930 Tchoupitoulas St
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
The theme of country food fancied up by an ambitious chef for a city audience is hardly new, but chef Donald Link and his co-chef Stephen Stryjewski struck gold by making the country food in question specific to Cajun country. Cochon mines the great pig-centric cooking traditions of Acadiana, with plenty of contributions from the larger Southern larder as well. The result is one of the most consistently exciting restaurants in town these days, one that speaks the language of south Louisiana but with unexpected accents. While the cooking is fundamentally simple, it's done with precision and even the most creative tangents here pay respect to the country traditions they tap.
Found in the ground floor of a former industrial building in the Warehouse District, Cochon has a casual warmth. Walls are lined with what looks like cypress siding, befitting the country theme to the cooking. Tables and chairs follow suit, but beware that the latter are rigid and a bit awkward. There's a counter facing the kitchen for solo diners and there are a handful of sidewalk tables. Though this is a high-end restaurant and courts a stylish clientele, it is not dressy. It can feel downright boisterous when it's crowded, which is often.
Servers here are professional but take a more casual approach, one that works with the setting. They generally field questions about the menu well and are friendly and engaging, but don't expect the oiled orchestration of team service. Word has certainly gotten around about Cochon, thanks in no small part to frequent kudos from national restaurant writers visiting town and the awards the restaurant has garnered. During festival times or when big conventions are in town, dinner reservations are essential.
The menu starts with different categories for "small plates" and "boucherie," which here essentially means appetizers dealing expressly with pork. There's still another section for soups and salads. One could assemble a wide-ranging meal of nothing more than these first-course selections and have a very full and satisfying Cochon experience. Many of the great dishes at Cochon start with hogs butchered on premises, which from there go through the age-old techniques of the charcuterie. The boucherie plate is a great way to get a big, round taste of this, combining various house-made salamis, sausages and rilletes. Fried boudin with pickled peppers and Creole mustard is another standard. But pig isn't the only thing going on. Roasted oysters are perfectly cooked and lavishly spiced, bits of fried alligator are revved up with chili garlic aioli and crabs are stuffed with artichoke dressing. A salad of sliced mushrooms, abundant fresh herbs, fried beef jerky and fried lemon slices stands among the best salads I've tried in a long time.
The creative, compelling, smaller first courses tend to outshine the entrees here, but many of these full-sized dishes still do have plenty to recommend them. Catfish courtbouillon is a stew of tomatoes, onion and garlic roasted down and spooned over fat catfish filets. Grilled green onion and fresh cilantro add a vivid crunch. The namesake cochon dish is a dense cake of roasted pork over turnips and cabbage with a sprinkling of cracklin's for varied texture, though I prefer the rabbit and dumplings, served in a piping hot skillet with plenty of rich juice pooling around the meat and dollops of dough. Simpler still, but just plain excellent, is a mouth-testing sandwich built with thick bacon, cornmeal-coated fried oysters and slices of bread worthy of Texas toast.
A spirit of homespun goodness imbues the dessert list, where the root beer parfait, strawberry shortcake and icebox pies have a few twists but mainly serve as classic sweet finales.
The big Southern flavors here go equally well with beer, whiskey drinks and some wines, and the bar at Cochon has these bases well covered. Corn liquor - basically legal moonshine - makes a memorable after-dinner drink.
Cochon is one of those places where at first glance the prices don't seem very high, but where the final reckoning can be substantial nonetheless. Only a handful of entrees break the $20 mark, but the thing is you'll want to have so many of the smaller dishes at $9 or $11 each, and these add up. A couple going whole hog here with drinks to match should expect to spend $120 for dinner.
Though we may not have really known it until it arrived, New Orleans has long needed a restaurant like this. Conceived with genuine passion, channeling deep tradition and hands-on kitchen artistry, well-executed and professionally run, Cochon is a showcase for the flavors of our region that lay outside the thrall of Creole New Orleans, here imaginatively updated for modern, cosmopolitan tastes.