Pig cheeks and alligator pieces

It was a sunny and unseasonably warm March evening, the sun at that particular, late-spring slant that makes everything look a little more interesting.

We walked from a few blocks away to the restaurant, situated in the middle of old warehouses and car repair places.

At 5 p.m., it was already booked solid and we were early. Asked if we could maybe, possibly have a table now instead of waiting another hour for our reserved time, one of managers complied, seating us immediately.

Cochon, or French for pig, is a relatively new restaurant in New Orleans that has been getting a lot of attention lately. In a town known for seafood, the specialty here is pork. Named by Bon Apetit last month as one of the most important restaurants in America, Cochon has quickly gained that importance with dishes like pork tongue with charred radishes and fava beans. Or the smoked pork ribs, smoked ham hock with herb spatzle, Brussels sprouts and mustard cream, or fried livers with pepper jelly and toast.

The interior of Cochon is warm and inviting, with blond wood walls and yellow orange highlights. There’s a fully stocked bar and chef’s table seating at the back.

I noted the interesting mix of diners, from young hipsters to older folks. Seated around me where two patrons of the former description, with their thick-rimmed glasses and plain white v-necks. To be honest, there wasn’t enough room between tables. “Is this tarragon?!” a man asked his dining partner loudly.

My mood was quickly brightened with the arrival of four warm and glossy rolls with butter.

We decided on the fried alligator with chili garlic aioli, braised pork cheeks with fermented cabbage and field peas, smothered greens and oven-roasted snapper.

What I thought was odd at Cochon was that this time we never really had the same server. A new person would walk by and fill our waters or deliver the dishes or inquire if everything was alright.

But nonetheless, the food was delicious. First out was the alligator, fried nicely and drizzled with that garlic aioli. Never having tasted alligator before, I couldn’t really discern the flavor from the delicious sauce and potent, thin onion slices that were included with the bites of meat, so I decided to peel off the breading and try it sans accompaniment. Yes, it was a grayish hue but the taste wasn’t unpleasant. And they were cooked well, without the chewiness that I’ve heard can occur.

Smothered greens

Next came the smothered greens. These were tasty, with an aggressive molasses flavor. We needed something green for dinner, right?

Out came the snapper and the pork cheeks after that.

The pork was set atop a kind of corn pancake that absorbed the rest of the juice of the dish. The cheeks were wonderfully tender and tasted like the porkiest thing I’ve ever had, which is a good thing. The fermented cabbage pieces on top of the pork were strong and acidic but played well off of the richness of the meat. They looked pretty cool, too.

The snapper was cooked perfectly, with the skin still attached on one side. It was juicy and tender.

Cochon is doing more than its part to upend some stale culinary traditions in New Orleans, leaving the pretense behind as well. The food is rustic Cajun and sets off my culinary cravings whenever I think of it.


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