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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Thursday, February 16, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Cochon Butcher

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.”

Cochon Butcher

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

No reservations

Telephone (504) 588-7675

Website: www.cochonbutcher.com

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