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April 12, 2009


Lobster Ravioli Dominic Armato

It may have been over three months ago and taken far too long to work its way into the blog, but dinner at Biba was something I'd been looking forward to for a very long time.

Close to a decade, in fact! I'm a bit of a Biba Caggiano fan. She may not be as revered as Marcella or as visible as Lidia, but I've always enjoyed her writing and recipes. So when my ladylove first mentioned that she'd be interviewing with a practice in Sacramento, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that the very first thought to cross my mind was that a visit to Biba might be in the making. Though we didn't end up moving to Sacramento, I did get my opportunity when we visited to check out the city before making our decision. And while the food was exactly what I expected, I can't say the same of the restaurant.

AntipastiDominic Armato
Biba (the restaurant, not the signora) is no spring chicken. After teaching classes on Italian cooking in Sacramento for over ten years, Biba first opened the restaurant that bears her name in 1986, at a time when calamari hadn't yet been introduced to the popular lexicon. Over twenty years later, her kitchen still turns out unimpeachable Italian fare, but the restaurant itself is almost a victim of its era. The Biba I knew coming into the trip was one who loved the inherent simplicity in good Italian food. Her sensibilities were borne of her mother's kitchen, corner trattorie and the joy of exceptional ingredients, minimally manipulated. So in preparation for our trip, when I actually visited the restaurant's website, I was more than a little surprised to discover that it's not a warm, casual trattoria but rather a fairly formal, upscale ristorante.

Pork Belly with PearsDominic Armato
I was even more surprised when we walked in the front door, though given that the restaurant was launched when Miami Vice was at the peak of its popularity, I suppose I shouldn't have been. Even more striking than the pink neon sign is the lounge that you pass through on the way to the main dining room, dim, heavily mirrored and featuring live piano nightly. Moving from that environment into the gleaming dining room almost necessitates sunglasses (which, come to think of it, seem kind of appropriate), as it's large, brightly lit and done primarily in white from the ceiling almost down to the floor, including the servers' tuxedoes in between. It's not sterile, but it's not exactly warm and inviting, either. The staff more than makes up for this, however, including Biba herself, who spent most of our meal walking around and greeting what seemed like every table in the restaurant.

Spaghetti ai Frutti di MareDominic Armato
The menu is straight-up traditional Italian, much of it surprisingly simple for the trappings. My ladylove started with a plate of assorted antipasti, featuring a slice of burrata, some manner of cured pork, marinated artichokes, a few olives and grilled bread. This was simple even by Italian standards, but everything was of the highest quality and perfectly delicious. My starter was a little less conventional, and I adored it. I received a chunk of pork belly paired with pears and a bit of frisée, but the technique made it sing. The meat was tender and moist with a luscious layer of fat that dissolved away on contact with the exception of the outermost surface, which had been seared until brown and lightly crisped. The pears were lightly cooked and the frisée dressed with olive oil and an abundance of salt -- perfect foil for the fatty pork and sweet pears. Pork belly is a habit of mine, and I now count this version among my favorites.

Lobster RavioliDominic Armato
There were a couple of unique pastas on the menu, so it was with a little bit of guilt that I chose a basic spaghetti ai frutti di mare for my primo, but I hadn't had one in ages and it was calling out to me. It was perfect, with a mix of fresh seafood, dry pasta with bite and just enough of a velvety tomato sauce that had been infused with the flavor of the sea. What surprised me was that it was nothing I didn't expect. It's a staple of casual restaurants -- one that's frequently dressed-up for upscale service -- but here Biba left it simple and pure, as you might get it from a corner trattoria. Mind you, this is not a complaint. I received exactly what I'd hoped for and I'd go right back and get it again. But like my ladylove's antipasti, I found it a little incongruous with the surroundings.

Rabbit with PeppersDominic Armato
Her pasta was another story. The menu features a stuffed pasta that changes daily, and on this particular day it was lobster ravioli. I only had a taste, but they were dynamite, with a light sauce only barely touched by tomato and a bold filling. This is the kind of dish that is butchered everywhere, made heavy and buried in cream, but here it was beautiful and light. Simple at heart, but more sophisticated in execution than your average trattoria fare. And then, the entrees were right back to the simple and hearty. I went with a rabbit in red pepper sauce with grilled polenta which was the sole disappointment of the evening. The sauce was lovely, full and complex but not too heavy, with a bit of tomato, fresh herbs and spiked with pancetta, but the rabbit was really tougher and drier than it should have been, even if it was still quite enjoyable in this state.

