No Lambi Today

Haitian café in Kensington goes easy on the national dish

Located on a rocky cliff on Haiti's northern coast, the Citadelle was built by the paranoiac Henri Christophe, who called himself King Henry I and ruled half the newly independent country in the early 19th century. It is rumored that 2,000 men lost their lives constructing the mighty fortress.

The Haitian American restaurant called Citadelle also perches on a cliff of sorts, squeezed on a pedestrian mall overlooking the Q train platform at Newkirk Avenue. Some say the handsome double row of shops known as Newkirk Plaza was the city's first shopping mall. Culminating years of renovation, and complementing a wonderful mix of establishments that only Brooklyn could provide, Citadelle is the newest addition. It's also one of the most outsider-friendly Haitian restaurants in the city, with comfortable, well-spaced tables in a room where the extensive wood trim still gleams with freshly applied polyurethane. The menu, too, is friendly, with selections listed in English as well as Creole. Only a few are typically available at lunch, but the list grows as the day wears on and the cook completes her culinary projects.

On a recent chill afternoon, a pal and I enjoyed an extended lunch that began with a boulets sandwich ($3), which seemed like a respectful emulation of the meatball hero at the pizza joint across the plaza. A kaiser roll had been carefully hollowed out, and inside could be seen a row of meatballs, looking like ball bearings inside the wheel of a roller skate. "These remind me of the meatballs I had in a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich recently," my friend noted, and it was easy to imagine they contained a dash of fish sauce, or at least some Maggi or Worcestershire sauce.

Outsiders welcome here
photo: Shiho Fukada
Outsiders welcome here

The menu offers only a handful of sandwiches. More profuse are the big feeds, such as the grillot we enjoyed on that first visit. Taking a cue from Jamaican takeouts, this entrée is offered in two sizes, $6.50 and $8. Grillot is one of the highlights of Creole cuisine, pork nuggets that have been marinated in shallots and sour orange, boiled in the marinade, and finally fried in rendered lard, a true French confit. The nuggets provide a vigorous chew and are richly flavored. Alongside comes a perfunctory salad with bottled Italian dressing, a couple of twice-fried plantain Frisbees, and either white rice with a black bean puree, or Haitian "rice and peas"—combining rice, red beans, and coconut milk.

On subsequent visits, we ate our way around the menu, enjoying tasty goat nuggets (tassot cabrit) fried to an almost black color, a goat fricassee featuring scads of onions in an oily red broth, and pink snapper Creole—a whole fish fricasseed in much the same manner as the goat. But missing in action during our visits was lambi, the delicate conch stew that constitutes Haiti's national dish. Strombus gigas—Queen conch—has been appearing on various endangered species lists since the early '90s, and a review under the international CITES protocol in 2003 demonstrated that conservation efforts have been inadequate in Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. While most of our local conch comes from the Bahamas and other places with sustainable fisheries and farming programs, the prices have soared. As a result, the cry you will hear in many Haitian restaurants around town is "No lambi today."

 
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