White Rum, Fresh Vanilla, and the Fritter Factor
For several years, the wind of Gallic influence has littered New York's streets with bistros, brasseries, and patisseries. But now that wind has shifted, and a soft breeze from the south has brought Gotham the creolized flavors of the French Antilles. Along with the light tastes of coconut milk and curry, fresh fish and lime come the accras de morue that are the traditional accompaniment for drinks in virtually every bar and restaurant in the islands. These salt cod fritters take their name from the akara, the white bean fritter of Nigeria's Yoruba. After their forced transatlantic crossing, the fritters dropped the beans and added salt cod to become Puerto Rico's bacalaitos, Jamaica's stamp and go, and the French Caribbean's light, yeasty accras de morue.
I'd given up hope of ever tasting them in a New York spot until I heard tell of So. Barth's, which celebrates the tastes of Saint Barthélemy. So a frigid January night found me stepping gingerly over the trash-flecked snow at the curb. Beyond the flowing gauze curtains that define the dining areas, cobalt blue napery suggested the tropical sea while canvas chairs set a nautical tone. The waiter's offer of a 'ti punchthe white rum, lime, and sugar syrup cocktail that lubricates most of my Antillean adventureswas accepted with alacrity. I found my bliss with the menu's first entry: French bean salad with So. Barth's cod accras ($8). The accras were perfect, light and crisp with just enough cod for a chewy interior. They edged a plate piled high with tiny string beans drenched in a vinaigrette based on the sauce chien that accompanies most grilled fish in the French Caribbean. While I savored them, my friends opted for more contemporary starters: Lobster-stuffed tomatoes ($10) suffered from winter tomato syndrome, but a cake of delicate mahimahi accented by tender threads of pungent young ginger soared ($8). Wanting to savor my accras, I selected a second appetizer of tuna tartare ($9) for my main, its unctuousness simply accented by a squeeze of fresh lime and a drizzle of olive oil. My friends went for heartier fare: a pinwheel of roast pork slices in a puddle of coconut-infused curry sauce ($21) and an array of noisettes of lamb in a rich brown demiglace with a cake of savory ratatouille ($21). The wafer-crusted crème brûlée ($6) with a hint of real vanilla was superb. A surprising puff of pastry-bottomed berry soufflé ($8) was even better.
On my next visit, reportage demanded that I forgo the accras. So I started with a salad of mesclun topped with grilled scallops ($15) while my friend selected snails, which she felt could have used more garlic ($10). My main of steak frites was properly français, but my friend's special of bacon-wrapped duck breast was sheer delight: The duck was rich, as duck generally is, but the smoky harmonies of the pork enhanced not just its sumptuousness but its dark flavor. A second soufflé was called for, so we shared one: Grand Marnier this time. More traditional than the berry, it went perfectly with a complimentary glass of homemade vanilla rum. The creamy sweet taste of the bean mellowed the heat of the rum and the rum mellowed me, so I left So. Barth's nattering in French to the staff and humming old biguines.
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