Romaine with Gorgonzola DressingDominic Armato
Meanwhile, my ladylove, not feeling the meat that evening, rounded out the meal with a simple salad consisting of romaine, toasted pine nuts and slices of pear in a gorgonzola dressing. The balance was just what I remember of the salads in Italy. Even when they feature assertive ingredients, Italian salads never seem to forget that they're about the lettuce. The dressing was exceptionally light, the gorgonzola actually supporting rather than smacking you around as it's wont to do, and it was so pleasantly refreshing that when my ladylove went the traditional route, ordering an apple tart with a scoop of gelato for dessert, I went the typically Italian route of finishing my meal with a salad. After those greens, anything sweet would have only beem heavy.

Apple TartDominic Armato
It was a great meal. Simple, beautiful execution, exceptional ingredients -- it was everything I pine for in an Italian restaurant. I just can't get past what seems, to me, to be the stark incongruity between the soul of the food and the restaurant that serves it. There are a few more sophisticated dishes to be found on the menu, but so much of it is so simple that it would seem just at home if not more so on a bare wooden table crammed into the corner of a tiny family-run trattoria. Perhaps that kind of a restaurant never would have flown in 1986, I don't know. But I do know that while Biba Caggiano certainly doesn't need my advice, I walked out feeling as though what she needs to do is open a second restaurant. She's a lovely lady, a diminutive figure dwarfed by her dining room, and I couldn't help but feel that the woman and her food would seem so much more at home in a restaurant that's small, cozy, warm and completely informal, featuring dishes like the simpler ones we had. This isn't a knock on Biba the restaurant. It was a great meal, I was thrilled to have it and I'd return in a heartbeat. But while her restaurant is formal, it seems to me as though her heart -- and her food -- is still back in her mother's kitchen.

2801 Capitol Avenue
Sacramento, CA 95816
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:00 PM5:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 2:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Sat5:30 PM - 10:00 PM

April 10, 2009

New Orleans - Day III

The Original Muffuletta Dominic Armato

With my departure looming and more work to do, day three's adventures were a little chaotic. But in between some last-minute photography and rushing back to the airport, I managed to squeeze in a few more stops. I hadn't originally planned on hitting Central Grocery, but work took me back to the quarter and I love a good Italian sandwich as much as the next guy (more, probably), so I figured I'd drop in for a famed muffuletta. Central Grocery has been around since before the dawn of mankind, when neandarthals Ug and Thak tended the counter, selling Italian cold cuts and huge tins of olive oil to other passing protohumans. Point being: Dude... place is old. And it's awesome, with countless jars of marinated vegetables and sauces, antique olive oil tins lining the tops of the shelves and rows of specials stenciled onto paper signs that were presumably at one time white but now look more like something the Goonies would find in Mikey's attic. There's a dining area in back, but it was crowded with melamine counters and terrible light, so I opted to carry out. After a ten minute wait, I stepped up to the counter, received my sandwich, stepped out the door and found the nearest bench.

MuffulettaDominic Armato
While waiting in line, I'd thought to myself that the $13 or $14 tag (its exact price escapes me at the moment) seemed a little steep for a counter deli sandwich, but the moment the fellow at the counter handed it over the mystery was solved. Big as a dinner plate, four inches thick and wrapped in white paper, I was unsure whether to eat it or stake it to the ground and get the neighborhood kids together for stickball. I resolved to stop halfway through -- an action that goes against every fiber of my being -- tore off the paper and dug into what is universally regarded as a fantastic sandwich. Well, almost universally. Me? I don't get it. It's an Italian deli sandwich. Some nondescript Genoa salami, slice of ham (plain old deli-style ham ham ham type ham), slice of mortadella, Swiss(?!?) cheese and olive salad -- giardiniera that's unusually heavy on olives -- on a massive disk of bread studded with sesame seeds. And it's good. About as good as every other sandwich I've had of essentially the same composition, which is many. If you hail from some region of the country where mortadella and giardiniera are wacky exotic foods nowhere to be found, this is a must-have while visiting. Otherwise? I see no compelling reason to use a meal on this that could be otherwise spent with other New Orleans specialties. I understand the love for the store. It's a trip. But the sandwich, not so much.

