Rum Along to Ambiance
The ambiance at Ambiance can be summed up in one word: green. The walls glow lime green, the wainscoting dark marbleized green, while the bulbs that race around the coffered ceiling shine neon green, making the faces of the diners look like scary Halloween masks. The agreeable waitress will seat you somewhere mid-room, and as you wait for the menus, you'll note odd accoutrements that date from previous establishments: big antique mirrors, fake potted plants, huge chinoiserie vases resting on truncated Ionic columns, and lavish sprays of artificial flowers, now pleasantly faded, making you think of proms long past. The front of the room is given over to a bar, at which a few phantom hangers-on perch, as the bartender mixes greenish cocktails of limeade and Babancourt Rum ($6).
When the menus arrive, you'll discover that there are no apps, no sides, and no desserts. Ambiance—a Haitian restaurant a few blocks from the terminus of the L train—intends to feed you, and feed you well, but is not concerned with the subsidiary frivolities that dominate modern menus. Theirs is a very ancient idea of what a restaurant should be: a place to provide rudimentary yet substantial refreshment to wayfarers, a function that has become all the more important as Brooklyn's Haitian population has dispersed from Flatbush to the farthest reaches of Canarsie.
Your meal begins with a basket of excellent warm rolls, furnished with foil packets of butter. Next comes a simple salad that has been re-created in this spot thousands of times before, with no variation in the scintillatingly fresh ingredients: iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, sweet white onions, and ripe red tomatoes. To go with it, there's a gravy boat of "French" dressing, constituting one of the great mysteries of Haitian cuisine: This dodgy orange fluid, like the kind that comes in the Kraft bottle, would be instantly rejected by anyone who was actually French. So how did it come to be the standard in Kreyol restaurants? An American traveling salesman wearing a fedora and bearing a suitcase full of orange bottles, sometime in the early 1950s, I'll bet.
The menu lists the irreducible standards of Haitian cuisine. Weighing about a pound, the whole pink snapper ($18) can be had fried or fricasséed. The fried is seafood perfection, flaunting the crispest skin imaginable, without a trace of breading. It comes with a thin red dipping sauce that might be mistaken for a French soupe de poisson. The fricasséed version appears in a red sauce rife with onions and ripe bell peppers. Chicken receives the same duplex treatment, though the fried version hits the table unaccountably missing its skin.
The most Gallic entrée is griot, one of the towering triumphs of Haitian cuisine. Big knobs of fatty pork are marinated in citrus juice (traditionally, sour orange), boiled in the marinade, then fried in the rendered lard—constituting an authentic haute-cuisine confit. This turns the chunks fabulously rich, moist, and chewy. The entrée that most reflects Haitian cooking's African heritage is "legumes" ($11), a French word that merely means "vegetables." Lean chunks of beef are concealed in a slurry of cooked and semi-puréed vegetables, like the dish West Africans call "soup." There's a bit of a burn, but if you want your food to be fiery as hell, ask the waitress for the homemade "picklees" (pronounced "pick-leaze"), a vinegary condiment of shredded cabbage and Scotch bonnet peppers. She'll bring you a huge gravy boat of it, which is about 100 times more than you need; at the very least, the sheer quantity indicates the importance of the condiment to Haitian cuisine.
The main courses come with a choice of white rice, coconut rice studded with field peas, or djon-djon rice, the last of which is boiled with spindly black mushrooms native to the island, conferring a rich black sheen to the rice, but no apparent flavor. The mushrooms themselves are inedible and have been removed before serving, but the dish is dotted with baby lima beans, making for one of the stranger starches you're likely to encounter.
Though the menu lists lambi ($21), a savory conch stew that was once considered the national dish, the waitress is likely to shake her head sadly and report, "It's finished." That's her way of saying the cook doesn't make this conch stew very often. Due to overfishing, the supplies of the crustacean with the magnificent pink shell have dwindled, and prices have skyrocketed. What was once a plebeian dish has now become a rare luxury.
For more photos from Ambiance, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road
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