Being possessed of a genuine Cajun pedigree, I am sensitive — perhaps overly so, I admit — to the use of the term Cajun when it comes to cuisine. In the land of my upringing, the word “Cajun” emphatically is not synonymous with “obnoxiously seasoned,” as it is most everywhere else.
Authentic Cajun cuisine is rustic, simple, earthy and straightforward. The ingredients are what have been traditionally available locally in Cajun country: fresh seafood, pork and beef, crawfish, rice, okra, peas, yams and corn. The seasonings are uncomplicated: salt, red and black pepper, and the “trinity” of onions, bell pepper and celery (in place of the mirepoix that serves as the base of so many other cuisines). Done properly, the flavors of Cajun cuisine are to be savored and enjoyed, not suffered through and sweatily wrestled with.
Thus, I approached Chef Donald Link’s restaurant COCHON (PIG en francais) in New Orleans last night with doubt bred from many disappointing experiences that have taught me through the years that the only good Cajun cooking is in Acadiana.
Only this time there was no disappointment.
Link’s success with Cajun food comes from his focus on a much-ignored aspect of the region’s cooking: Boucherie. As in locally produced pork and beef butchered locally and turned into the most delectable morsels that one could imagine.
In my own home town of Abbeville in southwest Louisiana there were several boucheries that prepared and sold superb boudin (noir and blanc), andouille, gratons (cracklins), sausages, tasso, pork roasts and chops, stuffed chickens, steaks and beef roasts, and every imaginable piece of pig that the law allows (and some that it doesn’t). Hebert’s and Richard’s (that’s pronounced Ree-shard’s for the uninitiated) are the two best in Abbeville, in my opinion.
Where Link succeeds is in evoking the fantastic flavors and textures of the boucherie in his cooking.
The wood-fired oven
The first thing that one senses on entering COCHON is the smoky atmosphere. The chefs cook in a wood-fired oven. Now, one could consider that an affectation in the sense that you just won’t find a wood-fired oven in any boucherie that you visit in southwest Louisiana, but honestly, I can’t argue with the results.
Cochon de lait ready to be carved
My dish was cochon de lait — suckling pig — served on a bed of grits, corn and okra. The best cochon de lait is seasoned by slitting the uncooked meat and stuffing in a mixture of garlic, parsley and other savory herbs, then roasting on a spit over an open fire. The result should be a crispy, cracklin’-like skin and tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat with delicate flavors. And that is exactly what I got. The skin was crisp and salty, a perfect counterpoint to the succulent, sage-y tenderness of the meat.
Lisa's ham hocks with eggplant and shrimp dish
Lisa ordered ham hocks with black-eyed peas and maque choux (sauteed corn, tomato, onions, bell pepper). The ham hocks were dusted in corn flour, roasted and fried. Although they were flavorful, we found them a little on the tough side. Braising would probably have been as kind to the flavor and yet produced a more tender dish. The maque choux was quite good.
We shared a dish of eggplant and shrimp, a concoction commonly found on the Cajun household table, and although it was not traditional in its presentation, it was every bit as good as what one might enjoy on a home visit to Carencro or Erath.
All in all, we found the cooking superior and the atmosphere exceptional. The service was attentive without being intrusive. Our questions were answered knowledgeably and accurately.
Chef Link comes by his Cajun cooking honestly, having been raised in southwest Louisiana and having learned from his German-Cajun grandparents to cook and enjoy the cuisine. He is the author of Real Cajun, a cook book that introduces the best of boucherie in Cajun cuisine for American kitchens.
Be sure you make reservations or you will be disappointed. We arrived a little early and were seated without a problem, but the placed filled quickly around 7 pm. COCHON is located in the warehouse district at 930 Tchoupitoulas, a few blocks west of Lee Circle. Parking on the street did not appear to be a problem, but we found it easier to take a cab in lieu of wrangling with the traffic.
On the way to a full house
COCHON is a restaurant we will visit again. I am drawn to the catfish courtbouillon, fried boudin with pickled peppers, and the pork cheeks. Lisa would like to try the smoked beef brisket with horseradish potato salad and the caramelized onion and grits casserole. We know it will all be good.