Thursday, April 15, 2004

When here, do as the Haitians do

Posted on Thu, Apr 15, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Going to South OBT to dine in a strip mall can be kind of like going to another country. But don't be fooled; behind the surplus of fast-food restaurants on the Trail lurks a hidden culinary culture and we found a new adventure -- Bon Appetit is an epicurean experience in every sense of the word.

Of about seven tables, only one was taken when I walked into this humble restaurant cloaked in country-ish decor. Naturally I took this to mean that the group of people sitting at the table came to the restaurant together and would leave together. But I was thinking like a typical American. No sooner had the hostess seated me than another waiter came up behind her and seated someone else -- at my table. So there I was, sitting across from a young Haitian man.

"You ever try Haitian before?" he asked in a heavy Creole accent. His easy manner with our dining companionship didn't exactly match mine -- I mean, technically, he was a complete stranger.

"No," I responded. "I've never tried it, but I'm looking forward to my first Haitian experience."

"How about you try me?" he asked politely.

I couldn't help but laugh. "No," I replied. "I'll stick to the menu."

"OK," he said, unfazed. "My name -- Christian."

After sifting through the standard bar fare on the menu, I finally got to the real stuff, and it was all Haitian. Considering that I was the only non-Haitian person in the room, there didn't seem to be a reason why the menu would be 90 percent burgers, quesadillas and wings.

Although the "grand opening special" happened to be six white-meat chicken nuggets for only 99 cents, there was no finger-lickin' processed chicken at any of the tables. Instead, almost everyone had a steaming plate of oxtails or some deliciously fragrant plate of stew in front of them.

With Christian's (platonic) help, I decided on the "boulettes," a Haitian-style meatball. They were sold out. I was also out of luck with "grio" ($6), a fried pork dish served with pickles and fried banana.

Finally, I settled on "whatever Christian is having," which turned out to be "calalou" ($7, $5 half-portion), a gumbo made with pig's feet. I found the dish exceedingly flavorful, even though what I was eating belongs in hot dogs (conspicuously not on the menu). My meal was served with beans and rice, and I can assure you that you don't ever want to leave Bon Appetit without filling up on the red beans and rice and fried bananas -- they're that memorable.

The waitress brought out something called "lambi au noix" ($10) just for me to try. This delicately spiced gumbo -- scented with celery, onions, peppers and conch -- was nothing short of heavenly. I started plotting my vacation in Haiti, until the CNN reporters on the television, a centerpiece in the room, brought me back to reality. On this day, President Aristide, on the brink of being ousted, was broadcasting an urgent message to the international community. Everyone in the restaurant got out of their seats and crowded around the TV set.

When Christian asked for my phone number again, it was time to go. I shook my head and grabbed for my "peach fruit banane" with milk ($2.50), which is paradise through a straw. This thick, luscious, liqueur-flavored drink must be one of Haiti's mild diversions from the mess it's in. I did notice a man grab for his as he got up to watch Aristide on television.

Bon Appetit is a must for the epicurean adventurer. You can even bring along those disturbed individuals who will only eat fried mozzarella sticks and still have an authentic ethnic dining experience. And if you're lucky like me, they might even seat you with a Haitian admirer.



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