By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
As with the appetizers, dessert consisted of one option, a delicious golden layer cake laced with rum. We were curious about the significance of its green frosting; our server claimed that the color changes every day and has nothing to do with the flavor. An International Place building of a cake, we guessed, particularly appropriate for this West Kendall slice of island life.
If Cafe Creole raises the level of Haitian dining a notch or two, South Beach's Tap Tap, opened in April 1994, rockets it into orbit. Aswarm with charm, the 70-seat eatery is an original work of art that took a team of artists two years to create. Even if the food weren't good, the place, named for the colorful vehicles that transport everything from pigs to people, would be worth a return -- the brain can't possibly assimilate all that visual stimulation in one visit.
Fortunately for art lovers and diners, the fare is authentic and (for the most part) deftly prepared. And while some dishes hover in the midteen-dollar range, good buys are a possibility. The appetizer sampler platter is one such deal. For ten bucks we munched on deep-fried malanga, conch fritters, marinated conch, cured sauteed herring, and goat tidbits. A mild green sauce -- a puree of chilies, herbs, oil, and vinegar -- greatly enlivened the crunchy malanga and the conch fritters, which were spongy and springy but nearly bereft of conch. Plenty of the conch resided in a marinade comprising scallions, tomatoes, chili peppers, and lime juice, though here the shellfish was rubbery and bland. Reminiscent of briny kippers, the herring contributed the most intriguing element to the platter, bits of potent, skin-on bone-in fish served in a sauce of oil, onion, and sliced red bell peppers. The goat, however, was the most appetizing, more like seasoned and pounded fillets than tidbits. A soothing bowl of pumpkin soup was downright delicious, a squash-rich broth soaking white potatoes, softened carrots, onions, and celery.
A beet salad we ordered never arrived, but the arrival of our entrees made us forget that lapse. A grilled, free-range chicken half was subtly seasoned, its skin delightfully crisp. Too bad the breast meat was so dry that it could have been reduced to crumbs in a blender. The dark meat was slightly more moist, hinting at the wonderful dish this could have been an hour earlier.
A grilled whole red snapper fared better. Finished with chopped tomatoes, scallions, and garlic in an oil and vinegar sauce and redolent of the traditional charbon bwa (hardwood charcoal) with which the restaurant cooks, the hefty flesh fell off the bones with no resistance.
Plump and pink tightly curled shrimp in coconut milk won us over, as well. Though the shrimp, which were served over white rice, had been sliced in half lengthwise (a practice I hate because it renders the crustaceans more vulnerable to overcooking), they remained succulent and savory, with the snappy texture of ultrafresh shellfish. The milky sauce was thick with bits of coconut, and flecked with scallions and parsley. A vegetable stew also worked well with plain buttered rice: Carrots, onions, green and red bell peppers, celery, and cabbage -- the biggest surprise next to the kosher-style kippered herring -- had been slow-cooked to a tasty peak in a tomato base. A Tap Tap-meets-Rascal House sort of dish.
Side plates ranked high. Entrees, as mentioned, were served with red beans and rice, but an improvement was the red bean puree, thick and smooth, poured over rice. Or the polenta and red beans, a grainy porridge made sweet by cornmeal. And leaf spinach, doused in coconut milk and garnished with chopped, sauteed tomatoes, eclipsed the standard, greasy fried green plantains.
Tap Tap serves Guinness and Sam Adams on tap tap, but we took the nonalcoholic route, with Chouconne fruit champagne and Lanio watermelon soda. The carbonated watermelon was so sugary, in fact, that it made a far better dessert than the dense, unappealing sweet potato pie we tried. A second dessert of chocolate mousse cake was fudgy-gooey enough to both cheer me up temporarily and convince me that my spell of bad luck might end -- with just one more round of comfort-food treatment, of course.