Visitors to New Orleans walk away from Cochon satisfied, as do younger New Orleans diners. Both groups may be eating these dishes for the first times in their lives. Those of us who grew up with the stuff might be less impressed. There is no question that Cochon makes credible versions of the country-style Cajun meat dishes. I love beans and ham hocks as much as anybody else born on Mardi Gras. I love poor boys, too, but there's only so far up the ladder that everyday dishes can go. I guess what I'm saying is that Cochon--despite its popularity, is not the kind of dining experience I'd call unforgettable. You'd have a better shot at that in Cochon's deli-like junior partner next door, Butcher.
Cochon fills a niche that, in New Orleans, went begging for attention for decades. Inspired by the many small butcher shops found throughout in Cajun country (but rare in the New Orleans area), it cures and smokes its own meats and sausages. With that resource Cochon creates a unique menu. It's related to but different from barbecue. This is home-style Cajun cooking, but the kind made from smoky-cured meats. There are seafood dishes, but they're in the minority on the menu. The result is convincingly Cajun and distinctive, if not memorable.
Co-owner and chef Donald Link grew up in westernmost Acadiana, and from the day he began cooking (in his teens) he wanted to build a menu around the Cajun butcher shop. Before he finally did, he went back and forth in the 1990s between New Orleans and San Francisco, winding up as sous chef at Bayona. In 2000, Susan Spicer and Link partnered in Herbsaint, a very successful French-Louisiana bistro that Link now owns--along with Cochon, Butcher, and Peche. He was assembling Cochon when Hurricane Katrina brought everything to a halt. He finally opened it in 2006--the first major new restaurant in New Orleans after the storm.
It's a former factory, with floors of bare concrete and a battered brick wall along the sidewalk. The rest of the design has an almost Scandinavian look, with varnished, horizontal wood along the back walls. Tall ceilings, interesting lighting, an open kitchen with a food bar, and even a nice treatment of the sidewalk at the entrance (with a few tables out there) complete a handsome, casual environment. The chairs, with their slatted, flat seats, are not comfortable for long dinners.
Listen carefully for specials, which can increase the range of the menu substantially. A meal made entirely from small plates and sides is a good plan. The restaurant has received so much national attention that it's very busy in time of heavy tourism. I would not come here at any time without a reservation.