Cafe au Lait with BeignetsDominic Armato
I hadn't planned on hitting the famous Cafe Du Monde, but with the smell of fried dough and chicory coffee wafting over from a block away, I couldn't resist. So I sauntered over, parked, and took in the scene and a little dessert. Not that the grub is lacking in any way, but the real charm of nearly 150 year old Cafe Du Monde is the atmosphere, a large covered patio open to Jackson Square where you can sit down for a sip and a bite, be serenaded by street musicians (a classical guitar arrangement of Ave Maria for my stop) and people watch. The house special is a cup of chicory-scented cafe au lait and a plateful of beignets -- pillows of fried dough covered with a truckload of powdered sugar. And me in my black pants en route to the airport. In any case, it's a great little stop. The coffee is smooth and delicious, even if I couldn't pick out the chicory (perhaps for lack of reference), and the beignets, though not as piping hot as I would have liked, were sweet, moist and delicious. Just don't inhale.

Crawfish BoilDominic Armato
Back to work, I spent a couple of hours cruising around the downtown area, and decided to swing through Uptown for one last stop on my way to the airport. Franky & Johnny's is another divey neighborhood bar that specializes in bar food, all things fried and crawfish, when they're in season. It was this last item that I was seeking, so I popped in, took a seat at a table covered with a vinyl red and white checkered tablecloth, and within minutes had a massive pile of boiled crawfish in front of me. This was some serious crawfish carnage. $15 must've gotten me 60 critters. So I got my shell basket ready and got to work. I've had crawfish worked into plenty of dishes before, but I'd never before had a straight-up crawfish boil, which is why I was so hell-bent on squeezing in an extra meal. For those who haven't partaken, you tear off the tail, bite the meat therein and give the end of the tail a strong pinch to release it, then give the head a good suck to get all of the gnarly crawfish flavor therein. The boiling liquid had onions, lemon, a number of spices I couldn't identify and, perhaps above all, red pepper. One thing I learned about Franky and Johnny's is that they don't screw around. Midway through the platter, my mouth was on fire. It was happy, but in significant pain. And I'm no flyweight when it comes to the spicy. Long story short, order beer.

And so, with my belly full of local crustaceans, I hopped back in the car and headed for the airport, feeling that I hadn't had enough time. New Orleans is a great, unique eating town and I could spend a month there and still feel like I was missing stuff. Heck, I didn't even get a great bowl of gumbo on this pass. But I squeezed in some mighty good eats where I could and felt that I did about as well as can be reasonably expected for such a short and busy visit. The hardest part about leaving, really, was the knowledge that I'm unlikely to be back for a long time, and this isn't food you duplicate elsewhere. But hey, I have kids now. And in a few years, they're going to want to go to Disney World. So who knows? Maybe I'll be back sooner than I think.

See also, New Orleans - Day I and New Orleans - Day II.

Central Grocery
923 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
Tue - Sat9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Cafe Du Monde
800 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
24 Hours a Day
7 Days a Week
Franky & Johnny's
321 Arabella Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 9:00 PM

April 07, 2009

New Orleans - Day II

The Reason I Did Not Get To Go to Commander's Palace Last Tuesday Dominic Armato

While Tuesday's work was off to an excellent start packed with New Orleans history, poring through antique photographs of the French Quarter, Tuesday's dining was not so much. Upscale cuisine isn't something I'd normally pursue on a short solo trip, but I had planned to make an exception for Commander's Palace. You can only read so many comments telling you about how it's such a fantastic spot that oozes New Orleans history from every pore before deciding that it's a must-visit no matter how short the trip. Sadly, my shirt had other plans and there wasn't enough time to have it cleaned. So while I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to crash a “jacket preferred” establishment in a collared short-sleeved shirt, my sense of propriety eventually won out and I called to cancel the reservation. I even told the reservationist, with a sigh, that my shirt was unexpectedly not up to the task, imagining that she'd sense the crushing disappointment in my voice and in a stunning display of the warm hospitality for which the Brennan family is known, she'd exclaim, "Oh, that's okay, come on down anyway. We'll seat you in the kitchen!" Unsurprisingly, the call didn't quite live up to my daydreams, and I was forced to make alternate dinner plans. And before I even got to dinner, lunch almost made up for it.

