I carried some extra baggage with me as I walked into Cocha, the newly-opened restaurant at the corner of Main and Sixth Street downtown. It stemmed from two previous dinging experiences when the restaurant had opened its doors earlier this year. Unfortunately, both of those occasions left much to be desired with respect to the restaurant’s culinary aptitude and service.
Like many that track the new culinary additions to the city, I was thrilled to learn of a globally inspired restaurant that focused on local, seasonal ingredients. It was certainly a change that I thought Baton Rouge could use and was even beginning to desire. However, my previous lunch and dinner visits left me convinced that the restaurant simply couldn’t execute the concept well enough to change the populace’s perceptions of the farm-to-table restaurant genre. Fittingly, I walked into Cocha for my third visit and second dinner experience, the focus of this review, with justifiably lowered expectations.
However, not one to stubbornly hold onto an opinion when circumstances justify a change, especially in instances where my opinion and desires clash, I’m happy to report that my previously held notion of Cocha must make way for my new one: cautious optimism.
Cocha’s interior and décor has never been an issue. The simple layout of dark, wooded high-tops, tables, and large windows all make for a comforting, modern setting, and the live herbs set in planters on the tables and window sills remind diners of the restaurant’s focus on fresh, seasonal dishes. Cocha’s immediate focal point for entering guests is clearly the long, rectangular bar situated at the very front of the restaurant. And so, not one to bat away clear signals, I began dinner with a cocktail. The Blackberry Sage Smash is composed of bourbon, fresh dewberries, sage, preserved lemon and house tonic. The cocktail appears almost pink, and I immediately worried that it may be too sweet, but it proved to be a very well balanced drink. The fresh sage to top provided an herbal nose to the drink that was complimented by the drink’s berry backbone. The sweetness of the berries was in turn balanced by the tartness of the preserved lemon and the boozy, round punch from the bourbon. Textured ice the bartender smashed with each drink order helped to prevent the drink from being diluted too quickly but also stopped the drink from gaining too high a proof per sip to enjoy its individual components. As I sipped my cocktail I thought to myself that, if not for dinner, Cocha is certainly a nice place to meet friends for cocktails.
Luckily, the dinner I had on this occasion may sway me to stay for more than just drinks on future visits. Cocha’s dinner menu contains three menu categories: bites, small plates and entrees. I skipped the first, smaller “bites” category and began with the pork cachapas, the Colombian or Venezuelan equivalent of an arepa. Unlike typical cachapas, these griddled corn cakes were stuffed with whole kernels of corn that provided an extra sweetness and texture to the dish. The pork that topped the dish was cooked well, but could have benefitted from the addition of more moisture, perhaps in the form of its reduced braising liquid. The fresh cilantro, queso blanco and pickled red onion topping did help to perk the dish up and complement the corn cake but would have better served their purpose with richer pork to offset.
I next sampled the prosciutto and roasted beet salad. The dish was vibrant, and the addition of thinly sliced raw candy cane beets made for a beautiful presentation. The salad was well-dressed and the peppery arugula and bitter chicories balanced the sweetness of the honey balsamic dressing and satsumas. Despite the name of the dish, the beets were not very present in the salad but when a bite that contained them happened to combine with the salty prosciutto and other components, it made for a very solid dish.
These two dishes really showcase Cocha’s aim: One displays its ability to highlight globally inspired dishes, while the other puts local produce on full display and tries to let it shine without over-complicating the flavors. Both showcase clean flavors and fresh ingredients, and, with that realization of the restaurant’s mission in mind, my opinion of Cocha slowly began to change as I looked forward to my entrée.
For an entrée, I ordered the Grilled Redfish Veracruz. The dish came as a hefty filet of redfish seasoned with what tasted like a blackening spice blend and topped with sautéed onions and peppers. The fish was perfectly cooked and the stewed olive, caper, and tomato medley provided an acidic punch that woke up the whole dish. A bit of each of these flavors when combined with the fluffy jasmine rice made for a truly satisfying entrée.
After reflecting on my meal, it was clear Cocha had come a long way since it opened and my previous visits. All in all, the dishes were well-planned and, while I would offer some slight tweaks to certain aspects of them, they were undoubtedly flavorful and worth ordering again. It is my sincere hope that Cocha will only continue to improve as they refine their dishes and steady their execution. I, for one, will certainly be back to see how it evolves and to see if my hopes become reality. Perhaps you are like me and were ready to throw in the towel on Cocha, or maybe you are yet to discover and try it. Whatever your circumstances, Cocha is definitely worthy of your first, second or even third try.
Photos by Sean Gasser.