Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Friday, June 22, 2012
Committed epicures and corporate road warriors may have been able to come up with a slightly longer list that included Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace, but places now considered American classics like Mosca’s, Central Grocery and Willie Mae’s Scotch House would scarcely garner mentions. All that is now ancient history, of course, but including Acme in a top five of recognizable names is probably still a safe bet.
Friday, April 27, 2012
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Thursday, February 16, 2012
It’s a rare occurrence to find a kitchen
featuring two James Beard Award winners,
and to live up to such accolades, such a kitchen
has to put out food that’s uncommonly superior.
One of my favorite Yogi Berra-isms is, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too popular.”
For several years, one of the more wildly popular New Orleans eateries has been Cochon, a restaurant whose doors I have yet to darken. This has surprised a number of people I’ve talked restaurants with. Hell. It’s even surprised me, especially in light of the fact that I consider founder and original chef Donald Link one of the three top chefs in a city famous for producing innovative chefs at a steady clip.
Link, a local product, got his start at age fifteen scrubbing pots and pans in a scullery before heading west, attending the Culinary Institute of America and kicking around Left Coast restaurants. After a two-year stint as sous chef at Susan Spicer’s Bayona and another California sojourn, Link returned to New Orleans and partnered with Spicer to open Herbsaint, now one of the Crescent City’s most celebrated restaurants.
Link eventually bought Spicer’s interest in Herbsaint and started developing Cochon, a partnership between Link and Stephen Stryjewski, which quickly garnered equal acclaim. Cochon is a curious mix of classic French charcuterie and Cajun restaurant. Even with its airy and spacious dining room, the design of which has seemingly Asian overtones, Cochon remains a tough reservation, a situation compounded by its relative short distance from the National World War II Museum, one of the city’s major attractions.
While neither Link nor Stryjewski can be considered household names in culinary circles, particularly outside New Orleans, their virtuosity hasn’t escaped the attention of the people who determine the prestigious James Beard Awards. In 2007, Link was named “Best Chef – South,” and Stryjewsky received the designation four years later. It’s a rare occurrence to find a kitchen featuring two James Beard Award winners, and to live up to such heady accolades, that kitchen has to put out food that’s uncommonly superior.
Although I had sampled and devoured the charcuterie as an appetizer at Herbsaint, the buzz about Cochon had kept me away. On one hand, it was so hyperbolically praised that I was afraid of having unrealistically high expectations; on the other, the same people heaping the glittering accolades on Cochon were griping about prices. A quick glance at the web told me that (a) while Cochon couldn’t be called inexpensive, (b) the prices weren’t all that far out of line, particularly for the products of two chefs with such solid pedigrees and (c) I shouldn’t take the grousing of tightwads as gospel.
Despite the runaway success of Cochon, it soon became apparent that the restaurant could produce more charcuterie meats than necessary to supply both Herbsaint and Cochon. So using adjacent space fronting on what amounts to a glorified alley, Link and Stryjewski opened Cochon Butcher, a so-called “artisan meat and sWine bar,” an equally logical hybrid of a Parisian charcuterie storefront cross-bred with a pocket New York deli.
An examination of Cochon Butcher’s website made it clear that an initial visit to the backstreet deli was probably the more affordable portal into the two operations conjoined by a common kitchen. Indeed it is, and the Cochon flagship eatery has consequently dropped even farther on my list of “gotta-go” places.
“Charcuterie” is an interesting word with two meanings. Its primary usage is as a collective noun for cold, slow-cooked and sometimes smoked meats, predominantly pork, and its secondary use is the appellation for a small French store selling such goods. While the word may have its roots in France, as much if not more of the charcuterie sold in a charcuterie is Italian in origin. Both the word and the food are far more elegant than their Americanization (or some might insist bastardization) into “cold cuts,” our gussied-up stateside term for sliced lunchmeat.
True European charcuterie (the meat) is a far cry from its American cousin – baloney. More craft than commodity, charcuterie represents Old World tradition instead of star spangled convenience. That classic craftsmanship is on full display at Cochon Butcher, in the refrigerated cases, the hanging sausages and hams, and most notably the plates.
In the same way classic charcuterie uses “every part of the pig except the squeal,” Cochon Butcher seems to extract function out of every square inch of what amounts to its storefront operation. Enter from the alley and the cases are on the left, the ordering counter is below the blackboard menu in the back, and the right wall is crammed with house recipe mustards, sauces and condiments, plus a metal rack overflowing with Butcher merchandise.
The line to and through the deli counter moves quickly, and instead of a number, customers are given images on table flagpoles. While I noticed meats and cartoon characters on the small tabletop flags at nearby tables, I was both amused and bemused when The Sensible One and I were handed our sign, which featured Pee Wee Herman. Were they trying to tell me something?
While Butcher Cochon seems to have one foot firmly planted in a European charcuterie (the store) and the other in a New York deli, the pace isn’t rushed. The time between ordering and our food’s arrival wasn’t so much a New York minute as it was a New Orleans spell. Despite the hubbub of a large number of people in close quarters, the pocket-sized room was inordinately chilly, so we took Pee Wee in tow and moved to a high two-top with a pair of stools in the alleyway.