Domilise'sDominic Armato
There were, naturally, a number of things I really wanted to sample while in New Orleans, but heading up the list for no particular reason was a great fried seafood po' boy. And from reading around, it seemed that Domilise's might just be my best bet. Driving up, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I'd just heard this was the place to go, and I grabbed the address online. I almost missed it. A small painted plywood sign tacked to one side of the building is the only indication that there's a business inside. Domilise's is a total dive, a gritty little corner bar in the Garden District Uptown (thanks, Dave!) with one counter that serves up bottled beer, and another counter that turns out sandwiches under the direction of the bar's matron, octogenarian Dot Domilise, and her daughter-in-law Patti. Upon stepping up to the counter, don't be concerned if nobody jumps to greet you. When somebody is ready to make your po' boy, they'll ask you what you're having. I was having a half and half -- fried oysters and fried shrimp.

Domilise'sDominic Armato
Ohhhh, what a sandwich. Exactly what I was craving but even better than I'd hoped. I went with the default toppings: lettuce, pickles, mayo, ketchup and hot sauce. I watched the assembly of the oyster half, and was impressed by the amount of care that went into it. Patti sliced, laid out and carefully dressed fresh French bread with all of the accoutrements, then pulled huge, generously breaded oysters right out of the fryer before gently and purposefully placing them on the sandwich, two at a time in neat rows. Once my meal was assembled, I grabbed a can of soda from the fellow running the bar, parked at one of the six or seven tables and dug in while it was hot. Seriously, I can't imagine this sandwich being any better. Nothing fancy, just perfectly prepared. The bread was fresh and spongy on the inside, light and flaky on the outside. The oysters were huge and plump, fried just long enough to cook them while keeping them soft and juicy. The shrimp, I believe, had a thinner coating, and were similarly perfect, served hot and crisp but pulled before getting tough. And though I get the impression that the inclusion of ketchup is mildly controversial, it receives my official endorsement. The po' boy menu at Domilise's is extensive, but I think I'd need to make three or four more visits before I could get away from the fried seafood. Absolutely dynamite sandwich.

Oyster Po' BoyDominic Armato
With the day already a success, I turned my attention back to work and didn't even give dinner a thought until it was time to rush out the door for a late reservation. My Commander's Palace substitute was a popular little joint just a few blocks away from Domilise's called Dick & Jenny's. The story behind Dick & Jenny's is impossibly cute. Chef meets waitress. They fall in love. They get married and open a restaurant together in an ancient little clapboard house that they paint themselves by hand. Due to unexpected last-minute expenses, the neighbors step in and save their grand opening with a special fundraiser. The restaurant is a smash success, they have a kid and the whole enterprise is pretty much disgustingly cute from top to bottom. And then Katrina hits. Now, apparently, Dick & Jenny have relocated to upstate New York, and the restaurant has gone through at least one ownership and two executive chef changes, the most recent taking place a couple of months ago. Some of the locals, at least, seem to feel the place is a shadow of its former self. And since I have no basis of comparison, I'd sure like to know how it used to be, because it was pretty freaking good last week.

Fried Green TomatoesDominic Armato
It really is a cozy little joint, casual and warm and dimly lit, with a small main dining room and a covered patio out back that I suppose is technically indoors in the sense that you're surrounded on all four sides, but let's just say it doesn't exactly feel airtight. I parked at the worn wooden bar, got a drink in a mason jar and ordered the fried green tomatoes with gulf shrimp, celery root slaw and green onion aioli to start. Great start. Tart green tomatoes were crusted with cornmeal and fried piping hot, then served with cold shrimp, a pile of slaw and a sauce that was more salad dressing than aioli. It was big and messy and as unsophisticated as it was delicious. I'm also a sucker for textural and temperature contrast, and this dish had both. Big flavor, very enjoyable.

Sweet Potato & Sausage SoupDominic Armato
This was but a prelude, however, to a dish that I'm quite certain will make the Deliciousness of 2009. Or if it doesn't, this is destined to be one hell of a year. I'm not a soup lover. I mean, I love soup, but Asian restaurants aside, I order it infrequently. This one, however, piqued my interest. Billed as a creamy sweet potato and sausage soup with crispy yam chips and chives, no sausage was apparent upon its arrival at the bar. It looked like a smooth, creamy vegetable soup. But even though the sausage wasn't there, it was THERE, having been cooked into the stock before being strained out. The soup was thick and intense and densely layered with some seriously big flavors. It wasn't giggle-worthy -- the lobster at Schwa is still the last dish to hold that distinction -- but it had my complete attention. If the yam chips were ever actually crispy, the soup had rendered them otherwise by the time they reached me, and it's too bad because a little crunch would have been nice. But really, this is like making fun of the hairpiece on the guy who pulled you out of a burning car. It's just ungrateful. Bottom line, Day II, Dinner, Second Course, Dish of the Trip (even if the po’ boy above was a very close second).

