Bad luck breaks over me like a South Florida thundercloud. My skies could be clear for months at a time and then wham! A car accidents, leaky roofs, insurance hikes, and appetite-threatening diseases will rain down with gale-force intensity, cramming a year's worth of personal disasters into an alarmingly short period of time.
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.
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.
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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.