Thursday, February 3, 2011

Rattle Rattle, Here Come the Cattle*

We've said it before, but upscale food in a downscale setting has taken over the world like an unstoppable rebel force. Whether it's Le Fooding in France or food trucks in Los Angeles, both chefs and diners are focusing less on white table cloths and more on what's on the plate.

Cowbell is probably my favorite example of this genre in the city. The decor in the renovated gas station is funky and eclectic, but without trying too hard. There are no table cloths, staff uniforms, or Riedel stemware. In effect, the restaurant has created a "scene" without trying to create a "scene". It's truly organic.

The food is pretty kick ass, too. A short menu filled with American comfort dishes like clam chowder, grilled cheese, and apple pie, plus a little Latin flair. None of the dishes are overly complicated, and most are substantial servings for the low prices.

Macaroni and cheese. In a futile attempt at distinquishment, chefs are adding everything from lobster, pancetta, edamame, and heroin to improve a dish that needs no pizzazz if done well. Cowbell's version of mac and cheese ($5) is a lesson in "less is more." Creamy but not soupy, rich like a fondue, with a bit of crunch from a breadcrumb gratin. It is excellent. One my first visit the pasta was macaroni; on the second trofie, which in my opinion worked even better.

Though when the kitchen does improvise on a classic, the result is usually successful. Take the grilled cheese sandwich filled with shreds of BBQ duck tinged with just a hint of espresso. Paired with a mug of chowder or soup of the day (potato and celery on this occasion), this works as either a starter to share or a light lunch.

Though the name implies beef, Cowbell offers a number of seafood options. Fish tacos ($14.95) are a standard menu item, with the kitchen whatever fresh fish is available. Though the grilled fillets were underseasoned on one visit, the accompanying cilantro lime crema, chayote slaw of peppers, and avocado salsa brought all the flavor necessary. The shrimp quesadilla appetizer was smallish in size for $8.95, so I would stick with a different starter.

Black beans and rice are just an example of the Latin undertones on the menu, but they are not to be dismissed as a simple side dish. Black beans are creamy but firm, and the arroz verde is a short grain rice with lots of flavor. Where's the beef? How about a skirt steak, cooked a perfect (and I do mean perfect) medium rare, with a tomato and mango salsa. Plus, a repeat performance of those black beans with inch thick rounds of fried plantain. This might be the best $17 steak dinner in the city. I have yet to try the burger, but Willy Wonka did on my first visit and we both agreed that the pattty was undercooked.

There are two options for dessert. The first is an individual apple pie baked in puff pastry, which was light and crispy on the first visit but soft and depressed on the second. The Chocolate City is a flourless cake made with a bourbon brown butter ganache that packs a punch. Both are a steal at $5.00.

The kicthen closes early - 8:00 on  weekdays and 9:00 on weekends. The dining room includes three 6-top tables, so don't be surprised if you are asked to share with another party. BYOB for now, though that could change in the next coming days.

Cowbell - Birdie

8801 Oak Street
Lunch and Dinner Tues-Sat

* Phi Muuuuuuu


Kevin said...

My party had many of the same dishes you did, and the same reaction to all. I'm not big on upscaling/fetishizing childhood food, but that macaroni and cheese may be the best in the city.

I rarely even notice noise level unless it's completely out of the box. Cowbell's noise level is way out of the box. We were shouting to our server and couldn't converse at the table without raising our voices. The food was worth it, though.

Peter said...


During both my meals, the dining room was fairly empty - maybe 6 people on my first visit and a dozen on my second. But there are a lot of hard surfaces in the dining room, so I would not be surprised if it got loud with a crowd.

Anonymous said...

Great burger as well, just the right amount of smoky flavor, good bun, good size. Also, the huevos were very good. They are definitely cooking at high level on many fronts. CharlieH

Pontchartrain Pete said...

The news about the upcoming Rush concert at the arena reminded me of my first experience with Cowbell. It was back in the late 70s at A Warehouse; Rush opened the show for Blue Oyster Cult, masters of the Cowbell in music. Lots of Cowbell.

Wait, what were we talking about?

$1.25 said...

I've been looking to get over there, but just haven't been able to make it work. I'm glad to see it is worth the effort.

Kimberly Ranjbar said...

I love Lolo's fries and my burger turned out pretty luscious, though I must say it was my first foray into grass-fed beef. Can't wait to go back and try that Mac & Cheese!

Anonymous said...

Loved the food, the decor, the cooks and the servers! Our server was a little girl from TN, what a doll. Need more Cowbell!