Duck Duet with "Cypress Knees"Dominic Armato
My favorite restaurant question netted me my entree for the evening, the Duck Duet with "Cypress Knees". And though just about anything would have been a step down from the soup, I had a few issues with this one. It wasn't the most artfully plated dish, not that that's something I care much about, but even I was a little surprised by the giant lump of brown set down in front of me. The “duet” refers to two duck preparations, a smoked and seared breast and a slow-cooked leg quarter, served atop pecan risotto (in name only), a Marchand du Vin sauce and the "Cypress Knees", actually a battered and fried lattice of green beans meant to resemble the funny-looking roots of the cypress tree that stick out of the ground. The breast was REALLY smoky and charred, which I liked, and the rice and sauce made for a very low-note meaty/starchy mouthful that I thought really needed some kind of brightness until I tried the green beans and thought to myself, "Ah, there it is." They'd been either pickled or somehow dressed before frying, and they brought a little bit of acidity that helped immensely. And even without the beans, this was a nice dish, but I had a couple of issues with the duck. On the breast, the fat under the skin was still completely intact, and didn't seem as though it had been released – or even softened -- by the cooking process at all. Meanwhile, the leg wasn't nearly as moist and tender as you'd expect from a slow cooking process, which is too bad because a little succulence would have gone a long way. I wasn't unhappy with the dish. I enjoyed it. But this was clearly the weak link.

I rounded out dinner with a little key lime pie. Not sour enough for my tastes, but perfectly good. Then I paid my tab, waddled out the door, maneuvered my rental car off the shoulder that had been reduced to a quagmire by the torrential downpour that hit somewhere between the soup and the duck and disappeared in time for pie, and cruised down Tchoupitoulas en route to my pillow.

New Orleans -- Day III, on Friday.

See also, New Orleans - Day I and New Orleans - Day III.

5240 Annunciation Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
Mon - Wed10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Fri - Sat10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Dick & Jenny's
4501 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
Tue - Thu5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:30 PM - 10:30 PM

April 06, 2009

New Orleans - Day I

The French Quarter Dominic Armato

Just when you think things can't get any crazier, somehow they always manage. Week before last, my ladylove and I both finalized our new employment opportunities, necessitating -- in short order -- a drive to Cleveland, three day trip to New Orleans, return to Baltimore and two day drive to Boston and back. But as unexpected last-minute business trips go, it's tough to beat New Orleans. Sadly, work didn't leave much time for chow exploration. But hey, a guy's gotta eat, so I substituted efficiency for brute force and tried to make the most of every meal. I only hit about a third of the places on my short list, but managed to have a pretty tasty trip -- a tease, really, given all of the eats New Orleans has to offer.

Jerry's JambalayaDominic Armato
The circumstances surrounding my first trip to New Orleans, when I was probably 12 or 13, have always been a fond memory. On the last night of a family vacation at Disney World, when my little sister and I were feeling low at the prospect of bringing the week's merriment to a close, my father gathered everybody together. He hugged us both, thanked us for a fun time, and told us how much he'd enjoyed our week of fun. Good, clean family fun. A little too clean, perhaps. So clean, in fact, that maybe we needed to dirty it up a bit and stop in New Orleans for a couple of days on the way home. The idea that vacation could be arbitrarily and unexpectedly extended pretty much rocked our preteen minds, and we were in. I don't remember much of that trip other than vague impressions, but the city's charm wasn't lost on my younger self. I was surprised that I could find a place so old, dirty and smelly so captivating, and the fact that it was so delicious played no small part in convincing me that I wanted to return. Soon. But sadly, this was not to be. Besides one other short work-related trip close to a decade ago when Mardi Gras was just a few days away and my enjoyment of the city was significantly hampered by the accompanying crowd, this past week was my first chance to truly check out the city since reaching adulthood, and my first pass as a full-blown food nerd. Needless to say, I had plans.

