Before Hurricane Katrina, greater New Orleans had 3,414 restaurants. Today, the total is slightly less than half that.
But here’s the most amazing statistic from Tom Weatherly of the Louisiana Restaurant Association: 398 new restaurants have opened in New Orleans since the wind, rain and flood. A few of them may be relocations, but by and large the number represents entirely new restaurants.
“We’ve been kind of surprised by the number of new openings,” says Weatherly. “A lot of them had been planning to open (before Katrina), then the storm hit, but then they went ahead and went through with it.”
One is Cochon, in the Warehouse District not far from the French Quarter. It opened in April, in a high-ceilinged red-brick building lightened with an industrious use of poplar. It’s in slats all across one long wall, and in tables and chairs that in their clean and practical lines suggest a modern update of Ozark furnishings. Brett Anderson, restaurant critic of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, thinks Cochon is the best new restaurant to open in the city in some time.
A tall yellow sign out front says “Cajun Southern Cooking.” Sounds kind of redundant, and I’m not even going to venture into the tricky waters of trying to define Cajun cookery. Donald Link, the New Orleans chef who has earned some celebrity beyond the South with his other restaurant in the city, Herbsaint, co-owns Cochon with fellow chef Stephen Stryjewski.
Here’s how “Cajun Southern Cooking” is defined by their menu at Cochon: Spicy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle, smoked ham hocks with braised greens, sausage with stoneground grits and peppers, fried boudin with pickled peppers, rabbit and dumplings.
For the most part, our dinner was deftly handled. The oysters of the “wood-fired oyster roast” were fiery with the slap of chile sauce; the fried chicken livers looked like McNuggets but had a dark, earthy flavor lifted by the sweetness and heat of pepper jelly; the black-eyed-pea and pork gumbo resonated with richness and heat; and the smoked beef brisket was tender and rich, with a wonderfully sweet and lingering finish.
On the other hand, the shrimp and crabmeat pie was listless, and the “Louisiana cochon” - shredded pork formed into a round not unlike a crabcake - was woefully oversalted, though I loved the cabbage, turnips, peaches and cracklins that accompanied it.
According to our server, Cochon is the only restaurant in Louisiana to serve moonshine. I’m not sure how they get away with that, but I also have been surprised to see people still smoking in restaurants throughout New Orleans, though I understand that is about to change with tighter restrictions. The best of the four kinds of moonshine they serve, she said, is the Catdaddy Carolina from North Carolina. It’s like Italian grappa, she said, but it isn’t. It arrived in a tiny glass, looking and smelling like a votive candle scented with Christmas spices. Tasted like it, too, with nutmeg the most distinctive flavor. It was warm with alcohol, but also surprisingly smooth and sweet. Grappa is potent and bracing, forcing you to take it cautiously. Catdaddy Carolina went down easily. Must be what they mean when they talk around here about the New South.