Last summer, I spent four days in New Orleans. That meant that I had to make some tough choices. Knowing that there was a limit on how many times I could eat and that there are over 900 restaurants (not including fast food or national chains) to choose from, I had to make my choices count. I lived in New Orleans for a year in the mid 90s, so I knew that there were a couple of restaurants I had to visit and try a couple of new ones.
After arriving at my hotel in the Central Business District, I ventured into the French Quarter to get lunch. I knew where I was going, so I went straight down Decatur Street to Central Grocery. Call it a cliché, but I had to get a muffaletta. Central Grocery was where I went to get them when I lived there, but, nostalgia aside, it just wasn’t the same. It was a good sandwich, but it was different than I recall. The bread, meat, cheese and olive salad were present, but it seemed like something was missing.
For supper, I wanted to try something new. I had heard about Cochon and knew I had to try it. It was a comfortable walk up Tchoupitoulas Street from my hotel, and I arrived ready to eat. Not having a reservation, I had to choose between the bar and the chef’s bar. With no hesitation, I chose the stool at the chef’s bar directly in front of the wood-fired oven. This seat offered me the opportunity to see and smell everything that was on its way to all the people seated behind me. It took me nearly 20 minutes to determine what to order, but I definitely made an excellent decision.
I had the braised pig jowls, served on what appeared to be a square of cornbread and a side of creamy grits. While I waited for my meal, the chef offered me a cone of battered, deep-fried pig ears. The ears themselves had the texture of fried clams, but with a taste like bacon. They came with a ramekin of dipping sauce that tasted like a mix of honey, vinegar and creole mustard. When my entree arrived, I was surprised by the golf ball sized nuggets sitting on top of the plate. I expected to see a big layer of fat on the jowls, but none was visible. When I stabbed one with my fork, it nearly fell apart. Once I got it to my mouth, I knew I had made the best choice. The meat was so tender and succulent it disintegrated before I could chew it. The flavor was almost beyond description. It was most intense essence of pork that I have ever had. The saying goes that fat equals flavor, but this nugget of porky goodness was as lean as could be. The braising must have rendered the fat away and left these amazing morsels behind. The rest of the dish provided a good balance to the richness of the pig jowls, but I really can not say that I really remember what it tasted like–the jowls were that good.