Mae's Filé GumboDominic Armato
Those plans started, last Monday, with a quick stop at Mother's Restaurant for lunch. After checking into my downtown hotel at 2:00 and having subsisted on nothing but airline issue honey-roasted peanuts and Diet Coke all day, I made a beeline for the nearest place I could land some Creole classics, saving the Cajun for the night. Creole and Cajun, contrary to what seems to be popular belief, are not interchangeable terms. Rather, they're very distinct cuisines that share a little bit of French influence and a lot of local flavors. Creole is a more refined, cosmopolitan cuisine born in the city and influenced primarily by classical European techniques -- most notably French -- and other less prominent immigrant groups common to the area. Cajun, on the other hand, is simple, rustic country food -- meats, grains and vegetables -- as filtered through the impoverished Acadian immigrants living in the surrounding countryside. That they share so many common ingredients and can, through very different paths, be traced back at least partially to French roots makes them at times difficult to distinguish by those who aren't familiar with their norms (and even sometimes, it seems, by those who are), so the confusion is understandable. But they're distinct enough that even the completely uninitiated could taste a series of popular dishes from each and grasp the difference. They may share common flavors, but each has its own soul.

Ferdi Special Po' BoyDominic Armato
In any case, Mother's was my first stop, a New Orleans institution serving the full complement of full-bodied, big flavor stews I was craving. Frustratingly, they left me a little wanting. The jambalaya was the better of the two I tried, moist but not the least bit soupy -- like the paella in which it's rooted -- tomatoey with just a touch of heat and some big chunks of shrimp. Sadly, a little short of hot and a ways short of special, but a fair start. Mae's Filé Gumbo was less exciting. I love gumbo. Preferably thick and intense. And while the flavor was nice, it was borderline watery and didn't have the oomph that I'd prefer. I'm not an authority on the propriety of the spectrum of gumbo thickness, but this struck me as more of a soup (though a tasty one) and left me wanting. Mother's is also known for their po' boys, so I rounded out lunch with a small Ferdi Special, piling roast beef, baked ham and Mother's "debris" on the traditional bread along with mustard, mayo, shredded cabbage and a light "gravy". The debris is sort of a lightly seasoned pulled beef that's moist with the gravy (more of a jus), and while it seems to have earned an army of devotees, I'm afraid I can't count myself among them. As an obsessive fan of the Italian Beef Sandwich, I grasp the appeal, but to me this only seemed like a lesser cousin thereof. Overall, a fine sandwich, but nothing I'll be pining for.

Grilled Shrimp with Chow-ChowDominic Armato
So I walked away from Mother's a little disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were set too high by its reputation, but nothing excited me. After spending the remaining daylight hours wandering around town (photography being the principal purpose for my trip), I headed back to the hotel to clean up for a dinner reservation at one of New Orleans' hottest Cajun/Southern establishments, Cochon. Despite growing up in Louisiana, chef/owner Donald Link took a long, circuitous route through San Francisco before returning to New Orleans to first open Herbsaint, and now the restaurant he describes as his "lifelong dream". Cochon hasn't exactly been flying under the radar. Since opening in 2006, Cochon has drawn raves from both the local press and the national big boys (Food & Wine, Frank Bruni, etc.) while netting a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant and a Best Chef: South win for Link. High-falutin' accolades aside, this is a casual but very design-conscious spot, angular and modern despite utilizing pine(?) for its tables, chairs and benches. The interior may reference the bayou, but this is a hip, big city establishment at heart. The food is the reverse, its soul firmly rooted in classic Cajun and Southern dishes, but paying homage to its surroundings by hitting unusual levels of refinement and frequently arriving in small portions. Link's decision to feature a number of small plates was fine by me, since it gave me an opportunity to sample a number of dishes before reaching capacity. So I parked at the small bar overlooking the kitchen, ordered what I feared would be way too much food and settled in for what proved to be a very nice meal, prepared by a guy who knows his way around a pig.

Hog's Head CheeseDominic Armato
My first small plate -- and small is definitely the operative word here -- featured four charred and smoky shrimp topped with a vinegary green tomato chow-chow heavy on turmeric and mustard seed. The shrimp were just right, and the chow-chow was the first in a litany of pickled items that would cross my lips, all prepared in-house. The dish was nothing fancy, but it was a great start built on the strength of that pickly-sweet chow-chow. The next item to hit the counter was a small gift of the chef, a slice of his Hog's Head Cheese with creole mustard, a few large croutons and bread and butter pickles. Both pickles and head cheese were made in-house, the latter of which was but one of the seemingly endless pork products on the menu. Link, in fact, maintains a small boucherie a couple of doors down, and if there's a part of the pig that isn't represented somewhere on the menu, I couldn't find it. The head cheese was really a wonderful iteration that was clearly borne of a lot of love. Strong with green onion, the slice of unidentifiable pig stuff was porky, gooey, a little gnarly and a lot beautiful.