Because of the extremely reasonable prices for New Orleans, I was silently expecting portions as small as the inside room, so the size of our lunches came as a welcome surprise. Using a “when in Rome” philosophy, I ordered the charcuterie plate, based upon my memory of the appetizer I’d so enjoyed at Herbsaint and as a multi-item test of the kitchen’s chops. On the plate was an assortment of five meats (a pâté, duck pastrami, pork belly, a hard salami and one other, with a name that escapes me), all of which were far better than good, the true standout being the duck pastrami.
The Sensible One ordered the day’s special, a cochon du lait (milk-fed sucking pig) poor boy smothered with a melted gruyere and “frings,” onion rings cut like skinny French fries and thusly named by über-chef Paul Prudhomme. Her sandwich was accompanied by pickle slices and a handful of chips, both of which I suspect were made on premises. While not as long as some poor boys we’ve challenged in the past, like the charcuterie plate, it was a more than generous serving. The combination of layered flavors and contrasting textures proved equally superlative.
A pure New Orleans variation on the cochon du lait poor boy special is the cochon muffuletta that gets extra zing through the addition of traditional Italian Olive Salad. It is found on the printed menu that includes eight other sandwiches, including the Buckboard Bacon Melt with collards on white bread, pork belly with mint and cucumber, and “The Gambino” featuring an assortment of house meats with an herbal vinaigrette served upon bread from Gambino’s, one of the few old-line bakeries left after Hurricane Katrina.
Cochon Butcher’s printed menu is filled out with seven “small dishes” (the trendy New Orleans take on traditional Spanish tapas) including a pancetta mac-n-cheese, headcheese with chow-chow and mustard, and sliders featuring a sweet and spicy brisket or the earlier mentioned duck pastrami. There are sides that change daily and a handful of desserts (as if you could possibly need one after everything else).
While I have little doubt that any meal at the Cochon flagship restaurant could be anything less than wonderful food and a memorable experience, the chances of catching me there are now slim. I doubt their food could be any better than that to be found in their little charcuterie in the side alley, and a look at both restaurants’ websites make it clear that Cochon Butcher is an abundantly better value.
There can even be less doubt that I will frequently return to Cochon Butcher in hopes of every visit being, to use another Yogi Berra-ism, “déjà vu all over again.”
Charcuterie & Deli
930 Tchoupitoulas Street
Open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. -11 p.m.
Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
All major credit cards honored
Telephone (504) 588-7675
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Perhaps that’s a roundabout way of saying that
Mo’s was much better than I expected because
I wasn’t expecting much in the first place.
I doubt I would have ever thought to go to Mo’s Pizza in Westwego on New Orleans’s West Bank if it hadn’t been for my old pal Slider Bob, who has been luring me into all manner of misadventures for more than thirty years.
We were having pre-dawn coffee one morning at the Beagle Bagel in Jackson, Mississippi, when in preparation for an upcoming blog piece, I asked Slider what was the best thing he’d ever eaten in New Orleans. Knowing Slider had been a partner in various Crescent City apartments for more than twenty years, I figured he’d hem and haw, furl his brow and make a dozen false starts before he narrowed the field.
Before that thought could finish taking form in my head, Slider said, “the Muffulatta Pizza at Port of Call.” I was surprised at the speed with which he answered until he said, “or maybe the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House.” Well, I know about the chicken at Willie Mae’s because I had introduced Slider to it on a previous visit. And I knew about the Port of Call on Esplanade, because over the past four decades, I’d eaten several dozen of its near mythic hamburgers, reputed to be New Orleans’ best for years. I vaguely recall having seen the muffuletta pizza on the menu, along with steaks, but had never ordered either one, based on the headstrong belief that if a place is famous for burgers, order the burger.
I told Slider I’d try one the next time I was in town and a crestfallen look came across his face as he told me the Port of Call no longer offered it. The truth is, if someone cooked up an ersatz gospel based around the glory of a muffuletta, Slider would elbow every acolyte out of the way until he became the lead prophet. Hell, the nickname “Slider” was hung in front of plain old Bob when he discovered a magazine recipe for muffuletta sliders and he hasn’t been quite right ever since.
A few days went by and I was Google-ing around New Orleans looking for new places to explore, so just for the hell of it, I typed in “muffuletta pizza,” figuring it might be fairly common in a pizza-crazy town where muffuletta sandwiches are almost as common as a “poor boy.” As it turned out, I could only find one place that offered the pizza-sandwich hybrid, Mo’s Pizza in Westwego.
Westwego is a small working-class suburb on the West Bank, nestled among commercial fishing areas, refineries and other industries that rely as much upon muscle as brainpower. Located on Highway 90 West, closer to the unnerving Huey P. Long Bridge than the Crescent City Connection, Westwego has become an unexpectedly regular stop for The Sensible One and me. The reason for our visits is a collection of tumbledown buildings housing Mom and Pop seafood merchants, where the most we’ve ever paid for fresh-caught 6-count shrimp is $5.25 a pound, a price that’s tantamount to misdemeanor larceny.
