I can go right down the line with them -- explaining the differences between Creole and Cajun food, how New Orleans isn't a Cajun town, that alligators don't really leap from the storm drains and into our cooking pots, etc. -- and the hungry-eyed response is still the same. They want Cajun food.
Well, so be it. When the request comes up again, the answer is Cochon, the new Warehouse District restaurant where the Cajun food can be as captivating to the New Orleans palate as it is fascinating to visitors.
The groceries come straight from bayou country and deep South cooking -- ribs, oysters, catfish, greens, chicken livers -- as do the recipes -- courtbouillon, gumbo, rillettes, boudin, spoon bread. It is prepared with creativity and artfully presented in a stylish room for a dining experience that is mercifully free of the clichs or pandering that so often accompany the Cajun theme. In fact, the staff would have to wait on tables dressed in alligator costumes (they do not) to dent the authenticity of the food, much of which begins with whole hogs the restaurant butchers on premises. From such source material is made everything from the cochon de lait to the headcheese to the planks of bacon paired with cornmeal-coated fried oysters on a sandwich that might be the best thing I've had between two slices of toast.
The restaurant is the work of chefs and co-owners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski. Link is also the chef/owner of Herbsaint Bar & Restaurant, which he opened in 2000 with an early consulting assist from his mentor Susan Spicer. While Link is the marquee name at Cochon, the kitchen is more often under the command of Stryjewski, a young New Orleans transplant who worked for Link at Herbsaint before starting this new venture with him.
The chefs have built their menu with just six entrees but almost three times that number of small-portioned starters. So a great way to eat here is to go with four people, order as many of these small plates as you dare plus a few entres and then just pretend you have a lazy Susan at the center of the table and share everything.
Though the restaurant's name is French for pig, absolutely start with seafood -- namely, the roasted oysters. There is a good bit of garlic butter bathing these beauties in their half shells, but their prime appeal comes from the texture of a delicately taut exterior with the meat of the oyster still utterly tender, wet and piping hot within.
That effect is the work of the restaurant's super-hot, wood-burning oven, which is shaped and functions much like the Indian tandoor. It could be the restaurant's secret weapon except that it is positioned right up front in the open kitchen, the raging flames visible through its open maw from across the dining room.
The oven does more magic still with another seafood dish -- the catfish courtbuillon, a classic example of how Cajun cooking can transform relatively humble ingredients into vibrantly flavorful dishes. Tomatoes, onion and garlic are all roasted down to a stew-like consistency, ladled over plump catfish filets and long-grain rice and finished with fresh cilantro and grilled green onions for a satisfying crunch.
Not all the dishes can so thoroughly transcend their low-brow beginnings. The smoked ham hock is more of a novelty dish than one I would order again at $8 a serving, and the eggplant and shrimp dressing was disappointingly plain compared to so many other better choices.
It stands no chance, for instance, against the outrageously good cala, Cochon's take on the old Creole rice cakes. These are savory versions made with corn kernels and green onion embedded in the rice batter, topped with juicy, marinated grape tomatoes. Its single drawback is that it is served as a single cala, rather than the small pile I wanted to work through.
Boudin balls are pushed as a house specialty. Cochon's are very mild without any discernable taste of liver and require the Creole mustard and hot pepper sauce -- both made in-house -- to ignite their flavor. I prefer a straight up link of boudin any day, but I can see how -- in a restaurant setting -- some might find cutting into a dense, fried ball of pork and rice more palatable than squeezing boudin matter out of natural casing, that great euphemism for pig intestines.
The spicy grilled ribs can run the risk of being dry -- one order so much so that the hard flakes of meat threatened a mouth wound. But I wanted to like the dish -- if only for the pickled bits of watermelon rind sprinkled over the sweetly hot sauce painting its surface -- so I ordered it again on a subsequent visit and this time the perfectly tender and moist ribs achieved complete redemption.
Cochon has another rib dish, which is offered only intermittently as a special, with the longer pork ribs coated in batter and fried. Deep-fried pork ribs seem so wrong that I suspect they violate some long-lost biblical dietary instruction yet they were so irresistible we denuded the bones of every last bit of meat and batter.
You can end a meal here city-style or country-style. City-style might be a beautifully prepared dessert like the orange ice box pie -- a cup-shaped serving of delicately orange-flavored ice cream on a crisp chocolate wafer with ribbons of candied orange peel. Country-style could be a shot of corn liquor -- legal "moonshine" -- that is dished out at the bar and tastes a bit like grappa with a drawl.