The term “locavore” gets tossed around a lot these days, and diners pretty much expect to see locally sourced this and organically grown that on menus at fancier restaurants around town. More recently though, there has been a shift: casual neighborhood spots that embrace the locavore philosophy without adding too much to the bottom line.
Call it sustainable sourcing, call it trickle-down locavorism – or just call it tasty.
In the case of Cowbell, Chef Brack May brings his ethos from time spent as the former Culinary Director at the local nonprofit and culinary training center Liberty’s Kitchen, along with a slew of fine dining credentials. But fancy fare isn’t the focus here. Instead, May plates up comfort food reconsidered with quality ingredients and pretension gets left by the wayside.
Cowbell is also the first restaurant I’ve heard of that was inspired by both beer and Frank Zappa. (If anyone out there knows of another, please let me know.) “Lagunitas Brewery had a beer called Frank Zappa Ale and I thought, OK, I’ll just do a burger place that has a lot of burgers named after Frank Zappa songs serving the Lagunitas line of Zappa brews – how fun would that be?” The menu practically wrote itself, says May; Sheik Yerbouti was going to be the lamb shoulder burger, for example. Unluckily for May, he got swallowed up in the recent surge of burger-centric places all opening at the same time. “I heard about MVB and a few of the others and was like, oh God, now I’m going to have to do more than burgers.”
In the scramble for a wider focus, May zeroed in on some of his favorite fast foods and decided to recast them using high quality ingredients and sourcing them as locally as possible. Turnips come from seeded deer plots, where the deer eat the tops but leave the flesh untouched. Fresh seasonal fruit, such as grapefruit and blood oranges, come in from Plaquemines Parish. A forager friend recently brought May arugula and other fresh bitter greens from Mississippi. Rabbit and tomatoes are in season now, and sprouts roll in from an urban grower in the 7th Ward. “I ran those with a veg tart paired with a sprout salad. Basically, I used the dough for the apple pie, but with no sugar, and filled it with grilled veggies, then topped it with a goat cheese béchamel.”
Still, the primary focuses, and gateway entrées, at Cowbell are the burgers and fries; as tempting as the specials and other items might be I always seem to revert back to the basics. The patties, made with a blend of house-ground brisket and two kinds of grass-fed chuck, are thick and well seasoned, cooked consistently as ordered and served on perhaps the best bun in town: a chewy potato roll that holds up well against the juiciness of the meat and toppings.
Because the details matter here – the tomato slice, a throwaway garnish at many other places, is a thick slab of ruby-red goodness here. To make a burger even more special, top it with smoked bacon and a farm-fresh egg.
The price points are a notch higher than the typical burger spot, but this is to cover the food cost. “These ingredients are more expensive to source,” May says. “Sometimes I worry about that, but then I go to Whole Foods and see they’re charging $8.95 for their hamburger and their fries are $2.95 á la cart and I’m like, I’m fine. I beat that.” Burger lovers and all those who love good, fresh and simple food should do themselves a favor and check this place out.
If you fall more on the crunchy side of the locally sourced fence, Satsuma Café in Bywater might be your cup of herbal tea. Taking over the space formally occupied by Coffea, this café and juice bar builds on its inherited coffee shop-like ambiance to offer a terrific array of organic juices, salads, breakfast plates and sandwiches. Owners Peter and Cassi Dymond present tempting baked goods such as blueberry muffins with fresh mint, which on my last visit came straight out the oven.
The comfortable environs invite hanging out and sipping on one of their freshly squeezed juices, like a recent lemonade cut with fresh pineapple or a more hardcore option such as The Cleanser, made with beet, fennel, cucumber, lemon and celery. The Kale and Chard Salad was earthy and substantive, given additional crunch with curried sunflower seeds, bite with a garlic-y dressing and unctuousness with a creamy fan of avocado slices. Basil and fennel rounded out the flavors. Lest one fear that the meats aren’t represented here, know that Nueske’s bacon graces the menu and shaved Nueske’s ham amps up their Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast Sandwich – the “green” component provided by a neat touch of basil pesto. Kids and kids-at-heart will like the rotating selection of pancakes, which include Banana Nutella, Pumpkin and a kissing cousin, Strawberry French Toast stuffed with Ponchatoula’s finest back when the berries were in bloom.
More than just a café or juice bar, Satsuma embodies a locavore approach to food backed up with community involvement, such as their support of the nascent New Orleans Food Cooperative, a grassroots effort to provide Marigny with access to healthy food at a fair price while practicing environmental responsibility with sustainability.
At press time the organization was closing in on the targeted number of supporters necessary to open by June, and if you’d like to play a role in this worthy cause visit them online at nolafoodcoop.org.