Inside the Volcano
There's not much to be said about the decor at E & R. The boxy walls are smeared an industrial green that is interrupted by crazy red stencils of stars, flowers, and musical eighth notes. Next to a carry-out window, there's a calendar touting a butcher shop on Coney Island Avenue with the uninspiring name of OK Meat Place. As a warning against overindulgence, a used Stairmaster is offered for sale in one corner, facing a TV that plays WWF bouts. The patrons are glued not to the action but to the closed captions underneath as they labor diligently to perfect their English.
But oh, the food! As a remembrance of home, lambi can't be beat. Conch shortages have caused the price to soar to $11.50, but this sum buys you a generous dose, torn into irregular pieces and drenched in a soothing and subtle red gravy. Like most of the entrées, it comes with a humongous plate of rice and green plantain that's been fried, smashed, and fried again into mellow wooden Frisbees. The rice is similarly delightful, bumpy with red beans and fragrant with fresh thyme and cloves.
Representing a fortuitous collision (for us, at least) of African ingredients and French peasant cooking, Haitian is one of the world's most intelligent and nuanced cuisines, rife with labor-intensive broths and fricassees. Bouyon ($6.50) is a soup that would impress any picky French peasant, based on long-simmered beef bones and vegetables that leave little flecks of green and orange behind in the broth. Into it go chunks of beef, potatoes, African taro, and dumplings shaped and colored like a colonialist's fingers.
Showing the penchant of Haitian cooks for surpassing their French tutors, pork griyo ($7) are long-soaked nuggets boiled to dryness in their tart marinade, then lard-fried to an oxymoronic crispy creaminess, and offered with a passel of sautéed onions and sweet peppers. In a fancier restaurant, they'd call it confit. Less sunny of disposition is the Haitian staple taso, an analog of Louisiana tassosun-dried beef chunks fried to a dusty surface texture, while retaining a rich pink middle. Their flat blackness reads like spent charcoal against the colorful salad and rice. If the red snapper ($11.50) seems like it might have been prepared in New Orleans, with its shallot-laced Creole sauce, little surprise: the twin French colonies were shackled together for over a century, with Haiti contributing the three-legged cast-iron pot favored by Louisiana Creole cooks even today for frying up cracklin's.
But E & R's very best dish is so African that I felt like stepping outside and hailing a Ghanaian livery driver inside to try it. Mayi moulin ($4.50) is a dark gray cornmeal porridge peppered with black beans and enriched with coconut milk. It's mounded around the plate like an active volcano, with a choice of sauces poured like lava into the crater. My fave is ragou, a garlicky and slimy stew of cow feet and tripe that invades and perfectly moistens every last bite of pone. The food at E & R is so good, I'd put it up against the output of any fancy-pants Zagat chef in Manhattan. And I'd win the wager, hands down.
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