AROMA OF CREOLE FOOD IS EVERYWHERE IN HAITI
This town smells like food. Creole food. Every once in a while, you’re downwind of some tropical plant that eerily fills the air with an aroma like frying onions and bell peppers, the foundation of the local French-African-Caribbean cuisine.
The best Creole food, they say, is at the Hotel Craft in Jacmel, an old coffee port about 50 miles from Port-au-Prince. The Craft is a turn-of-the-century gingerbread building where a jovial woman named Adeline Danies presides over a couple of whitewashed dining rooms and you can also buy locally made cigars. Out on the covered sidewalk the “veranda orchestra” (drums, maracas, banjo) plays calypso-like songs with Creole French lyrics.
By ordering ahead you can start a meal with beignets l’arbre veritable , which combine French and Caribbean as neatly as can be: light, puffy breadfruit fritters, runny inside and with a mild, cheesy flavor. You can end it (if you can still eat) with surprisingly light pain patate , a sweet potato cake with much the taste and even texture of bread pudding. It’s even a pale off-white color, because Haitian sweet potatoes have white flesh.
In between there might be roast goat ( cabrit ), tender and almost spicy, to be sprinkled with lime juice and gnawed off the bones, or maybe fresh local snapper ( sarde ) in a restrained sauce of onions and butter with a little lime juice, a few baby potatoes, a bit of sweet red pepper and the odd chunk of tomato. Danies does not hold with overusing tomato.
African culinary tradition respects starches (Haitians call them vivres alimentaires ; roughly, “victuals”), so along with these entrees you would probably have rice and red beans (the plat nationale )/or--far better-- riz djondjon , rice colored jet-black by a native mushroom with a distinguished flavor a little like truffles and a lot like wild rice.
Hotel Craft, Rue de l’Eglise, Jacmel. Telephone 8-2641. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. American Express accepted. Dinner for two, about $20 (food only).
The Haitian cultural elite has strong ties with France and French restaurants are not at all exotic in Petionville, the Beverly Hills of Port-au-Prince. The best of them, Chez Gerard, is a lush garden restaurant (only one room is completely indoors), and you are discreetly advised not to demand that charming little table in the corner--it’s on permanent reserve for Baby Doc, President Jean-Claude Duvalier, who sometimes eats here.
Mostly the cooking is thoroughly French, from humble rabbit sauteed in white wine with mushrooms and bacon to fancier dishes like remarkably good clams baked in the shell with champagne cream sauce. A few dishes have a local flavor, like a crab shell filled with rice, butter, crab meat and a bit of hot pepper (Haitian food is not, on the whole, very peppery, perhaps because of the French influence). Orange Soup is a dessert made of the famously sweet Jacmel oranges, sliced with strawberries grown in the cool mountain climate of Kenscoff, served cold in their juices. Whatever you do, don’t call it fruit cocktail.
Chez Gerard, 17 Rue Pinchinat, Petionville. Telephone 7-1949. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. American Express, Diner’s Club and Carte Blanche accepted. Dinner for two (food only), about $60.
One of the best places to eat in Haiti isn’t, properly speaking, a restaurant. It’s a guest house owned by the famous American dancer Katherine Dunham, who has lived in Haiti for many years. You do not just go to Residence Dunham and eat. As in a Jane Austen novel, you order a meal in advance, except that you settle what they’ll cook over the phone.
It could be creamy cold watercress soup followed by half a sweet-fleshed avocado holding the lemony vinaigrette for three large, very fresh shrimp, and then barbecued chicken, as simple as can be: flattened boned breasts flavored with rosemary and sauced with nothing but chicken stock reduced to a glaze. With the chicken come carrots, some crusty fried potatoes with browned onions and a little pot of creamed green beans. For dessert, maybe blancmange, a trembling, custard-like coconut pudding topped with toasted coconut and browned sugar. This is an austere, personal cuisine, not quite either French or Creole but exactly what you might expect a pioneer of modern dance to eat.
The most remarkable thing about this place, apart from the food, is how quiet it is for Port-au-Prince. After a long drive through the lively, disorderly streets of Carrefour and the Martissant district (in a cab--visitors should not try to drive the maze-like streets of Port-au-Prince themselves), the loudest sound you hear at Katherine Dunham’s comes from a whistling bird that strolls the tropical grounds.
Residence Katherine Dunham, Rue Martissant 23 (opposite Habitation Leclerc). Telephone 2-5572. No credit cards. Dinner for two (food only), about $70.