Restaurants: The Donald Link Trio: Cochon, Cochon Butcher, and Herbsaint, New Orleans
Chef expansion is always a precarious dilemma. One formula hits the right notes at the right time for the original restaurant to achieve a certain level of popularity. The food, the service, the atmosphere, the size of the restaurant– everything clicks. However, it is very well known in the restaurant industry that the only way to make a possible profit is to expand. Of course, even then there is far from any guarantee of success. Succeeding at one restaurant makes a chef beloved. Succeeding with multiple restaurants creates a famous chef. Fame brings television exposure. Fame brings photo shoots of July picnics in your backyard in glossy national magazines. Fame brings cookbooks. Fame most of all, brings profit. Or, at least the potential for profit.
Expansion on the other hand also means somebody else is in the kitchen when the heart of the original restaurant is not. What might have clicked perfectly at the original restaurant may not translate at a new spot. How many film sequels have been able to replicate the original film? “Star Wars.” “The Godfather.” (That would be “The Godfather Part II” but not Part III). That’s about it.
With the sudden rise in the past half decade of television chef-celebrities, pioneered in the 1990’s by the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, chef empires have become more prevalent. Diners seek local, sustainable ingredients, yet many also feel at home eating at Emeril’s Restaurant when Emeril is on the other side of the country. It’s fine for the chef to be 3,000 miles away, but the asparagus better be from five miles away.
Some of these national and international empires happen to succeed wonderfully, Emeril’s being one of the better cases, along with the French chefs Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon. Even Shake Shack now can fall into that category. Some chefs have entire empires in cities and each one is unique and thrives, such as Tom Douglas’ 13 strong spots in Seattle. Other chefs expand and must roll back the tide. Puck once had Spago restaurants everywhere and his face was all over the soup aisle and frozen food aisle of grocery stores. Now, you barely hear from Puck except when preparing for the Oscars Governor’s Ball reception dinner. A recent San Francisco Chronicle story described the rise and collapse of Citizen Cake and Orson, the bakeries and restaurants in San Francisco of Elizabeth Falkner last decade, who is one of the most creative and influential pastry chefs in the country.
Unlike fellow American food capitals New York, L.A., San Francisco, and Chicago, where celebrity chefs drive much of the scene, New Orleans is grounded more in its local cuisine and tradition, rather than the famous chefs. Nobody rolls their eyes when Emeril Lagasse and John Besh are mentioned in town, as they are local boys who have done good and their restaurants remain of a high caliber. At the same time, everybody will reply how that you will never see them at their restaurants anymore.
When Donald Link’s name and restaurants come up in conversation, eyes light up. With Drew Brees and numerous other hardworking, loyal public figures in the city, Link has been a post-Katrina inspiration. One local told me on my recent visit how Link was one of the first chefs to return to the city after the mandatory evacuation for Katrina. His original restaurant Herbsaint remained closed, but kept all its employees on the payroll, with no income streaming in to pay them. They still got paid. Link set up a barbeque outside of Herbsaint along St. Charles Avenue to serve the residents returning to the city, with nowhere else to eat and no home to return to.
Like Emeril and John Besh, Link is a local boy who has done very well and makes this region proud, originally from the Southern Louisiana town of Crowley. In an interview, Link even mentioned his most memorable meal being squirrel and dumplings, served with cornbread and smothered greens at his grandfather’s home in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
There is no questioning Link’s prowess in the kitchen. His style is bold and fresh, a perfect marriage of his Louisiana roots through the purity learned from cooking in the San Francisco Bay Area for a few years. Some of New Orleans most vivid tastes emerge from his kitchens. Link also happens to be an outstanding business man, expanding in a creative, judicious way that few chefs have done before. When expanding, be smart about where and how the expansion unfolds. In 2000, Link partnered with one of New Orleans’ leading chefs Susan Spicer (of Bayona) to open Herbsaint on St. Charles Avenue, along the famed streetcar line. Right after Katrina, Herbsaint managed to re-open quickly and Link also managed to open Cochon along Tchoupitoulas with a new chef/co-owner Stephen Stryjewski. Most recently, Cochon Butcher has opened next door to Cochon the restaurant.
