talking serious umami. Spicy, creamy, and a touch sweet, the fat oysters are roasted until practically bursting, with a fresh clean flavor that says "aren't you GLAD you weren't foolishly afraid to eat me??" YES.
For my entrée I found myself (as tends to be the case in NOLA) attracted to the bunny dish. The Smoked Rabbit & Greens with Cornbread Dumplings came served in a cast iron pan, the "dumpling" dough (more akin to cornbread biscuits) spooned right on top and cooked in as the dish simmered. The flavors were deep, smoky and warming, my only reservation was over the water that was collecting from the greens, quickly consuming my dumplings and rendering them into liquid grits. I found I had to eat the dish quickly, which I suppose wasn't a terrible thing.
While the rabbit dish is classic Link, the Corn Flour Crusted Ham Hock with Maque Choux & Black Eyed Peas that Bruce ordered was the Big Guns. The rich intensity of the meat here proved to me that Link not only respects his meat, but that he's a true master at preparing it.
The restaurant's namesake Louisiana Cochon with Turnips, Cabbage & Cracklins was winning, as expected. Larry found his pork a tad on the dry side, but Michael seemed pleased with his plate. Like the other proteins, the pork's depth of flavor played center stage here, a monochromatic dish that didn't need any green to feel balanced.
Throughout the meal, mischievous heat lightning occasionally lit the warehouse window panes and by the time our entrée plates were cleared had broken into a torrential summer storm. The idea of battling the elements in our summer clothes (and with my case-less camera in tow) was  less than appealing, so as stuffed as we were two desserts were selected to "pass the time." The Lemon-Buttermilk Pie with vanilla whipped cream was classic and tasteful, but a little lackluster after such an incredible meal.
The Pineapple Upside-Down Cake however surprised us all. Suggested by our server, the cornmeal cake with coconut-lime sorbet & dulce de leche was elegant and tantalizing.
Once the rain subsided (and after I purchased a bottle of Cochon's house-made hot sauce and Link's 2010 James Beard Award-winning cookbook Real Cajun - check out some recipes here) we ducked out into the even more humid night, quickly checking out Cochon Butcher next door before heading back to the Quarter.
Butcher specializes in house-cured artisan meats and sausages - all made on site. The store also offers Cajun specialties like Boudin, Andouille, Tasso, and Cochon's line of condiments.
In addition to the sandwich menu (Muffuletta, Pastrami, Cuban) Butcher offers small plates and salami tastings paired with an eclectic list of wines selected by wine buyer Joe Brian, and seems like a relaxed overflow option for when the restaurant is packed... Which is often, and now I know why.

930 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA 70130-3820
(504) 588-2123
Cochon Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Croquer: Emeril's

After a long HOT walk through the French Quarter, it was time to duck into a cool air-conditioned niche for a bite, and definitely a drink. For our first meal in New Orleans, Michael and I decided that a few of the lunch menu items at good ol' Emeril's New Orleans sounded too good to pass up. Just a short jog up Tchoupitoulas St. from the Quarter, Emeril Lagasse's first restaurant (opened in 1990) and a flagship for the downtown warehouse district scene is clearly a NOLA institution.
The room is airy and light, contemporary by '90s standards, but aging acceptably. The service and table setting is strictly classic, which I always appreciate, one server handing the menu while the other lays your napkin. The attention to detail in service throughout the entire meal was truly impeccable.
Within a minute a server appeared with a basket, retrieving two small items for each of us, a sweet potato roll and a piece of cornbread. While the sweet potato flavor was secondary (or rather, undetectable), I always enjoy a good cornbread, and Emerils' was no exception.
Since this was our first NOLA meal, we weren't going to skimp -even on lunch- and agreed to share a starter. The Abita Root Beer Braised “Fresh Bacon” Salad appealed to both of us, with Red Cabbage Slaw, Crisp Yucca, Radish, Shaved Jalapeno, Goat Cheese, Pork Cracklings and Citrus Vinaigrette. The salad unfortunately suffered from superfluous flavors, trifling cubes of yucca and aimless jalapeno, the smoky delicious pork cracklings dwarfing the mild flavor of the bacon.
We held higher hopes for our mains, which did not disappoint. Michael's "B.L.F.G.T" -comprised of Benton’s Bacon, Butter Lettuce & Fried Green Tomato on Brioche with Boiled Gulf Shrimp and Pommery Mustard Aioli- was brilliant. I'm not sure if I will ever feel satisfied from a BLT without fried green tomatoes from here on. The house made sweet potato chips were also addictive.
But the winner (and what got me to Emeril's in the first place) was Darian’s Chicken & Waffles. Here Fried Organic Chicken is layered on the plate with Sweet Corn-Belgian Waffles, Watermelon Slaw and Crystal Hot Sauce Syrup. The dish is stunning! Aside from my initial disappointment over the slaw (I visualized julienned watermelon - got cabbage slaw with several watermelon chunks), the chicken was crispy perfection, the waffles just fluffy enough, and the maple syrup packing some considerable heat. We were supposed to split the two plates, but I had trouble in the le'go my eggo department.
I left Emeril's smiling and sated, ready to walk and sweat off some calories in anticipation of my next meal...

