Tuesday, September 14, 2010. Cochon. Groupon. Pat Galloway, who manages the advertising sales for several of our radio stations, including mine, wanted to have a meeting with me and suggested dinner. I suggested Cochon right back at him. Even though the hot Cajun boucherie-bistro is only a few blocks from our broadcasting headquarters, he hadn't been, and it's months since my last visit.
I meet with station executives so seldom--maybe eight times in twenty-two years--that I'm always leery when such a session is scheduled. It's usually inconvenient news. At the last one two years ago, I was told that my station was being flipped to all-sports except for me, and that the call letters were to change from the venerable WSMB to the intentionally confusing WWWL. Inconvenient, I say. Not bad. I'm a very lucky guy as radio characters go.
However, Pat and I kept our focus tight on the main matter at hand: food. He agreed to let me order a whole bunch of stuff so I could walk out of Cochon with a maximum of data. Two rounds of appetizers and a couple of beers first. A boucherie plate contained (counterclockwise from top left) hogshead cheese, Cajun bologna, a hard sausage like a soppressata, and a cured ham roll like a capicola. All of these were made in house, sliced heavy-stock-paper thin (a good thing) and were tasty enough. Also on the plate (and the best item) was pork rillettes and homemade pickles, with some of the restaurant's odd toast shingles. I like the bucket of dinner rolls they bring a lot better.
Picking at the boucherie, I had the same thought I've had in every place that cures and smoked its own meats. This stuff is no better than--and might not even be as good as--premium deli meats from a decent supermarket. But it's many times more expensive, and for a reason. Making boucherie (or salumi or charcuterie) in the relatively small quantities that restaurants do is fantastically uneconomical. In many places, it takes up the time of the executive chef himself--and you can't find more expensive labor than that. The only two exceptions to this effect locally are Domenica and Delmonico, both of which have superb cured meats. But even there the price is a rotten deal.
On to the second round of small plates. Rabbit livers, fried crispy and set on one of those toast shingles, with a great deal of pepper jelly underneath and onions and parsley on top. These were, like all my other samplings of the rarely-seen tidbit (at Brigtsen's many years ago), rich and good. Pepper jelly and liver of any kind is a natural combination. Now here came a fried spicy meat pie, bigger than festival size, and always welcome with a cold beer. (Cochon has a great list of offbeat brews.)
The namesake dish of the restaurant--cochon, the slow-roasted piglet--was incomparably better than the last time I had it, a few years ago. That time was so disappointing I haven't touched it since. But I will recommend it now. It looks like an oversized crab cake, sitting in a brothy layer of cabbage, topped with a knot of ultra-light cracklings. Every part of this was good, but especially the tender shredded pork in the middle.
I'm glad that Pat decided on the ham hock with blackeye peas and okra, because a) I was interested in it and 2) I would have felt guilty had he ordered that on my suggestion. The hock was heavily smoked, which he didn't expect. The rest of the dish would appeal primarily to those who didn't grow up eating this sort of thing. Both of us healthy guys did have moms who cooked this way, but better. I guess a New Yorker would find it exotic.
The waiter persuaded us to get a side dish of macaroni and cheese. I'm not as wild about that dish as most people these days, but this was an exceptionally good version, sent out in a generous black-iron boat. It was too rich to eat more than a third of it, and Pat is on some kind of low-carb diet.
Cochon has a new pastry chef, who tonight was making a fried peach pie, dusted with cinnamon sugar, with some caramel ice cream on the side. Happy ending.
The idea of Cochon--to bring the Cajun butcher-shop cuisine to New Orleans, which lacks that tradition--is brilliant. Chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski are talented guys who cook everything with unimpeachable authenticity. But this is really home-style cooking, and whenever I get the check here I shake my head and wonder how many little restaurants are out there cooking along these lines just as well for half the money.
But it sure does impress those out-of-town food writers, who in the years right after Katrina seemed to think that this is one of only two restaurants in town. (Willie Mae's was the other one.)
After the ham hock, Pat finally got down to business. He was interested in the Groupon phenomenon, and said that the radio station's campaign along the same lines was generating a great deal of sales.
He never came out and asked me to get involved in it, and I didn't volunteer. I am unalterably opposed to the idea of paying for dinner with coupons they bought somewhere, when the restaurant gets little or no money from the transaction. A mix of a priori and a posteriori reasoning tells me that this will never result in the best dinners possible--and that's what I'm after.
I predict that these red-hot coupon promotions will burn themselves out in two years. I've seen it happen many times before, and see no reason why it won't this time, too. Pat says he will ride it for all its worth until then, and I don't blame him.
Cochon. Warehouse District: 930 Tchoupitoulas. 504-588-2123.