I was surprised Mom let me drive in New Orleans on our quick weekend trip to see family. But this was thrilling because I love how I feel like a native in navigating that neutral ground on St. Charles Avenue when you need to whip around onto the median between the two directions of traffic, then bravely confront trolley cars while sitting there on the neutral ground perhaps, waiting for traffic to clear, and get into the traffic flow going the opposite direction.
And so it was that I confidently set out Saturday morning to head toward our ultimate destination of lunch. I had agonized over what our 1 or 2 meals in New Orleans might be for this short stay: Herbsaint? Stella!? Cochon?
Cochon seemed about right. It’s hip. The name is awesome. And it’s French (the word, that is). And dad told me James Beard called the fried oyster and bacon sandwich best sandwich in the United States. I don't even like oysters and that sounds pretty awesome to me. Cochon it was: and I got an on-line reservation for 12 noon on Saturday. I recalled Cochon as being near Lee Circle, which is toward the end of St. Charles Avenue as you get close to downtown to cross Poydras and Canal and into the quarter. Well, it was not there. It was not because when you revisit the web site, as I did upon pulling over, the address for Cochon is not St. Charles Avenue at all but 930 Tchoupitoulas.
Along with all the mystical words that comprise New Orleans geography (street names such as Prytania, Demonsthenes, Terpsicore, Napoleon, Esplanade), Tchoupitoulas is my absolute hands-down favorite. One, you sound cool saying it by the mere fact that you know how and two, it’s a visceral delight to say it. Close to the coolness of “Atchafalaya” but not quite. You can get the pronunciation here. And to the outsider, me, it’s a cool area. Tipatina’s is there after all – back down on the part of Tchoupitoulas closer into town (heading toward the Garden District and Uptown) at the corner of Napoleon. And the street runs all along the Mississippi River, with nothing but a levee separating this warehouse-y street and the river.
By the time we found Cochon the tension in the car was just starting to get a little more than palpable. We were ready to settle in and eat and relax - and get out of the car. There are long banquettes along one side of the restaurant, and our place was there, a table along the banquette. I love a banquette. I am a banquette hog. I always opt for the banquette while trying to look not too greedy or anxious to get the banquette. Ever since an investment banker with New York restaurant scene cred told me not to apologize for wanting the banquette, as etiquette dictates that the woman always gets the banquette, I am more at peace with my banquette mania.
We are handed the menus. And so the fun begins.
Calvin comes over and takes our drink orders.
He points out to me the cocktail menu (how did he know?!) ... perhaps I would like a cocktail? Insanity takes over – relief at just being here, and I say: “Yes- indeed, I'm in New Orleans on a Saturday afternon...why not a cocktail?”
He narrowed down the best choices for me: I went with the Tiger’s Tail. A little voice in the back of my head questioned the wisdom of having a tequila-based drink at noon. I ignored this voice, as I generally do, and was in the end glad I did, even though, in the end, it was right that this was not a wise choice.
But just one look at the cocktail when it arrived told me it was a good choice. Good color on it. Not girly. It looked herbal and healthy in fact.
And then, it happened.
Calvin comes over to take our order. Mom asks Calvin:
“So...how’s the gumbo here?”
Had I not already non-daintily sipped my way to almost done with the Tiger’s Tail in under 12 minutes, I would have wanted to crawl under the table, concerned about Calvin's reaction to the charming inquiry/cross-examination he was in for concerning proper gumbo preparation.
The thing about gumbo is that everyone – or at least in my family – has very, very strong opinions about what a proper gumbo should be. What it should look like, what it should taste like, how dark should the roux be, and how dark is too dark.
What one person thinks is a great gumbo is just not right at all for another person. And you can find a great gumbo in the most unexpected places. To this day, I dream about the gumbo I had at some hole in the wall place on a frontage road to I-10 on the way to New Orleans – somewhere around, maybe Lafayette? Mom was with me. She agrees. That was a special gumbo. We have no idea of the name of the place. Which makes that gumbo legendary now if not mythic.
But I was glad mom asked the question. She and Calvin had a lengthy, interesting
discussion about family history, family gumbo traditions, and the nature of the
darker rather than lighter gumbo at Cochon and how Calvin’s mom made her gumbo.
In the end, Mom did not have the gumbo. And I was glad of this too. I would have had to have another cocktail to deal with the anxiety of whether she would like this particular gumbo and whether this lovely lunch outing with my mom in New Orleans, which was so lovely, would be diminished.
What we did have, in addition to a blast, was great food. Mom loved the oysters on the fried oyster and bacon sandwich. But she admits/confesses, she's not a big fan of bacon. I am stunned. We order more wine.
But the real star of the show? The sides. When I ordered as my side the eggplant and shrimp dressing, Calvin had nodded in approval. “That is exactly what I was
going to recommend for you.”
Grits were the other side we ordered. Grits are another thing my family gets
annoyed by because no one knows how to do them right. Mom and Dad will get all excited about a place having grits and then are deeply disappointed and critical. So at those times when they order such things, deep down I cringe: “No. Don’t do it. Don’t order it. You know you’re not going to like it. You know you’ll be disappointed.” But these grits were right on. And now I understand why mom’s
radar goes on high alert if grits are a side anywhere. But they are never like this. These grits must have had cups and cups of heavy cream. Not a bit of the graininess you may get in a disappointing batch. These are high-end grits.
But the dressing.
We will leave oyster dressing for another day – recall that post from back in December and the ritual of making oyster dressing. This dressing is like that: a bread-based one, that soft texture, but with ample chunks of goodness in the shrimp scattered throughout in hot crusty casserole brought to the table in a miniature cast iron skillet. This stuff does not photograph well, but I'll give it a try. It was delicious: hot, savory, interesting enough to make you take bite after bite after you say no, no more, must not.
And so I did.
We also ordered the Chocolate Cream Pie with Salted Caramel.
It was layers of a thick chocolate ganache it seemed, followed by a layer of salted caramel, followed by more layers, followed by a layer of homemade marshmallow, and then topped with malted milk ball crumbles.
And our big time at Cochon was followed by….a long nap. Because in only a few hours, we would be eating again. And although we need more naps and recovery time these days, at least that eating part and great family memories part about our New Orleans experiences have not changed.