cochon butcher

New Orleans: Cochon Butcher

Back in 2006, when New Orleans chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski opened Cochon—their pig-centric paean to rustic Cajun cuisine—fans reveled in the restaurant’s whole-hog focus. In a city dominated by more refined Creole cuisine, dishes like fried boudin, hog’s head cheese, or pig’s ear salad rarely appear on menus. But with the recent opening of Cochon Butcher, Link and Stryjewski show that their love of charcuterie doesn’t stop with southern Louisiana’s Cajun traditions. Lovers of French rillettes and Italian salumi should feel right at home here.

Billed as a store and “swine bar,” Cochon Butcher fills a smallish space adjacent to Cochon’s cavernous brick dining room, and it gleams with white tile walls and stainless steel worktables. It’s bookended by a bar, which features a rotating list of vintages by the glass, and a spotless, well-stocked deli case. Sandwiches and small plates dominate the menu. This being New Orleans, one of those sandwiches is a muffuletta with house-cured salami and soppressata, provolone, and garlicky olives and peppers (also pickled on the premises). The Reuben-esque pastrami and sauerkraut on rye gets flattened in a sandwich press, as does the Cuban, made with the Cajun roast pork known as cochon du lait.

A recent special layered duck pastrami with béchamel sauce and Gruyère on crustless slices of white bread, a pile of house-fried potato chips, and pickles on the side. The first bite unleashed a wave of meaty flavor—smoke, savor, pepper—that rippled through the initial blast of nearly overwhelming richness. Halfway through, even the most hearty eaters will need to stop for a breather. Seemingly restrained bar plates—notably the ham-spiked macaroni and cheese and lamb-sausage eggplant gremolata—also pack a substantial punch.

No matter how full you are, however, you’ll be tempted on your way out by that deli case, filled with everything from merguez sausage and slow-smoked andouille to duck terrine by the pound or gumbo by the pint. Partner Warren Stevens and salumista Kris Doll have even tucked in some jambalaya-stuffed chickens and a very surprised-looking suckling pig. Fans of the edible barnyard will certainly appreciate Butcher’s range. And probably walk out with a little snack for later.

Cochon Butcher 930 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans (504-588-7675;

New York City: Matsugen

Obsessed. Lately I am obsessed with a strange dish called bakudan (which apparently translates as “the bomb”) on the menu at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Matsugen, and it’s made me fall in love with the starkly elegant restaurant. A wooden bowl arrives, and you look down into glistening crimson heaps of salmon roe, soft pink tuna tartare, bright orange uni, little lavender tentacles of squid, and a pile of natto (fermented soy beans). A lightly poached quail egg perches on top. You mix in some soy sauce, stir it into a glorious goop, and roll it up in crisp, dark sheets of nori. The result is sweet, salty, silky, and crunchy, all at the same time, with flavors that mutate and morph as you chew. A little cold soba at the end, and you have a perfect meal.

Matsugen 241 Church St., New York City (212-925-0202;

Los Angeles: Luau

Rock promoter Andy Hewitt is intent on bringing the tiki lounge back to L.A. in the guise of Luau, a vamped-up tribute to the defunct original where the Rat Pack and other Hollywood notables used to frolic. Starting from scratch in a new location, he partnered with designer Loree Rodkin, best known for her glam gothic jewelry (Michelle Obama wore her pieces during the inauguration festivities), to give the kitschy genre a little romance. Working with Ben Bassham, a.k.a. “Bamboo Ben,“ grandson of the original Luau’s, she’s combined Turkish lanterns, tropical foliage, Easter Island heads, and lots of bamboo and rope in a way that seems almost restrained (that is, if you’re remembering flaming torches and Polynesian tchotchkes).

Mixologist Jeff Berry, author of Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log, did some sleuthing to come up with a few of the original Luau cocktail recipes. I’m suspecting he tweaked them, too, because the Mai Tai and other exotic drinks are so vibrant and zingy, they could bring back the tiki craze all on their own. But Hewitt has another ace up his sleeve: chef and partner Makoto “Mako” Tanaka, a former executive chef at both Chinois on Main and Spago, who has his own restaurant, Mako, in Beverly Hills. He’s having some fun with the tiki lounge idea, too, keeping the Polynesian theme going but mixing in some Pacific Rim cuisine, plus touches of Japan and France.

Pupu platters? Assemble your own from a list of nouvelle and classic items. There are sticky tamarind-glazed ribs, dainty crêpes filled like tacos with Peking-style duck and bright mango salsa, pulled pork spring rolls, and char siu pork with pea tendrils. Salmon comes wrapped and steamed in a giant banana leaf with coconut rice. Maine lobster gets the wok treatment and a Thai basil sauce. The best main course, though, may be the Wagyu steak—highly marbled (and highly expensive)—from Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, Japan.  

Hewitt and Tanaka are still tinkering with Luau’s menu, which is a good sign. Meanwhile, those dishy cocktails are reason enough for a nostalgic look back on the tiki era.

Luau 369 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills (310-274-0090)

Chicago: The Bristol

These are the dishes that lured me into The Bristol: an heirloom apple salad with big chunks of Manchego; grilled flatbread with bacon and melted onion; an oversized raviolo stuffed with ricotta and a runny egg.

Then there are the dishes that kept me away after my first couple meals: dry chicken wings stuffed with crumbly blue cheese; bland dill-and-sea-salt monkey bread; an even blander watermelon ice.

And then we’ve got the dishes that brought me back for brunch this past weekend: biscuits with ancho-maple butter; braised-pork chilaquiles; a duck-confit-and-potato skillet.

What does it all mean? That, clearly, I’m a sucker for a good menu description—even when the restaurant in question sometimes seems to describe its food better than it can cook it. Although inconsistency was the main thing I took away from my first few meals at The Bristol, my persistence paid off: This joint is way too enjoyable to ignore, missteps be damned.

The brainchild of three Chicago restaurant veterans, The Bristol is almost uncanny in knowing what people want. Mostly that means upscale junk food—Scotch eggs; grilled sardines with aioli; duck meatballs. But it also means a convivial room with two huge communal tables, a good Moscow Mule, and prices that mostly hover around $10 (the most expensive item on the menu, grilled skirt steak with blue cheese ravioli, is only $18). Which leads me to think that as good as chef Chris Pandel’s food can sometimes be, price may be one of the real draws at this place. Sure, I might walk out of the Bristol having had a boring bite or two, but I’ll also have eaten some great dishes without breaking the bank. So I may be a sucker, but I’m still a happy man.

The Bristol 2152 N. Damen Ave., Chicago (773-862-5555)
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