Just as herbs and spices season food, so does history. Thus "Caribbean cuisine" is a misnomer, more convenient as a sound bite than useful as truth. What the islands' cuisines historically had in common was influence from their African slave populations, which was strong. It was also beneficial, especially in the case of islands under the colonial control of Great Britain, whose food is legendary for its blandness, a fact evident today to travelers who've had the misfortune of spending a week in Jamaica eating their resort hotel's Brit cooking.
But you can still taste the influence, in each former colony, of its conquering nation. And though Haitian cuisine doesn't scream "France!" as loudly as Spain speaks in Cuban food, French roots are quite obvious at Haitian eateries that do it right, places like Chez Rosie. Named for Haitian-born chef Ernest Martial's mother, the tiny roadside hut doesn't look much different from the average Miami Latino mom-and-pop joint. Meals come in Styrofoam containers with plastic utensils, and eat-in options are limited to a couple of tables out front plus another half-dozen alongside the parking lot. But inside, on the wall next to the take-out window, hang a degree from Johnson and Wales and some press clippings attesting that Martial has had twenty years' experience in Miami restaurant kitchens.
His food was an even better testimonial. In well-executed Haitian dishes, as in France, no one spice predominates, and this sense of balance was clear in everything down to the homemade dressing that came with a side salad. Pinkish orange, it looked like bottled faux French dressing, but had a smooth tang instead of the standard cloying sweetness. Allspice was used in many dishes, but never overused; in the rice and red beans that accompany most meals, there was just enough to impart a touch of exoticism. Most items did have considerable heat, but only pikliz -- a typical Haitian cabbage slaw spiked with Scotch bonnet pepper -- was incendiary enough to make one deeply regret that Chez Rosie doesn't sell beer. Milk soothes mouths better, anyway.
Fried pork can be dry at many Latin eateries, especially when the meat is from the shoulder. But Haitian griot ($6), when cooked right, overcomes toughness with marination, as well as simmering the pork prior to frying. Chez Rose's griot chunks were brown-crusted outside and meltingly tender inside. Though big and meaty, the three legs in a fried chicken dinner ($6) were not as succulent, owing to the fact that they had most of their skin removed prior to cooking.
A fried shrimp dinner ($6.95) featured four jumbo shrimp that looked more like fritters. But real whole shrimp they were, butterflied and topped with spicy stuffing prior to breading and frying. They came with an unusually spiced house-made tartar sauce, as well as a warm, soupy shellfish-flavored sauce. Unfortunately for the Atkins dieting friend who ordered "Ernest's Fish" ($5.95), the two unbreaded pepper-and-onion topped kingfish fillets, though precision cooked, smelled very fishy, and tasted decidedly off. A better low-carb choice was "Rosie's Salad" ($5.25), which came with iceberg lettuce instead of the advertised greens mix, but also contained a bounty of other veggies (including pickled hot peppers and good brined olives) plus a generous serving of white-meat chicken salad.
Whatever you order, a side of accra is well worth the extra three bucks. The vegetable fritters, made from grated malanga and black-eyed peas, were as satisfying as meatballs but lighter, almost fluffy inside. And if you hit Rosie's between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m., the lunch special (which changes daily) must be one of Miami's best meal deals, despite a recent price rise from $2.95 to $3.50.
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