The restaurant stands primly on its Midwood corner, the words Rocher D’Horeb (“Rock of Horeb”) emblazoned across the facade. The name refers to Exodus 17:5-7, in which Moses smites a boulder in the Desert of Sin and a spring of water gushes forth. Nowadays, we call it a water main break. Given the no-nonsense exterior, and the moniker’s religiosity, it seems like a miracle when you enter to find a well-stocked bar where $5 buys three fingers of celebrated Barbancourt rum, a can of Coke, and a bucket of ice—and walls colorfully plastered with paintings in the Haitian Primitive style. It’s like the Rousseau room at the Met, only with great food. One picture shows a woman pulling a cart heaped with green prickly pear cacti, as schoolgirls in blue pinafores cavort in the background.
Unfortunately, there are no cactus paddles on the menu. What you’ll find instead is a compendium of Haitian cuisine, offered in a two-course meal, priced mainly in the $7 to $10 range. The meal begins with a plain salad of lettuce, tomatoes, purple onions, and sliced beets, offered with the bottled orange fluid called French dressing. Why it’s called that, and why all Haitian cafés in the city have adopted it as their house dressing, is beyond my ability to theorize. I’ve never seen anything like it in France, although I can say from personal experience it was also very popular across America in the latter half of the 20th century.
The main course demonstrates the delightful mixture of French and African elements that is Haitian cuisine. Pork grillot (pronounced “greee-oh”) is one of the best illustrations: porcine chunks coated with a sour orange, garlic, and shallot puree; boiled in the puree till it anneals to the chunks like shiny enamel on a sports car; then fried in the rendered pork fat, resulting in a marvelously concentrated porkiness. Goat, chicken, and pink snapper are available fried, or fricasseed in a reddish-brown Creole sauce. I’m especially fond of the chicken Creole, because, eschewing bland and bloated Perdue-style chicken, Rocher D’Horeb sources a bird of real free-range savor and sinew, so good you’ll find yourself gnawing the bones afterward. Scooter detested it, though: “This chicken is way too tough,” he groused, abandoning the entrée and reaching for my boulette de morue. These globular salt-cod fritters arrive with the same red Creole sauce as a dip.
The entrées are sided with the twice-fried green plantains called “tostones” by the Dominicans, who share the island once known as Hispaniola with the Haitians. The main course also includes bowls of white rice and red beans. We had the good fortune to visit Rocher D’Horeb on a Sunday, when djon djon rice may be substituted for the rice and beans. This well-oiled dish, beloved of Haitians, boils white rice with tiny black mushrooms, which impart an ebony color and a woodsy pungency. But don’t look for the mushrooms–they’ve been removed before the dish is served.
Dinners are voluminous, but, for historical purposes, you might want to begin your meal by sharing a 10-piece serving of acra ($5). These finger-shaped fritters are fashioned from a root native to West Africa known as yautia or cocoyam. You could get the very same thing on the streets of Accra, Ghana’s capital.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 23, 2007