About a mile away from the ersatz fish market, a couple of blocks off the main drag stands Mo’s. It’s in a non-descript metal building, painted the color of banana pudding, and there’s nothing noteworthy about it except that it’s probably larger than you might expect for a local pizzeria. With its bland exterior and out-of-the-way location, I can only think of two reasons why the business ever located there: (1), the building was cheap, and (2), no, I mean really cheap.
In planning our visit, I had noticed that local restaurant writer Tom Fitzmorris had listed it as the fourteenth best pizza joint in New Orleans, which sounded promising, but also kvetched about the sauce being “a bit sweeter than optimum,” which did not. To be perfectly honest, and maybe a wee bit snobbish, I didn’t approach our visit to Mo’s with a lot of anticipation or confidence.
One of the nice things about low expectations is that the odds are more or less equal you’ll be surprised when a restaurant is better that you ever imagined, as are the odds you’ll be disappointed in a visit to a place that has a glitzier reputation it can’t live up to. Perhaps that’s a roundabout way of saying that Mo’s was much better than I expected because I wasn’t expecting much in the first place.
Mo’s interior is almost as unimpressive as its exterior. It’s a barn of a room with utilitarian café furniture set far apart to fill the cavernous space. Décor is what you’d expect in such a place: beer neons, Saints paraphernalia, and some football memorabilia scattered about. In a room so long on functionality and short on charm, the checkered vinyl tablecloths become a “decorator touch.”
The menu contains advertising for seventeen local businesses, and a look at the advertisers provides fairly decent insight into the world Mo’s serves. Among them you’ll find a tire center, a tint shop, two bingo halls, roofing contractors, a pooch grooming place, a tanning salon, a balloon boutique and a hock shop among others.
While there may be a raffish charm to the downscale décor and the menu with so many ads it looks like a NASCAR special, it’s important to keep in mind that a restaurant with a predominately middle class clientele doesn’t last in as competitive a market as New Orleans unless it serves better than good food and plenty of it. Mo’s does just that. There may be nothing there that will absolutely knock your socks off, but that’s not what Mo’s is all about and in evaluating a place like Mo’s, that’s something to be kept in mind.
The menu is short and to the point. The place is first and foremost a pizza joint and keeping an informal eye on what people were taking away from the pick-up window, I’d guess that pizza is 90% of the business. There are no surprises on the rest of the menu, it predictably including five appetizers, three salads, a couple of turnovers, three sandwiches and four red gravy Italian entrees. There are also two sets of weekly specials, four desserts, beer and soft drinks.
The pizzas are gargantuan. Being rookies in the joint, The Sensible One and I ordered a small muffuletta pizza. As we waited the twenty to twenty-five minutes it took to be prepared, we watched what other customers were getting for lunch. The vast majority of the guys in there were relatively big and most were dressed along the lines of Larry the Cable Guy. To a man, they were ordering two slices and that was a lot of food.
When our pizza arrived, it was eighteen inches in diameter cut into eight slices. (Taking out a calculator and messing around with square roots, radii and pi, I discovered than the inner 50% of the pizza would still be more than a foot in diameter. An average small pizza is usually ten inches.) For the record, we each had two slices, boxed up the rest and made two more meals out of it later.
The term “slice” is almost deceptive in the Deep South, where it seems most pizza have many more pieces, each sliced smaller. Mo’s pizzas are old-style New York/Boston/Philly “street food” slices. The nine-inch slices have a thin enough crust to roll and walk with. (First fold the tip of the slice until it touches the crust. Run your index finger down the center from the crust, and then use your thumb and middle finger to roll the outside edges in half around your index finger.)
The muffuletta pizza itself is very good. Containing the traditional ingredients of the sandwich (ham, Genoa salami, Mortadella, homemade cheese, olive salad and a traditional olive oil sauce), it’s difficult to either agree or disagree with Fitzmorris’ evaluation of the sauce. If there was any of the offending sauce, the taste was masked if not totally covered up by the vibrancy of the other ingredients.
As this is being written, Slider Bob is yet to make the trip to Mo’s to compare its muffuletta pizza with that formerly offered by Port of Call. I know for a fact that Mo’s is now on his radar and I can hardly wait to heart the evaluation by a man who never met a muffuletta he didn’t like. Having known Slider for thirty years, my guess is he’ll call it “a slice of heaven.”
While I probably would never suggest Mo’s is anything more than it is, namely a working class neighborhood pizza joint, I like the hell out of the place. I like the improbability of its location and downscale interior, and the cooking is solid. One final thing that makes me feel good about Mo’s is that every spring they have “Mo’s Fest,” a bands and food fundraiser, which in its first nine years raised more than $130,000 for the West Westwego Fire Department, the Police Department and Children’s Hospital. There’s something nice about visiting an establishment with its heart in the right place.
While I’m not willing to say that Mo’s is worth the eleven-mile drive from the heart of downtown New Orleans, it’s certainly worth a visit should you happen to be in the neighborhood. Perhaps it’s nothing more than good folks and good food, but what’s wrong with that? After all, man cannot live by fois gras alone.
1112 Avenue H, Westwego
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Accepts most credit cards
Telephone: (504) 341-9650