Grillot (“gree-oh”) is one of the glories of Haitian cooking. Fatty pork chunks are soaked in a citrus-shallot marinade, then simmered down until the reduction coats the surface of the meat. But we’re not done yet. As the liquid boils away, lard oozes out, and the pork fries in the fat, turning the meat into knuckle-size rubies. It’s quite the old-school French confit, pointing to the island’s colonial roots. For the Haitian-food neophytes sitting around me on a recent Saturday afternoon at Cathedral, the grillot was electrifyingly good, dense and delicately fibrous, with both sour and salty dimensions. All conversation was forestalled by loud chewing.
Haitian food is one of the most under-celebrated and rarely imitated cuisines in the city, getting too little action even on Chowhound and Yelp. The cooking—sometimes known as Kreole, after the polyglot language most islanders speak—represents an evenhanded melding of African and French culinary sensibilities, while employing Caribbean staples such as rice, beans, pork, seafood, thyme, scallions, limes, and little black mushrooms called djon-djon that are native to the island. The cooking is nuanced and highly flavored, and ought to be much better known.
Cathedral is one of the city’s most approachable Haitian restaurants. While similar places in East Flatbush often have tightly drawn curtains and seem dark and gloomy inside, this place shines like a young star onto Church Avenue, among the 99-cent stores, rambling frame houses, storefront evangelical churches, shops selling technicolor wigs, and the occasional boarded-up building. Inside the narrow space, a long open kitchen runs alongside the dining area, decorated with colorful tropical paintings. On that afternoon, the kindly silver-haired host pushed his entire stock of three small tables together to accommodate our party.
Of the 11 main dishes advertised in Cathedral’s window, four or five are available on any given day, in belt-busting portions mainly priced from $10 to $12. There are no appetizers or desserts, but every entrée comes with a green salad, rice and beans in various permutations, and a plate of woody plantains fried once and then pounded and fried again like Dominican tostones. Instead of the plantains you can order accra—African-style fritters of grated malanga, a corm (thickened stem) that is a cousin to taro. Flecked with garlic and green onions, the fritters are golden brown and fluffy.
That pork grillot arrives scattered with pickled purple onions alongside a mountain of white rice and a teacup of pureed black beans. We dipped the pork tidbits in piklis (“pick-lees”), a combination of shredded cabbage, white vinegar, and Scotch bonnet peppers that serves the double purpose of hot sauce and slaw. Another entrée, dinde tasso, looked almost the same as the grillot, though it was a confit of turkey rather than pork. “Hey, I like this better,” one of my guests exclaimed. The turkey may have been a bit softer, the fibers of the meat giving way more easily to the teeth, but I found the two equally irresistible.
The national passion of Haiti is lambi, a bright yellow fricassee of conch cut in big swatches and poached in coconut milk (rather than cream, as the French might do it) with all sorts of herbs and aromatics. Many Haitian restaurants in Flatbush have ceased to serve it due to spiraling conch costs. But my crew was not enthusiastic about lambi; the rubbery pieces varied from tender to tough, and the strong taste left no doubt it was a seagoing species.
Seafood is perhaps more ably represented here by the whole fish, which varies according to market availability and is perfectly fried with a minimum of breading so that the skin does the crunch work. One evening a friend and I hunkered down with a fried red snapper, which, at $25, was the most expensive thing in the house. It easily satisfied both of us.
The menu contained some surprises, too—ones not usually found in the Kreole canon. Of the entrées available that first Saturday afternoon, last to arrive was poulet en sauce ($10), a half-chicken braised in a rich gravy propelled by Worcestershire and allspice. This must be what the sign in the front window means by “Haitian and Caribbean Cuisine.” It tasted as if the Jamaican national dish of jerk chicken, found on nearly every block in the neighborhood, had been thrown into a stew. This is Flatbush fusion at its finest.