They say if you stick around long enough, everything comes back in style. Certainly rich, fatty foods are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Perhaps in response to the government’s crackdown on alleged dietary menaces such as trans-fats, reactionary chefs are doing their part to Fight the Power. Or maybe it’s just that sometimes a person needs to forsake the tofu and tuck into a cloud-like slab of pork belly to truly feel alive. As for myself, I can invent plenty of baroque rationalizations as to why I enjoy these foods in the sauna-like furnace of a New Orleans summer – “It helps replace essential salts” is one favorite – but the simple and honest reason is that they just taste really, really good.
Grilled Boudin Noir at Lüke
Here in New Orleans we’re lucky to have a couple of places that focus on the art of charcuterie, a broad discipline of meat preparations encompassing rillettes, pâtés, terrines and bacon, among other things. Many of these methods were originally devised to help preserve meats in the days before Sub-Zeros and air conditioning. Terrines and pâtés in particular span a wonderful spectrum, from humble farmhouse fare to opulent preparations incorporating luxury ingredients like foie gras and truffles.
At Lüke on St. Charles Avenue, Partnering Chef Jared Tees puts forth a bounty of charcuterie items both rustic and refined. An earthy Pâté de Campagne of Texas Wild Boar presents two thick, fat-ringed slices on a wood cutting board alongside toasted, crusty bread. Accompanied by halved cornichons, mustard and house-made marmalade, pickled watermelon rinds in shades of yellow and red provide crispness and snap. Two triangles of an ephemeral Foie Gras Terrine came garnished with tiny pearls of wine gelée and coarse sea salt. Eaten on toasted brioche points, it practically evaporates on the tongue.
The Pied de Cochon – three crisply-fried spheres containing succulent shreds of pig’s trotter – were topped with microgreens and served on a bed of herbed Gribiche sauce. The microgreens added a welcome touch, contributing herbaceous notes to a meal that was rapidly becoming alarmingly meat-centric.
Bite-sized morsels of authentic Grilled Boudin Noir came garnished with a dollop of spicy mustard and a fried sage leaf. Lean and lightly-bound, the darkly colored sausage was richly flavored. An accompaniment of apple, bacon and potato hash was served alongside in its own small copper pot.
For main courses, Lüke offers daily specials like Wednesday’s Choucroûte Maison, a cast-iron skillet brimming with a napoleon-like slab of short rib, pan-crisped pork belly and ruby-hued cubes of pork knuckle atop a bed of sauerkraut. The Allen Benton bacon boasted incredible depth and smokiness. To borrow a phrase from writer and bacon blogger Chris Onstad, “Eating this meat is like eating camping – put the morsel in your mouth and you are in a cheap sleeping bag again, drunk, slightly confused and thirsty.” A single red potato was also included but I made sure to carefully eat around it.
Save for this anomalous potato, overall I navigated this meal with barely a vegetable in sight, for only the demented would refer to sauerkraut as such. But it’s important to note that the sauerkraut contributed essential acidity, cutting through the fat on my tongue like a sorbet for carnivores, allowing for multiple opportunities to coat it again.
At Cochon, I finally did what I’ve wanted to do for a very long time: I sat down and ordered the entire Boucherie section of the menu. Vegetables? Hah! The closest thing on the table were pickled watermelon rinds and assertive banana pepper rings – items that had surrendered their true vegetable natures a long time ago to serve a higher purpose as accessories for pork.
As a single dish, the Boucherie Plate offers diners a rotating sample of items, some of which are not otherwise on the menu, so this is a good place to start. This iteration came with jowl bacon, which was thick, crispy and tongue-pricklingly salty. Also included were a few pink slices of a mild tasso. Lean, glossy slices of salumi were cut razor-thin, boasting a lot of surface area to maximize the flavor. A few shimmering sheets of Prosciutto-like speck ham and a ramekin of pork rillette were also included, and rounding it out was hogshead cheese – rustic in texture and deeply spiced.
The Fried Boudin is a staple on my visits, and I had them again this time; the delicate spheres have a giblety tang akin to dirty rice. The Grilled Pork Ribs were spicier than on prior visits, slathered with more sauce and providing a longer burn. A garnish of diced pickled watermelon rind was much sweeter than Lüke’s version, almost like bread and butter chips.
An order of smoky andouille and grilled medallions of sweet potato dressed in a black-eyed pea vinaigrette was enlightened by fresh mint and broadleaf parsley. This made for a composed dish that allowed for some brightness and other dimensions than straight-up meat alone. Other than this, it was all pork. Asked if he enjoyed working among such temptations, our server remarked, “I love it here. Sometimes I feel like Homer Simpson.”
Another chef specializing in charcuterie is the peripatetic Peter Vasquez, formerly of Marisol’s. These days he holds court at Bacchanal, a wine shop tucked away deep in Bywater. There in the lush, tropically planted backyard, Vasquez works a battery of grills to turn out an assortment of tapas on Friday evenings and themed dinners on Sundays. More like a backyard cookout than a restaurant, live music and a laid back, bohemian atmosphere reigns at this quasi-underground New Orleans dining experience. If they aren’t featured on the oft-changing menus, Vasquez’s elaborate pâtés and terrines can be purchased from a cooler up front. Some of Vasquez’s creations include a Terrine de Campagne “Paysenne” with ham and mushrooms, underscored with silky chicken liver. A Pork Terrine with Smoked Duck Breast and Armagnac-soaked Prunes is more elegant and complex and a third with Merguez, Lemon Preserves and Harissa is exotically spiced and makes for an interesting departure by nature of its unusual flavor profile.
Another great place to sample his wares is the St. James Cheese Company on Prytania Street, which offers an excellent charcuterie plate including Vasquez’s pâtés, Stryjewski’s (of Cochon) cured meats and excellent imported cheeses you can’t get anywhere else. Enjoyed with a glass of wine from the Wine Seller next door, this makes for a decadent and delicious culinary trifecta.
Indulge in Richness
333 St. Charles Ave.
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
600 Poland Ave.
St. James Cheese Company
5004 Prytania St.