We still call it comfort food, but the realm of burgers and fries, mac and cheese and apple pie can be pretty rigorous these days. As more fine-dining chefs cast themselves as comfort food champions, the stakes — and prices — for these durable standbys have risen. But just what makes one guy's burger worth more than a ten-spot?
The answer at Cowbell is pretty clear, and the approach overall at this new Uptown eatery is refreshingly straightforward.
Burgers anchor Cowbell's brief menu, and they're made from grass-fed and organically raised cattle. This meat costs more, and so do Cowbell's filling though hardly belly-busting burgers, which begin at $11. Fortunately, the difference registers on the palate as well as the pocketbook. You can taste it in the meat's texture and acidity, in the dense crumble and firmness of this lean yet distinctively flavorful beef. Onion compote is the most upmarket condiment here, but this isn't a burger you want to dress up too much.
Cowbell was opened in December by Brack May, one-time chef at the CBD's now-defunct Cobalt, executive chef at the nonprofit teaching cafe Liberty's Kitchen and brother to Olympic volleyball champion Misty May-Treanor. His wife Krista Pendergraft-May is co-owner and manager, and she's responsible for much of the found-object sculpture and contemporary art decorating the place.
The building has the feel of a border town roadhouse down at the end of Oak Street, very close to the parish line. This hip, Southwestern sensibility plays out on the menu, too. Grilled chicken — sourced from pasture-raised birds — is served with tortillas, beans and avocados, and grilled fish tacos are topped with mirliton slaw.
A first-rate clam chowder makes an unexpected appearance, but the menu sticks close to the comfort food script. The macaroni and cheese is inevitable but also excellent, bound with a rich, smoky, layered cheese sauce. Fries are middleweights, falling somewhere between frites and steak fries. They're good dipped in sweet, thin, house-made ketchup and irresistible when squirted with Cowbell's "agogo" sauce, a spiked-up mayo that tastes like a honeyed aioli.
Beware that the frequently changing "adult" grilled cheese is sometimes too complex and persistently undersized. Even escorted by a mug of soup on the side, it makes an unsatisfying lunch. Meanwhile, the vegetarian burger is thoughtfully crafted with beans, sweet potato, peppers, squash and broccoli all ground together and griddled up. Like the beef burgers, this goes on a potato roll that's buttery and soft yet burly enough to keep its form. Cowbell remains BYOB, though May hopes to have a bar in place by Jazz Fest.
The kitchen has a few steaks from organically raised cattle, though they aren't necessarily grass-fed. For some diners, none of this matters. Some may dismiss the organic and grass-fed items as the trend du jour, but Cowbell caters to people who care about the difference. For those who are merely curious about it, this restaurant provides a very accessible entry point. After all, it's just a burger.