Link grew up in Lake Charles, where he had the good fortune to live a quarter-mile from both sets of grandparents. Those who were Cajun fed him gumbo, jambalaya and smothered pork; the others, from Alabama, set out plates of rabbit and dumplings, okra, cornbread and ham hocks. When the chef and co-owner of the well-regarded Herbsaint opened Cochon with Stephen Stryjewski in 2006 shortly after Hurricane Katrina, it was with the hope of sharing all those fond childhood memories with a larger audience.
The hearty welcome at the door of the Warehouse District favorite continues at the bar (which makes a fine drink from rye, citrus and sage syrup) and again at one of the custom-made poplar tables in the dining room.
You don’t want to dine solo here. There are too many compelling dishes to explore. There’s alligator, in the form of fried nuggets draped in aioli that’s fired up with chili. Link calls alligator “a good conversation piece for the tourists” (who happen to include celeb chef Mario Batali the April evening I drop in). Fried head cheese celebrates head-to-tail eating, and gumbo tickles the palate with its layers of flavor. Behind its success? “Patience,” says Link of the gumbo’s slow-cooked roux. Rabbit liver spread on toast gets a nice pop from a dollop of pepper jelly.
If there’s one dish you shouldn’t miss, it’s the one that lends its name to the place. The cochon begins with shoulder and belly meat from whole pigs that are butchered on-site and are cooked in an oven until the meat collapses. The meat is picked and simmered in pork stock, from which it develops most of its savor; then it is shaped into a rough patty and sauteed to a fine crisp . . . in lard. The dish gets a bit of a kick from chili flakes and some redemption from the cabbage with which it’s served. It’s fabulous and bound to be even more so after Link and Stryjewski start using pork from their own breed of hogs, now being raised exclusively for them by a nearby farmer and available in 10 months or so.
Surveying the meaty meal on the table, Pableaux Johnson, the author of “Eating New Orleans,” praises the kitchen for its “deep brown flavors.” A refreshing balance comes by way of cucumber chunks, stinging with vinegar and breezy with mint. Yeast rolls recall Link’s youth. (“We had cooks in school,” he says wistfully.)
We close dinner with a wedge of pineapple upside-down cake served with coconut-lime sherbet, followed by shots of moonshine that Link refers to as “corn grappa.” It’s electric.
The brand already extends to a retail butcher shop and deli next door, and soon there will be even more to love. Link and Stryjewski — newly anointed best chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation — plan to open a second Cochon, two hours west of New Orleans in Lafayette, in September. The 240-seat spinoff will sit on an acre of land and feature a deck overlooking the Vermilion River.