In the recent remodeling of The Cookhouse — it’s now all chic shades of grey and white with new seating and lighting — chef-owner Pieter Sypesteyn has also taken a stab at modernizing the New Orleans-based menu.
Good thing he didn’t toss the beignets out with the bathwater.
There’s still a gumbo at The Cookhouse, and the utterly addicting fried boudin balls with slaw and house pickles remain. However, the classic red beans and rice underwent a transformation. While I enjoyed the rounds of andouille and a smoldering, earthy gravy flecked with thyme, my one thought was the dish could present the beans a tad less trendily al dente. Even so, that won’t keep me from ordering it again.
As part of the reimagining of the menu, several small plates explore life outside New Orleans’ wards. One such offering is the blackened Hamachi crudo, also to be found on the Happy Hour menu. The sauce that holds it all together — soybeans, avocado slices, an unexpected green papaya salad, barely cooked Hamachi — is Filipino, a blend of soy with lemon, green onion and chile. But it’s so discreetly applied you’d hardly know it was there. There’s less success with the sweet potato ravioli, a dish that could be thought of as combining both the African and Italian influences on the Crescent City. My serving was embarrassingly small and was dominated by sweet amaretto. The morsels of house-made, charred marshmallow were cute but only reinforced the sense of sweetness.
I had also hoped for a little more from the Mexican street squash. Blackened butternut is not something I’d expect to find on a street anywhere in Mexico, but a combination of herby, spicy blackening — a technique made popular by the late New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme — and street culture might have been rewarding. Yet the pico de gallo, which included halved cherry tomatoes with micro cilantro, tried a little too hard to be cool, and the advertised lemon cream was so subtle as to be undetectable. This left dabs of cotija cheese to wave the Mexican flag and a simply grilled squash to speak for NOLA. I don’t suggest that this is in any way a bad dish — just a confused one.
Pork cutlet doesn’t usually grab my attention, but it was on both the regular menu and the one Cookhouse stirred up for Restaurant Weeks, so duty called. Wham, bam, alakazam! Thin, tender and beautifully crusty, I’ve never had a better example of this time-tested warhorse. The cutlet was bedded in an appropriately deferential tomato sauce and topped with a bouquet of light and lovely warmed crab salad. The idea that less is more could benefit many chefs observing plates at the pass. But not here. The combination was simple, stunning and brilliant, and nothing needed removal.
At $30, the not-notably New Orleans smoked duck breast is one of the bigger splurges on the menu, clocking in just below New Orleans BBQ shrimp and right above a single beef short rib. Yes, it’s worth it. The light smoking makes the duck look overcooked, but it doesn’t taste that way at all. True, the double whammy of unapologetically curried squash and toasty, tandoori-spiced gnocchi comes across as a challenging mouthful, but take solace in the mild and toasty pepitas. They bring it all together.
Dessert is another resounding yes. If stools too low for the dining counter don’t bother you, I’d suggest sitting there just for dessert and a low- or no-alcohol cocktail. I almost didn’t miss the gin in my mock Martinez, but I would have hated to miss the buzz of the staff behind the counter, a sign of a well lubricated cooking machine at work. On one occasion the open kitchen turned out a bread pudding that was so light and ethereal that it seemed to dance with its superb blueberry compote and lemon curd partners. On another, it was hard to decide whether a fig tart with a buttermilk glaze or the accompanying toasted almond ice cream was better. Fortunately, you get both.
And, yes, for the traditionalist, there are indeed still beignets.
720 E. Mistletoe Ave., (210) 320-8211, cookhouserestaurant.com
5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, Accessible
Red beans and rice, boudin balls, blackened Hamachi crudo, pork cutlet, smoked duck breast, fig tart, bread pudding
Pieter Sypesteyn has long been one of the city’s most reliable chefs, and in his newly removed Cookhouse, both the environment and a newly retooled menu continue to shine. Old favorites such as red beans and rice and boudin balls keep the Crescent City theme alive, while Sypesteyn brings new flavors to the table with a bright Hamachi crudo and an ethereal pork cutlet with warm crab. Spring for the smoked duck breast, have almost any dessert, and celebrate both of you with a low-alcohol cocktail or a bottle of wine from the special cellar list.
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