For the past decade (at least), one of the big stories about Baton Rouge has been the development of the downtown area.
The main question is: When will downtown become a destination?
If you go back five years ago, bringing up downtown might be greeted with a sarcastic response of "Oh yeah, that'll happen soon." However, there is reason for optimism now. Construction is finally taking off. There are hotels, a hip coffee shop, a few bars that offer better drinks and cooler vibes, a grocery store ... hell, there's even a nail salon.
The list of businesses making downtown Baton Rouge a destination is finally coming into view. Now, you can add a must-visit restaurant to that list — Cocha.
What makes the Sixth Street restaurant special is that it doesn't focus on the same old Louisiana fare. Cocha doesn't serve fried catfish with crawfish étouffée on it. No disrespect intended, but how many times can you spend $30 on that dish?
Rather than opt for those tried-and-true plates, Cocha features globally-inspired, beautifully-presented dishes. You're going to get full, and not on one fried hunk of fish. You're going to enjoy multiple plates of clean and fresh flavors that you won't find anywhere else in the city.
During an evening visit for dinner, my guest and I started with a few bites. The yucca chips and Guasacaca (or avocado salsa) ($5) is a good way for an intimidated guest to start. Think of this as chips and guacamole, but with a Venezuelan twist. Even better were the fried veggie wontons ($5), a crumbly puff pastry filled with wasabi-avocado puree.
Though the restaurant offers large plates such as Moroccan short ribs and squid ink linguine (Seriously?! In Baton Rouge?! C'mon!), we wanted to try an assortment of dishes. We wanted to get the full experience of this new restaurant.
At the suggestion of our waitress, we put in an order for the roasted duck Cachapas ($11), Kinilaw (or Filipino-style ceviche, $12), and Thai chili seared scallops ($13). This first round was home run after home run.
The Cachapas featured mounds of tender, shredded duck served over a Venezuelan corn cake and topped with a dab of queso blanco, a few pickled red onions and crema. Served three to a plate, we wondered if we should fight over the last one or simply order another round.
However, the Kinilaw and scallops were my favorite dishes of the night. The ceviche was served with crisp, tall wonton chips. Each scoop I ate had just the right amount of salt, fresh fish and a slight tart from vinegar. The scallops weren't overcooked, and I dove in with my fork. These melted in my mouth, the Thai chili never overwhelming but accenting what is otherwise some hip afterthought for other restaurants.
We couldn't stop at just these dishes. We had to go one more round. For the next dishes, we chose some safer options — an assorted cheese plate ($15) with toast points and lavender lamb chops ($18) with grilled squash and a honey-herb sauce. However safe these dishes might seem in comparison to Kinilaw and yucca chips, both still delivered.
One bite of the lamb chops and we agreed we could probably embarrass ourselves cleaning the bones. The meat was juicy with just a bit of char and smokiness from the grill. We needed more toast points for the cheese plate, which is to say the dish actually features $15 worth of cheese, nuts and spreads.
I wanted to keep going, I did, but I had to throw in the towel. I was full of globally-inspired goodness. On the walk back to my car, all my guest and I could say was, "Wow, that was so good."
As I drove back home to the other side of town, I thought that maybe downtown is finally becoming a destination. Cocha certainly makes me think so.
445 N. Sixth St., Baton Rouge
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
INFO: Call (225) 615-8826 or visit cochabr.com.
PROS: Excellent food, atmosphere and drinks — this is the downtown gem you've been waiting for.
CONS: I don't live closer to it.