Thursday, February 24, 2011

wanderlust: cochon

I came to New Orleans on a mission to party during Mardi Gras but as the trip drew closer, I found myself fixated on an entirely different NOLA experience: dining at the lauded restaurant Cochon. New York Times critic Frank Bruni dubbed it the "Momofuku of Mississipi" and declared it one of ten restaurants that count from coast to coast. Our New York-based party came to the same conclusion that Mr. Bruni did upon tasting what Cochon had to offer: we may be ridiculously blessed with good food in the Big Apple but we just don't have anything like Cochon. My beloved New York, with its war against transfat and fitness-crazed inhabitants, doesn't have anything resembling this as far as I know:
This, my friends is Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage and the most beautiful cracklings I've seen on this side of the world ($22). This particular cochon is slow-braised suckling pig which is thereafter shredded and molded into this hefty pattie. As you may have already guessed, I loved this dish mainly because of the cracklings. They reminded me of the chicharon my Mom and I used to buy from Lapid's in the Philippines. Lapid's chicharon is so freshly made that we would get startled in the car with sudden pops from the pork rinds that were still cooking even after being bagged. Cochon's cracklings brought me back to those afternoons spent munching on crispy chicharon with nary a thought of blood pressure nor cholesterol.

The cracklings weren't the only things that reminded me of home. Our meal started with some warm rolls that tasted a lot like Filipino pan de sal. My friends said that as soon as they bit into those slightly sweet, slightly salty and altogether comforting rolls, they knew we were in for a good meal. They weren't mistaken because the food kept getting better from there. I still find myself daydreaming about the woodfire roasted oysters—plump, succulent, and bathed in the flavors of butter, cayenne, chili flakes, garlic and anchovy. So delicious.
The fried alligator ($10), picked solely for the adventure of chowing down on 'gator, was surprisingly addicting. The alligator meat was coated in batter like most Southern goodness but remained tender inside. Coupled with that yummy chili garlic aioli, I just couldn't stop popping those suckers. If you've never had alligator and are curious about it's texture, I would describe it as quite similar to calamari.
Cracklings not withstanding, I have to say the most delicious pork dish of the night was the spicy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle ($10). Those ribs were drenched in flavor and just the right amount of heat, with the watermelon pickle providing a perfect little tart counterpoint. If I ever become one of those crazy millionaires who have food flown to them, you can bet I'll be sending a minion down to NOLA to get me some Cochon ribs. And oysters. And gator. And cracklings. And rolls.
Finally, we also had to try some seafood. One of the specials was a whole fried fish (red snapper, I believe?) with cherry tomatoes on the side. So simple but absolutely perfect. The skin was fried to a delicious crisp while the meat remained soft and flaky. So good.
Apart from the truly wonderful food, I liked the atmosphere at Cochon: sleek but casual, unpretentious but knowledgeable. It's a place where you can relax and concentrate on chowing down on good food without worrying about how you look and which fork goes with what dish.

As if the meal wasn't wonderful enough, Cochon had another unexpected treat in store for me. At the end of our meal, I was completely taken aback to feel a tap on my shoulder, turn around, and find myself staring right at my old high school friend Pia, who happened to be visiting NOLA. She was also on a mission to cross New Orleans off her 30 Before 30 list and was also about to enjoy an epic meal at Cochon! It turned out to be a fortuitous meeting as we all had so much fun partying it up in NOLA for the rest of our stay.

To anyone setting foot in New Orleans anytime soon, I implore you to please do yourself a favor and stop by Cochon. It's one of the most delicious meals I've had in my life and one I hope I'll be fortunate enough to repeat in the future!

I give this one a whole lot of love:

Cochon is located at 930 Tchoupitoulas St, New Orleans, LA 70195. Phone (504) 588-2123 for reservations.

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