Jazz, Ribs, R&B and Love in West Philly.
Images by G.W. Miller III. Text by Kim Maialetti.
The smoky scent of barbecue wafts through the dining room as if being carried along on the notes of a song.
A waitress delivers plates of ribs and sides of cornbread with showgirl style in towering five-inch heels.
And a young woman in a sequined sweater takes the stage, promising to make it a night to remember.
This is the first open-mic night at the year-old Le Cochon Noir in West Philadelphia and friends and family turn out in force to listen to Alexis Joi, Stash Robinson and the City Hall band perform.
At least that’s how it seems. But we’re in for a surprise.
Adjacent to Fairmount Park and a stone’s throw from the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Le Cochon Noir is a barbecue restaurant and music venue aiming to kick things up a notch in what is fashionably called the city’s Centennial District.
The space is a former warehouse on Parkside Avenue, outfitted with an open kitchen, leather booths, tables draped in red and black linens and of course, a stage.
Paintings by local artists decorate the walls as does a giant mural of the American flag with dates marking the assassinations of John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22, 1963), Malcolm X (Feb. 21, 1965) and Robert Kennedy (June 5, 1968).
Plans call for the addition of a wine loft to accommodate 2,500 bottles, but for now, the temporary bar carries a limited selection of mainly West Coast wines along with selected spirits.
Not that that matters much. The ribs and the music are the highlights at Le Cochon Noir.
“I grew up in a household where there was always great music playing,” says owner Jamal Parker. “This was a great opportunity to put my two loves together – food and music – and package them up and serve them to the public.”
Just listen to Stash Robinson sing “Lady” – the R & B hit by D’Angelo.
Robinson – who does not have a mustache, but got his first name because his mother craved pistachios when she was pregnant – has a smooth, baritone voice that conjures up images of the late Teddy Pendergrass, one of Philadelphia’s great R & B legends.
When he sings, it’s soulful and sexy like Le Cochon Noir itself.
“It’s a beautiful venue,” Robinson says later. “It’s a nice place to have a mellow night out.”
Robinson, 27 and spoken for, grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there today. He drives a truck full-time, but singing is his true love.
“If I could make this a full-time thing, believe me I would,” he says. “But right now, I have to pay the bills. There’s so much talent here, and for the most part it’s very hard to make it.”
Parker agrees and wants Le Cochon Noir to be a springboard for up-and-coming artists as well as an up-and-coming neighborhood.
He envisions the restaurant as a place where not only visitors to the Mann come before and after a show to enjoy a meal and more music, but also where neighborhood residents stop in for a bite to eat and some good local talent.
He concedes, though, that his vision may be a little ways off.
“When I was growing up no one went into Northern Liberties,” says Parker. “I strongly believe in the whole Parkside area. I am in for the long haul.”
One of his best ingredients for success right now might just be the rub – the dry spice mixture that earned the ribs at Le Cochon Noir second place in the restaurant division in last year’s Steven Starr/Garry Maddox Rib Challenge.
A Delaware contestant took first place, technically making the ribs at Le Cochon Noir the best in Philly.
“That was our first competition,” Parker says. “When we go up against him again in August I plan on whoopin’ him.”
But don’t ask Parker what’s in the rub recipe. Only two people know – him and his father, and Parker is the only person at the restaurant who makes it.
There is no question that the ribs at Le Cochon Noir are worth a trip.
Meaty and juicy, they have a deep smoky flavor attributed to the rub and slow cooking in the restaurant’s customized indoor smoker, which can cook 150 racks of ribs – or four whole hogs – at one time.
“If only you knew, how much I do, do love you,” sings the 26-year-old Indiana girl, now living in the City of Brotherly Love after a detour in LA.
Moments later as Joi (whose real last name is Carter) leaves the stage, her boyfriend Isaiah Hamm takes her hand and escorts her back up.
He gets down on one knee, and sure enough, asks her to marry him.
The crowd of friends and family, all in on the secret, erupt in applause. It is indeed a night to remember.
Reflecting on the moment later, Joi says when she first saw her man heading toward the stage she worried he would embarrass her. Even though they had talked about marriage, she wasn’t expecting a proposal that night.
“I had no idea,” she says. “I was very shocked he would come up with something like that. To see him get on his knee, I was excited. I was happy. I was a little embarrassed.”
The couple plans to get married in May next year. Meantime, Joi and Robinson will continue hosting open mic nights at Le Cochon Noir every second and third Thursday of the month.