Postcard from Tom: Eating well in New Orleans
By Tom Sietsema,
“When people come to New Orleans,” says Donald Link, a chef who owns two of the most popular restaurants in the city that lives to eat, “they want something from here. No one says, ‘I want to get some good Chinese.’ ”
And so it was last month that I spent three days dining (and drinking!) solely in places with local roots — and wishing there were more than three meals a day to do the scene justice. Some tales from four favorites:
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.
Save me a seat and an oyster-and-bacon sandwich.
930 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-588-2123. cochonrestaurant.com. Entrees $14 to $24.
A tip for anyone looking for a good restaurant in an unfamiliar city: Places named after actual people tend to be safe bets.
For proof in New Orleans, you need look no further than Mandina’s in Mid-City, easily accessible on the Canal Street streetcar. Since it opened as a grocery store in 1898, the property, which morphed into a full-fledged restaurant in 1932, has been in the hands of a member of the Mandina family. Specializing in both Italian and Creole cooking, the neighborhood destination with the pink facade is currently owned by Tommy Mandina and run by his daughter, Cindy, a representative of the fourth generation who started writing checks for her dad when she was 12.
Veal parmesan, trout meuniere, custard for dessert: There’s not a trend in sight on the long menu, which hasn’t changed all that much since the restaurant’s early years. Hilda Mandina, who watched over the place from World War II until her death in 1979, is recalled in a salad as well as a cocktail that bears her name. As was the late restaurateur’s preference, the old fashioned is sweetened with a shot of rum.
Each day features a handful of specials. As when Tommy’s father, Anthony, was also around, red beans and rice are served (with Italian sausage) every Monday. On a recent Saturday, I enjoyed some hamburger-size crawfish cakes, zippy with cayenne and red pepper in their seasoning. And look for soft-shell crabs in season. It turns out there’s no turtle in the turtle soup, which gets a generous splash of sherry once it hits the table. (Tommy Mandina says ground veal stands in for the endangered turtle — and has “for about 35 years. I guess I should change that on the menu.”)
Mandina’s got a million-dollar makeover following Hurricane Katrina, which swamped the place with as much as 10 feet of water. The renovation resulted in more seats and a bigger kitchen but managed to retain a sense of yesteryear in the old-fashioned light fixtures and a wood bar that looks as if it’s been around forever.
Much of the staff has been around forever, at least in restaurant years. Chef Isadore Pilart has been making gumbo for more than three decades; manager Martial Voitier has welcomed patrons to the dining room for 24 years. “We treat everybody as family,” says Cindy Mandina. She could just as well be talking about her customers.
3800 Canal St.; 504-482-9179. mandinasrestaurant.com. Entrees $11.50 to $19.95.
Some of the prettiest shrimp I’ve had all year are also some of the freshest, but the sauteed seafood on my plate at Patois turns out to have some competition for my fork in the form of a grits souffle enriched with Manchego and diced sausage.
“This is not farm country, this is fishing country,” says my dinner companion, Brett Anderson, restaurant writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. That’s all the prompt this diner needs to add a spinach salad arranged with nubby, cleanly fried oysters (and a lemony buttermilk dressing) to our order, as well as some fish. Redfish (drum) has the purity of flavor that comes from truly local ingredients, and the entree sports a fine coat of crushed almonds. The fish swims to the table with the support of roasted potato coins and buttery green beans.
By naming his Uptown restaurant Patois, chef and co-owner Aaron Burgau, 37, says he gets to stretch the definition of a French bistro and dig deeper into the melting pot that makes his home town’s restaurant scene so seductive. While the house-baked brioche starts a meal off on a Gallic note, the meuniere sauce on that fish is fueled with satsuma, a Japanese citrus. House-made fettucine takes a Mediterranean spin with preserved lemon and sun-dried tomatoes; sauteed sweetbreads are moistened with a reduction using country ham. Even Burgau’s more rustic preparations are infused with sophistication.
Patois is two small, cream-colored dining rooms, carved from a former house and distinguished with broad windows and a 19th-century clock with mother-of-pearl inlay on the bar level. The understated interior lets you focus on the food, which runs to a Flintstonian appetizer of spice-rubbed, smoke-perfumed lamb ribs topped with green-tomato relish (it’s served on a broad paddle) and exemplary paneed rabbit presented with Swiss chard, mellow white beans and fennel jam for a soupcon of sweetness. Crisp with airy bread crumbs, it’s a life-changing sort of schnitzel, richer for the cake of rabbit and pork confit that also squeezes into the picture.
The perfect southern exit comes by way of caramelized pain perdu. The glorified French toast comes with the essential B’s: bacon-bourbon ice cream and candied pork belly. What a way to go!
6078 Laurel St.; 504-895-9441. patoisnola.com. Entrees $22 to $30.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
“I can tell you right now what I want,” says a diner to his server at the counter of this Treme institution. Without even looking at the menu, the regular sitting next to me requests six orders of fried chicken to go.
If the stranger’s sense of anticipation hadn’t piqued my curiosity, the high-pitched sizzle of cooking oil turning wet-battered chicken into crisp caramel-colored happiness would have done the trick.
Opened in 1957 as a bar (hence the name) by Willie Mae Seaton, who turned the joint into a restaurant in the early ’70s, Willie Mae’s is legendary for that fried chicken, which comes three pieces to a plate with a choice of two sides. (Consider potato salad, crisp with celery, and green beans scented with bay leaf.) The servers know before you do that you’ll need extra napkins to eat lunch and that any meal is better with a slice of cornbread baked in the same kitchen that excels at frying.
Pork chops and smothered veal are also available, but going to Willie Mae’s and missing the chicken is like visiting the bowling alley instead of the Oval Office at the White House. Seaton, 95, no longer works here, but she continues to eat her signature “a couple times a week,” says great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton-Stewart. “She’d eat it every day if we let her.”
The area around the restaurant, including a boarded-up school, is uninviting. The food and folks inside — including hostess Seaton-Stewart — are anything but.
2401 St. Ann St.; 504-822-9503. Lunch entrees $8 to $10.