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I'm not above comforting myself with food. And I'm not talking about a five-star repast, either. In times of need, I prefer foodstuffs that remind me of open, sunny climates, not upholstered dining rooms. Easy-to-order one-dish meals, like stews and hearty soups. Clean scents and unfussy flavors -- charcoal-grilled chicken and fish -- that don't demand much attention from either cook or diner. And spices that cause so much real pain that I forget about feeling sorry for myself.
Haitian fare pretty much fits the bill, I'd say.
More derivative than fusion, Haitian (or Creole) fare developed without much Western interference. Mainly, African slaves adapted their recipes to take advantage of the island's native bounty, with European settlers contributing a few of their own culinary traditions. Some trade-route influences also came into play. The result is simple, highly flavored food that relies on stewed and grilled fish and meats, beans, rice, chilies, cassava, West Indian pumpkin, coconuts, plantains, limes, and sour oranges. Spanish, Portuguese, and French accents show up both in food preservation (salted cod and herring) and in preparation (poaching fish in court bouillon).
Miami is fortunate to have a large immigrant Haitian population, which translates into a good number of Creole restaurants. Though these eateries range from sidewalk barbecues to cafeterias to the casual full-service establishment, one aspect characterizes them all: the idea that food is meant to be consumed with as much pleasure as possible. In other words, he who laughs last, eats last. Or at least alone.
As much as I enjoy Creole food, however, I'm not always in the mood for the surroundings that often accompany the customary bargain pricing. So I was delighted to find two Haitian restaurants -- West Kendall's Cafe Creole and South Beach's Tap Tap -- that exhibit as much charm in setting and service as they do in food preparation.
Crooked in the elbow of the Crossings Shopping Village strip mall on SW 112th Street, the year-old Cafe Creole is a comfortable fiftysomething-seat establishment with a small bar and dance floor. White and green table linens dress up the place a bit, while Haitian paintings dot the walls. Gentrification here doesn't mean added expense, though -- the fare was reasonably priced and plentiful. And the service was friendly and forthcoming. Which was helpful, considering that not all of the items are consistently available, or even correctly identified on the menu, for that matter. On a recent Thursday night visit, the soups, salads (with the exception of the house salad), and all but one of the appetizers were off-limits. Haitian custom, our waitress explained. Typically, these dishes are only consumed on Saturdays or Sundays. Ditto with drinks A only one brand of beer and a no-name house wine were in stock.
Always game, my guests and I took what we could get, which meant a double order of malanga fritters for starters, washed down with Haitian fruit soda. Served in a basket, the deep-fried nuggets had mild, sticky centers and a pleasant flavor. A wonderfully tangy but extremely potent chili pepper-vinegar dipping sauce accompanied them; another basket of toasted French bread was, along with the soft drink, damper for the fire.
House salads, topped with commercial-tasting Italian or French dressings, preceded every entree. Composed of a few leaves of iceberg lettuce, one slice of tomato, and a handful of croutons, the salads were more token than tasty. But then, greens in general are not a huge part of the Haitian diet.
Main courses presented a better selection. We devoured the lambi in sauce, a dish of succulent cracked conch, easily the best entree we sampled. The shellfish had been marinated in garlic, sour orange, and pimientos, and a rich, tangy tomato sauce smothered the conch without masking its delicate flavor. Baked in the same Creole sauce, the chicken was dry but tasty. The marinated poultry, served on the bone, stood up well to the bell peppers and onions that draped it.
A dish of Creole sauce was served on the side of cabrit, or goat. Large hunks of the meat had been seasoned and grilled, then piled on a plate. Goat meat is frequently dry and stringy, and this batch was no exception. Still, it was gristle-free, with goat's characteristic, alluring musky aroma and flavor, and the portion was ample. Tasso was an improvement, though the marinated and grilled beef was difficult to distinguish from the goat at first glance, what with the similar shape and texture of the chunks. The meat was soft to the point of shredding, retaining some of its natural juiciness. High cooking temperatures created a crackly coating reminiscent of the Cuban dish vaca frita.
Our server recommended snapper served in court bouillon. Served whole, the fish had been poached in a light, buttery broth so that it tasted mild and sweet, the skin separating from the flesh without difficulty. Our only complaint was the diminutive size of the snapper, which made it hard to extract the bones. Congri -- that ubiquitous Caribbean mix of red beans and rice -- was served alongside all main courses, as were meaty fried green plantains.