Donald Link has been especially busy this year. Along with the debut of Butcher and his on-site event facility Calcasieu, he’s rolled out his cookbook Real Cajun and received a good bit of national media acclaim. Throughout it all, his cooking has stayed honest to its southern and Cajun roots, while his footprint and base of operation in New Orleans continues to expand. And while anytime is a good time to enjoy his cooking, fall is especially attractive as the cooler weather, football and various hunting seasons converge to complement his food in an especially tasty autumnal trifecta.
How do you make a salad more enticing? Load it up with a couple of ham beignets pocked with Gruyere cheese. This is how they do it at Herbsaint. The Baby Greens with Ham Beignets salad also has the added bonus of horseradish in the dressing, which pairs well with the peppery mizuna greens. Among the other small plates, an earthy Chicken and Mushroom Ravioli gets some pop from salty pancetta and some aroma from fresh sage. A special of panéed Rabbit Tenderloin came with baby artichoke hearts and a citrusy dressing whose acidity brightened the dish.
For main courses, the Seared Kurobuta Pork Belly gets paired with creamed corn and cucumber mint salad (a more casual iteration of this composition appears at Butcher, where pork belly is featured in a sandwich with cucumber and mint). A special of Softshell Crab got some oomph from an Asian chili glaze and an interesting slaw of pickled green beans and onions, carrot and mint.
This time around I was struck by how much Herbsaint was and remains a restaurant ahead of its time; it was doing the small plate thing long before it became de rigueur here in New Orleans. I was also struck by the degree to which Butcher’s provisions underscore its menu. But while Herbsaint’s menu is arguably the most elegant, balanced and composed of all of Donald Link’s restaurants, it is Cochon that brings diners a bit closer to his roots.
It had been too long since my last trip to Cochon. But a recent visit found the menu reassuring in that its core elements remained essentially as they were, while the smaller plates had changed, tracking the best of what was available at the time. In any case, I prefer to order a scattershot of small plates, the more to taste and sample, rather than commit to one large entrée (although the namesake Cochon entrée is a constant temptation).
This time around, the chicken livers had been rotated out to make room for those once belonging to rabbits, prepared in the same way (fried) and served with the similar accouterments (pepper jelly, pickled onion, mint leaves and toast). Their flavor was more assertive than chicken, which I prefer, but I was glad to have the opportunity to try them out. A special of fried squash medallions garnished with cubes of pickled Swordfish and Lima Beans made for a Southern-inspired ceviche mash-up. The Artichoke Stuffed Crab was delicious, its shell loaded with an earthy blend of sweet blue crab, artichoke and cheese, accompanied by a rolled-out plank of Pullman bread toasted to a crisp and brushed with garlic and butter. The Fresh Green Bean Casserole gets elevated from its traditional Southern canned roots through Link’s use of fresh beans, and the surprise side dish of the night was the delicious Eggplant and Shrimp stuffing served in a cast-iron pan: rich, spicy and complex. I’ll be making this for Thanksgiving (Link includes this recipe in his cookbook).
The meal was capped off with a Chocolate Chicory Custard, served in a mason jar and garnished with cayenne-infused whipped cream and a pinch of sea salt. Pastry Chef Brittany Water’s big, sweet Southern-style desserts are a great match for the food.
Butcher strikes me as a deli with a bit of an identity crisis. What are we? A bar? A small plate destination? A lunch counter? The answer is all of the above, but without enough seating. The “Swine Bar” concept marries the pork and libations, but where this offshoot of Cochon will really put the hurt on your Visa card is in the meat case. The homemade fennel salami is fantastic, as is the Kurobuta bacon. And now that football is in full swing, there are plenty of items here to pull out at game time. Their pork rillette is tasty, over toast or crackers. Duck pastrami can be heaped on bread rolls for a sandwich, and Donald Link’s chicken and sausage gumbo is for sale by pint or quart. The homemade pickled vegetables go great with the meats.
A recent lunch confirmed that the barbecue pork sandwich is one of the best, if not the best, in town, heaped high on an uncut bun, dressed with coleslaw and featuring German-style potato salad. The wood smoke flavor really shines through. If you don’t want the pig, the cold roast beef sandwich is a winner. The pork belly on white bread with mint and cucumber left me wanting more, however, especially in light of the other great sandwiches. The duck pastrami sliders, grilled evenly and cut into crust-less triangles, satisfy. The pimento cheese sliders are positively addictive – why this Southern favorite hasn’t caught on in New Orleans is beyond me.