800 Tchoupitoulas St. New Orleans, LA 504.528.9393
Emeril's New Orleans on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Voyager Bien: Back to the Big Easy

"Yo, yeah dude let's go out and DRINK" the voice behind me boomed, into a cell phone I realized straightening up in my airplane seat. We had landed in New Orleans. I could feel the in-flight-sized bottle of bourbon bubble in my veins with excitement. I don't travel nearly enough in my opinion, and though I just explored NOLA for the first time but 9 months ago I was already back, for an early birthday weekend of Southern decadence in my favorite city for it.
Luckily our hotel front desk was open 'round the clock. We didn't get to Le Richelieu Hotel on Chartres in the French Quarter from the airport until close to 2:00am, and the oldest clerk I've ever seen crept to the box to fetch our key. The hotel was charmingly classic, with a spacious room (which was obviously 'updated' sometime in the '70s) and the convenience of a courtyard swimming pool - welcomed given this weather...
If you've been to the south in August, you might understand why it is NOT exactly tourist season. Leaving the hotel for a stroll around town Friday morning was like stepping into a sunny, maximum-heat steam room fully clothed. But a pretty fabulous one at that.
Every morning in NOLA for me has begun with a chicory coffee from CC's Community Coffee House, a New Orleans-born Louisiana's favorite.
The warehouse-lined outskirts of the Central Business District, once skid row, nowadays is where the hot NOLA chefs au courant house their heavy hitting institutions (several of which I visit, so stay tuned!).
With a cloying -and deadly stiff- daiquiri in hand to battle the heat we explored the antique shops peppered along Decatur to the far end of the Quarter bordering the Marigny.
The Marigny is one of my favorite parts of the city. I've heard it aptly likened to Echo Park, a vibrant and soulful neighborhood still a little rough around the edges.
It's also the home to the justly famed Praline Connection, which beckoned me out of my hangover last Halloween as ghostly revelers headed up the parade outside. Though not for dinner this time, we did pop in for a rum praline...
As if New Orleans hasn't struggled enough rebuilding its tourism post-Katrina, the BP gulf oil spill has thrown another wrench into the machine. But rumors be dispelled, NEW ORLEANS SEAFOOD IS SAFE TO EAT. And delicious as ever. "We had a period where our supply dropped considerably and prices skyrocketed," a server at Royal House Oyster Bar explained, while many fisherman were spending their days on paid cleanup rather than harvesting. For now, 70% of Louisiana's coastal waters remain safely open for fishermen, the most dangerous challenge being perception. And an unclear future. "We also just got these in this week," our server said presenting a 22oz bottle of Abita S.O.S. beer, a "Charitable Pilsner" that will generate 75¢ for every bottle sold to assist with the rescue and restoration of the environment, industry and individuals fighting to survive the disastrous oil spill. (Donate here).
Even with sweat pouring off my forehead, I couldn't contain my happiness trudging around the streets of NOLA. And OH the meals I would fit into the next 3 days! Lord knows it would contain as much local seafood as I could manage.