Fried Rabbit Livers with Pepper JellyDominic Armato
The next plate was one of my favorites of the evening. Battered and fried rabbit livers were set atop more croutons, basted with a sweet and spicy pepper jelly and finished with thin slivers of pickled fennel and huge, whole leaves of parsley and mint. The livers were right on, and a sweet/spicy component couldn't be more appropriate, even if my one complaint would have been that abundance of jelly overpowered the delicate rabbit livers a bit, but what took the dish over the top was the abundance of fresh herbs. It seemed a puzzling choice at first, to almost completely bury the star of the dish under a pile of garnish, but bite one revealed the thought behind it. The herbs weren't minced into oblivion for a splash of color and a little brightness, but featured as equal partners in the dish that would give you a noseful of fresh green on the way to fully asserting themselves on your palate. It was a simple but intelligent decision on Link's part that turned a fried liver dish into something light and refreshing.

Andouille with Limas & Goat CheeseDominic Armato
Since Link specializes in pig partitioning, I hemmed and hawed over what manner of encased pork to sample, and finally settled on andouille. The fried boudin with pickled peppers probably would have ordinarily been my first choice, but my pre-dinner visit to the boucherie around the corner had put andouille on the brain, and I couldn't resist. It was, unsurprisingly, a great andouille, bold and complex and smoky, served atop creamy grits and buried in fresh green lima beans, chunks of tart, salty cheese and herbs that had been lightly macerated and marinated in something I couldn't identify. Before reviewing the menu later, I would have sworn the cheese was feta. But whatever the beast, it was an unconventional and wonderfully effective accompaniment. Here, I briefly flirted with the idea of eschewing an entree altogether and going with 2-3 more small plates, but when you're at a Louisiana restaurant named Cochon, it's hard not to go with the "Louisiana Cochon", especially when it was my server's answer to my favorite pre-ordering question, "what on the menu is your chef most proud of?"

Cochon with Turnips & CabbageDominic Armato
The Louisiana Cochon throws a lot of pig at you. The base is a smoky pulled pork that's formed into a large patty, dusted with flour and then seared brown and crispy on both sides. It's topped with a huge pork crackling and pickled turnips (a jar of which were sitting immediately in front of me on the counter), and sits atop a pile of tender cabbage swimming in pork jus. Though the approach was rather process-heavy, the result was simple, straightforward pork, made delicious by the quality of the animal, the dish's wonderful round flavor, and the fact that it ran the textural gamut from the liquid jus to the soft pickled turnip to the toothsome cabbage to the moist interior and chewy exterior of the cake to the crisp crackling on top. Though showy in appearance, it was a humble expression of pig at heart.

It pained me to walk away. I spent the evening mesmerized by the billowing clouds of smoke swirling around the restaurant's wood oven, and I still regret not trying the wood-fired oysters (smothered in a garlic, anchovy and chile butter before hitting the oven) or the similarly smoked "fisherman's style" side of redfish that landed in front of the patron to my right. And given my proclivities when it comes to porcine facial features, it's a miracle that I walked out the door without sampling the paneed pork cheek with goat cheese, arugula & beet rösti. Point being, there's a lot of stuff here to try. Nothing I had rocked my world, but I received a steady progression of excellent dishes that were made with a lot of care and thought and do a lot to challenge most tourists' notion of what constitutes Cajun cuisine. Throughout dinner, I kept thinking back to the lunch I had at Scott Peacock's Watershed (Warning: ancient post alert), where an unusual amount of care and respect made something special out of very traditional ingredients. He's working a very modern, cosmopolitan restaurant, but like Peacock, Link is deeply in touch with his roots. After a disappointing start, Cochon saved day one with a very good meal for my first night back in an old, old city.

New Orleans - Day II, on Wednesday.

See also, New Orleans - Day II and New Orleans - Day III.

Mother's Restaurant
401 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Mon - Sun7:00 AM - 10:00 PM
930 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Mon - Fri11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat5:30 PM - 10:00 PM