An empire? Hardly. Intelligent, prudent expansion? Yes. Each place has its own identity with tremendous heart put into each. Herbsaint is closer to the Business District and a modern take on the French-American bistro with a Southern edge. Cochon is in the heart of the younger, hipper Warehouse District, a symbol for the national trend of nose to tail pig eating and spruced up Southern and Cajun food standards. Cochon Butcher is even more pork intensive, inspired by the European meat butcher shops and delis, yet distinctly chic and Southern in its atmosphere and meats. Really, you can even get a cocktail named “Free Cochon Payton” today at Cochon Butcher. This clearly is a very New World Old World butcher shop.
Herbsaint has white tablecloths and handsome silverware and glassware. The walls feature many still lifes of absinthe bottles, not a surprise knowing the name. The vibe is comfortable upscale, exactly what a somewhat bustling bistro should be. Cochon shows its warehouse past with exposed brick walls, an open kitchen on one end, booths to one side, tables across the rest of the room, and a much more open, brasserie feeling with numerous windows for loft-like feel. Herbsaint’s walls feature absinthe paintings, Cochon’s have…pigs. Both restaurants feature bars with terrific cocktail lists. At Cochon Butcher, you have those excellent cocktails or beer or wine with…a sandwich. At all three, wine and beer lists are trim and strong. At Cochon, a pint of NOLA Brewing’s Hopitoulas IPA is somewhat mandatory to go with the excellent fried alligator. At all three, Rhonda Ruckman, a wizard of a pastry chef, crafts some of the finest desserts a meal can end with.
If I were to bet any money on what might be the next expansion plan, it would have to be a bakery for Ruckman’s incredible creations.
Ruckman’s smoked bacon pralines at Cochon Butcher are magical treats you may find at Willy Wonka’s factory. Imagine the filling of a pecan pie with nubs of bacon in place of pecans. Her chocolate chip cookies are pitch perfect in chip to batter ratio and crisp edges to pillow soft center.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here though. You come to Cochon Butcher to eat meat, whether it’s to buy a pound of andouille sausages, snack on a hot boudin appetizer, or enjoy a more refined, intensely olive take on the muffuletta. Sandwiches shine at this intimate space, especially the knockout, knockdown Gambino, spicy, sweet, and distinctly porky from the house cured meats, pickled peppers and onions, slathered between a pesto-like herb vinaigrette. Pesto as vivid as you’d find in Liguria that is. A close runner-up would be the roasted turkey, piled high as if it were the pastrami on rye at Katz’s Deli, between 7 grain bread, arugula, basil pesto aioli, the sweetest confit tomatoes, and gooey fontina cheese. How about pork belly with mint and cucumber on white? Or a hot dog from a chef whose last name is “Link?” You can’t go wrong.
Herbsaint and Cochon don’t have the bacon praline or muffuletta, but don’t need them. The advice I received from regulars at both destinations could not have been more spot on. Get the small plates. Especially at Cochon. Crawfish etoufee shines, showing a chef who knows his way to the darkest, thickest roux base of the classic regional specialty. If only more of the country could partake in this diminutive flavor punches of seafood. The wood-fired oyster roast, five fist sized revelations, are the oysters of dreams, true pearls of the sea. Kissed with a touch of flame and Cajun spiced butter, the half minute of savoring one of these was the most intensely pleasurable thirty seconds of eating I can recall. The fried alligator in an impeccable crust with chili garlic aioli is right up there, tasting indeed like if a chicken had offspring with a shrimp.
Anything pig or boudin related warrants an order, especially exquisite smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle and a healthy jolt of spice. I could say they are fall off the bone tender. Well, before I lifted up a rib the bone had no meat on it as it had fallen off already. You can go the more refined route too, perhaps a mushroom salad with deep fried beef jerky or go Andrew Zimmer with grilled duck hearts paired alongside fried artichokes or braised gizzards with roasted mushrooms in a liver and bacon jus.
