Return of the native to the Big Easy
December 14, 2013
Although I was born in New Orleans, I grew up in Thibodaux on Bayou Lafourche about 50 minutes west of the city. I couldn't live in New Orleans again after a lifetime in colder climes and dry alpine air, but whenever I return, I feel alive and connected to warm memories. I'm immensely proud of my birthplace, the indominable spirit of her residents and their success in rebuilding a seemingly lost city after Hurricane Katrina.
As a descendant of Sicilian immigrants, food is tightly wound in my DNA. It continues to be a dominant force in my life, so it should be no surprise that my strongest childhood memories revolve around the dining table and of my grandmother Frances' and Joe Manale's kitchen and butcher shop across the Mississippi River in Algiers.
On my recent October trip for a family wedding, I was on a mission to experience two places high on my gastronomic bucket list: Domenica and Cochon. I'm a cynic when it comes to restaurant hype and I'm also a food snob, particularly when it's my hometown cuisine! I had been disappointed during my previous visit in autumn 2012 when I felt condescension and snootiness when we dined; therefore, I was desperate to determine that New Orleans chefs had not lost their culinary souls.
I'm still reacquainting myself with post-Katrina New Orleans. The tempests' effect on the city mirrored that of a devastating forest fire: destruction and loss of life and limb has now given way to a vibrant, exuberant rebirth. The catalyst for recovery? Food.
Two architects of early 21st century New Orleans dining — John Besh and Donald Link — contributed to the city's post-Katrina resurgence through growing their budding restaurant empires. Though born in Meridian, Mississippi, Besh grew up in south Louisiana where a childhood of hunting and fishing shaped his gastronomic journey. Link hails from Cajun country. Accordingly, both men possess a lifetime of Cajun and Creole culinary experiences that are the heart and soul of their popular styles. These culinary masters and many others used the city's treasured cuisine to usher in a new gastronomic age that has become a major driver of New Orleans' renaissance.
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When I was studying at Tulane in the '70s, the Warehouse District between the Garden and Central Business Districts — what we call uptown and downtown, respectively — was not exactly a place to stroll. Driving through the seedy area to get on and off the Mississippi River Bridge was dicey enough. Windows up, doors locked. It was a sad, dilapidated scar on the city. It was also an area prime for development. Other than the famous Hummingbird Grill, dining out in the Warehouse District wasn't exactly an option.
Although a dud of a World's Fair, the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition and the opening of the convention center sparked development on the riverside fringes of the Warehouse District. In 2000, the National World War II museum — a must-visit for locals and visitors — opened and established a beachhead of development in what is now known as the Arts District. Museums, art galleries, hotels and condominiums transformed the blighted neighborhood into a vibrant part of the Crescent City.
The Warehouse District is also home to Donald Link's family of five restaurants — including award-winning Herbsaint — that draw culinary adventurers to the once-perilous streets of the revitalized neighborhood. My destination was Link's popular Cochon and its neighboring "little" brother, Cochon Butcher.
Just a few blocks toward the Mississippi River from the World War II museum, on the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Andrew Higgins Boulevard, you'll find Cochon. Its 1950s-style vertical sign offering "Cajun Southern Cooking" beckons culinary pleasure seekers to enter the rustic, renovated warehouse, now a modern dining establishment.
Wood. That's the first thing that hit me when I entered. Funky wooden chairs, wooden tables, wooden wall-covering. But it's light-colored, perhaps oak, and not oppressive. It's pleasant blend of old and new. As I looked beyond the table of eight doctors and nurses enjoying copious amounts of food, I could see the open kitchen with its wood-fired oven. Quite inviting!
I've discovered ordering a variety of appetizers optimizes my gastronomic exploration, allowing for as many tastes as possible without later waddling out of a restaurant. Cochon's tempting assortment of small plates on its lunch and dinner menu fit the bill.
Imaginative small plates
First something to drink after the 23 block walk from our hotel on the east side of the French Quarter. When I'm not obsessing about Arneis — or unable to order it by the glass — Gruner Veltiner is my go-to aperitif white wine. The Gobelsburger 2011 proved to be a perfect pairing for all our choices.
After polishing off the housemade, warm rolls and butter, we turned out attention to the cured fishplate. Availability of best ingredients dictates the composition of the fishplate.
That day a smoked mullet terrine of sorts, pickled catfish "herring" (their word, not mine), and cured swordfish with housemade oat crackers, capers and pickled onions comprised the delicious choices.
Reka Gomez, our server from New Jersey who possessed a local's knowledge and love of the city and its cuisine, kept the food coming at a moderate pace so we could enjoy the symphony of flavors without feeling rushed. Next up, wood-fire oven roasted oysters.
The six fat, perfectly cooked oysters bathed in chili garlic oil with just the right kick sat on half shells. Usually an oyster is a one-bite experience. But given the layered flavors, I savored each one, nibbling, not biting. This had to last. We discovered that though there were six shells, someone in the kitchen snuck in some extra oysters so the total count was nine. That's our secret.
Next came the crabmeat-stuffed artichoke. This was my least favorite. Although flavorsome, with a sweet heart hidden below fresh lump crabmeat, my grandmother spoiled me forever with her heavenly stuffed artichokes full of seasoned breadcrumbs, Romano cheese and bacon. My Sicilian-influenced stuffed artichoke standards are high.
We then shifted into the realm of what Cochon and Cochon Butcher are most famous for — charcuterie. You must forgive me, but by this time, I had entered into a food trance and forget to note exactly what was on the Boucherie Plate. I do know from the photo I snapped it included coppa, pork rillettes, hog's head cheese and dried cured pork loin made at Cochon Butcher. Slightly sweet and sour pickled green tomatoes and small squares of light, crispy toast accompanied the meats.
As we polished off the last molecules on the Boucherie Plate, we looked longingly at the oyster and bacon sandwich and fried livers and pepper jelly consumed at our neighbors' table. We exercised some modicum of restraint, ordering instead one slice of Pastry Chef Rhonda Ruckman's peanut butter and chocolate pie with spicy peanuts. As it was our anniversary, the house feted us with surprisingly pleasant Adriano Adami NV Prosecco.
Cochon lived up to the hype it's garnered with great food and great service. Donald Link and chef/co-owner Stephen Stryjewski's imaginative menu is a perfect blend of bayou country flavors and southern styles. Next week, we'll visit Domenica and once again explore small plates influenced by Italian "Sunday supper."
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknows best.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.