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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


looks amazing- need to get back there.

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