Entrees can falter though after the small plates jubilation. For a party of less than four, there is no reason to look this direction. Rabbit and dumplings had no redeeming merits- the broth wan and flavorless, the same for the starchy biscuit topping and the meat and vegetables in the broth. I appreciated the Louisiana cochon plate, a cylinder of pulled pork with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins. Combine the pork and the cracklins and you have quite the hefty dish, a salt fest that shoots everyone’s blood pressure up many levels.
Over at Herbsaint, the simple sounding housemade spaghetti with guanciale couldn’t be any more different than the roll up your sleeves fare at Cochon, except for the guanciale in the dish. The perfectly al dente pasta is topped with a farm egg poached, then lightly fried with as delicate a crust as the one for Cochon’s alligator. The yolk remains in the egg as a liquid, then gets tossed about the pasta as an addition to the cream sauce, for a brilliant rendition of the famed Rome dish carbonara. No carbonara I had for days in Rome could compare. All of the starters at Herbsaint have that bistro edge to them: lump crab meat with green garlic aioli and English peas or beef short rib with potato rösti and salsa verde.
I was mixed on the butter poached Gulf tuna with a bright addition of Criolla Sella chili and lemon. Being poached instead of seared, the tuna remains rare like sashimi, yet is more of a rose color than ruby red and the taste more of cooked fish. It was a cooked, uncooked tuna that didn’t hit me the way I had hoped.
Large plates here again lack the excitement of the smaller ones, but feature no clunkers like Cochon’s rabbit and dumplings. Duck confit is marvelous over addictive dirty rice and a citrus gastrique that the dish could use more of. The dirty rice quickly absorbs the sauce, leaving none for the confit. When shrimp is on the menu in Louisiana, get it. At Herbsaint, the mammoth shrimp come in a somewhat weak curry broth, over creamed corn.
The spotlight goes to the slow cooked lamb neck, an intensely lamb flavored cut with the texture of a pork shoulder, and the fatty decadence of pork belly. Yes, lamb neck is the next pork belly in more ways than one. The meat comes over an exciting saffron fideo (a Spanish linguine of sorts) with confit tomato. Link certainly knows his rice preparations with the dirty rice and the fideo. The one downside to the lamb neck would be just how lamb flavored and rich the dish is– better at half the size as a starter than a main dish.
Back to desserts. Ruckman is in charge at both restaurants, and again the restaurants differences are reflected in her offerings. Chocolate cream pie and pineapple upside down cake at Cochon. Coconut tart with orange caramel or malted milk chocolate mousse at Herbsaint. I have been baking Ruckman’s banana brown butter tart recipe for years. Her version certainly more refined and leaned more on the excellent sculpted crust than what I seem to create. Mine’s also seems to have a softer, more intensely brown sugar tasting filling. I actually preferred the warm chocolate pudding cake turned very salty from salted caramel and cocoa nib caramel corn, along with cashew ice cream. The pudding cake would benefit even more from a liquid center.
The masterpiece of the dessert extravaganzas? A simple sounding birthday type cake. Usually cake is the first item to skip. Yellow cake, even worse. Here the moistest, fluffiest of yellow cake batters is layered with toffee mousse and a brilliant, thick, powerfully chocolate frosting that no frosting can compete with, speckled with almonds on the exterior.
Service at both is outstanding, consummate professionals at work, always willing to give an extra taste of beer or plan out how best to organize a meal. The one critique could be not having all small plates arrive at once at Cochon and a 15 minute wait past our reservation time at Herbsaint.
So many taste memories and such distinct, unique places hitting all the right notes. Donald Link has expanded the way expansion should be done. This restaurant trio family is one to be studied and inspire other chefs to follow. It’s a bit selfish to say, but maybe Link can expand to California next?