Saturday, March 31, 2012

Beware of People…

(like me) who possess limited knowledge, but possess unlimited opinions. I will be the first to admit that I have no formal education in food. What I know I have learned from hours of watching Food Network and The Cooking Channel and from our almost fours years of eating across the country. But that isn’t going to stop this negative critique of a 2012 James Beard Foundation “Outstanding Chef” nominee.

While in Lafayette, LA, we had lunch at Donald Link’s Cochon Lafayette, a newer
“sister” of his famous Cochon Restaurant in New Orleans. So we were eager to go to the source and eat at the original (above).

The restaurant was almost full when we arrived shortly past noon and remained so for the duration of our meal. Like Cochon Lafayette, the room was paneled in warm unstained woods with an occasional piece of art depicting a rural Louisiana scene.

Seating included a few outdoor tables, a banquette stretching along the length of one wall, a few stools overlooking the open kitchen, and at the bar were low-backed stools which, to me, looked very uncomfortable. And each table was set with a jar of chili-infused vinegar and a bottle of Cochon-branded hot sauce.

The menu in New Orleans was similar, but not identical, to the Lafayette Cochon. Missing were two of our favorites from our Lafayette lunch—the white beans and the grilled sausage and peppers over creamy grits.

As I observed our fellow diners, most were sharing one or more of the appetizers and sides. Few seem to have chosen any of the dozen or so entrees. The couple to my left was lunching on the mac and cheese, twice baked potato, and collard greens.

We knew that we would start with the boucherie tray which on that day included (clockwise from the white cup) a small cup of pork rilet, a slice of hogs head cheese, country bologna, a cured ham, and capicola. All were produced in-house. As in Lafayette, I thought that the large chunks of meat plus the recognizable presence of gelatin was too reminiscent of German head cheese. And, as in Lafayette, the rilet was the star of the plate. This time Chuck was the first to break through the thin layer of covering pork fat and he quickly indicated that, if I wanted any of this, I should eat fast.

Now, what do we order to fill out the meal?

Bear with me now as I present an episode of “The Past Travels of Chuck and Kate.” We would make a point of traveling to the Chesapeake Bay at least once in late spring through late summer. We would catch the mail boat. Well, we could have caught a fancier air conditioned ferry, but we preferred the more rustic—and cheaper—form of transporta-tion that literally carried mail, plants, groceries, and other necessities of life from Crisfield, MD, to Smith Island, one of the two remaining inhabited islands in the Bay.

Our destination was a small restaurant near the boat dock. Our purpose? To eat soft shell crabs. “A blue crab may shed (or molt) its hard outer shell 18 to 23 times during its three year life span. Each time the crab backs out of its shell, it is a soft shell for only a few hours and must be removed from the water immediately in order to prevent the shell from becoming hard” (

We would disembark and immediately go to eat. We would each order the soft shell crab sandwich. When finished, we would order a third to share. And, on more than one occasion, we would follow this with a fourth. The soft shells were just large enough to fill the white sandwich bread on which they were served. Embellishments were lettuce and tomato. If you wanted you could have tartar sauce. But why would you want?
The soft shells were lightly dusted with flour and then pan fried. This was eating at its finest.

In case you are wondering, this is really going somewhere. So the night before our lunch at Cochon, I was again lolling on the sofa and came across an episode of Hook, Line And Dinner on The Cooking Channel. And the host, Ben Sargent was visiting Smith Island. Suddenly I craved a soft shell crab. So I was ecstatic when I learned that a soft shell crab sandwich was one of that day’s specials at Cochon, and we quickly decided to share the sandwich along with the boucherie plate.

But we were soon less ecstatic. First, this was one of the largest soft shells I have seen, and its size may account for our needing to pick pieces of interior cartilage from between our teeth. Second, I suspect that this crab at least had exceeded that two-hour window, because the outer shell was rather tough. But what I question the most was the decision to smother the soft shell under a layer of green tomato, jalapeno, and cabbage slaw that obliterated the sweet taste of the crab. This slaw would have been wonderful on a cochon de lait poor boy where it would have given balance to the rich unctuous pork. But it didn’t work on this sandwich.

I know. Who am I to question a Beard nominee? Well, I am someone who knows what she likes.

We mentioned to our server that we had eaten at Cochon Lafayette. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she said that the menu had to be modified for the—it was implied--less sophisticated folk in Cajun country. Well, we left agreeing that our meal at Cochon Lafayette was far superior and, at least on this occasion, Cochon New Orleans only earned 2.5 Addies.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

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