RHUM CORNER (2.5 stars): 926 Dundas St. West (at Bellwoods Avenue), 647-346-9356, rhumcorner.com
LA CREOLE (Reviewed as a Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip): 810 St. Clair Ave. West (at Atlas Avenue), 416-651-8228, lacreole.ca
Roland Jean was DJ’ing from his usual spot at Rhum Corner’s bar the other Friday, holding court with a glass of Haitian rum and an iPod filled with perpetual motion zouk and kompa hits as the crowd began to build. At 7:30, there were plenty enough seats for the taking still; it wasn’t yet a squeeze for the smiling servers to traverse the narrow room with their half bottles of Barbancourt and frozen daiquiris topped with lime zest, and flaming zombies that were coloured hot pink from passion fruit, weaponized with absinthe and five different types of rum.
By 8 p.m., plates of salty-crisp malanga root accras and the deep-fried pork dish called griot were breezing out of the open kitchen, as if to taunt the growing crowd. The prime seats had been claimed by this point, quite a few of their occupants coolly bobbing and shimmying to the Caribbean music. The people kept coming. Many of them nodded toward Mr. Jean as they made their way in.
It was a youngish crowd, but not entirely. When a couple in their early sixties or so sat down at 9 p.m., the waiter named Jahmal – quite probably the warmest, most naturally hospitable waiter I’ve encountered – told them, “It’s good to see you again.”
The woman was from Haiti originally. “We like it here,” her partner said to a neighbouring table. “They get the flavours right.”
Mr. Jean, an artist who emigrated from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the 1980s, deserves a good part of the credit. Mr. Jean’s wife, the restaurateur Jen Agg (she also owns The Black Hoof, next door) does the heavy-lifting of keeping Rhum Corner staffed and solvent, of running its terrific drinks program and directing the service. She has a knack for leading the city’s restaurant industry instead of following: much like The Black Hoof when it first opened, Rhum Corner is a mostly original concept instead of a rip-off .
Yet Mr. Jean serves unofficially as the room’s co-creative director and spiritual leader. He contributed the paintings and screen prints on the walls in addition to the nightly soundtrack. Critically, he brought in his sister, Monique, to teach chef Jesse Grasso the basics of Haitian cooking, and later took Mr. Grasso on an eight-day eating tour of his homeland, too.
And Mr. Jean’s presence at the bar here, a near-constant through the weekends, helps to set the tone of the place. Rhum Corner feels like a friendly private club – one that’s unlike any other place I’ve been to. It’s a club that you’d be crazy not to want to join, one with completely out-of-the-ordinary food.
Haitian cooking is a jumble of influences: the foods of the Caribbean’s original Taino inhabitants, plus French, Spanish, west and central African techniques and ingredients – even elements of Lebanese, German and American cuisine. It is often what Western eaters might call “rough and ready:” the pork in traditional griot, for instance, is often cubed and thrown, skin and all, into boiling oil so that it’s as chewy in parts as the sole of an espadrille.
Mr. Grasso, who is also The Black Hoof’s executive chef, has stayed true to the cuisine’s roots and flavours while smartly refining what turns up on its plates. For his griot he marinates pork shoulder in sour orange juice and then cooks it sous-vide. It’s then cubed and flash fried for service so that it’s crisp outside and melting within – it’s as dreamy a pork dish as I can think of. His accras – deep fried dumplings, roughly – hit much the same way as that griot, particularly when eaten with the pikliz, a lightly fermented cabbage, onion and scotch bonnet pickle. They’re a physiological sensation as much as a foodstuff, a fat and salt, spice and starch-borne endorphin high. A plate of those accras goes for $6. The highs here come dangerously cheap.
Griot is often eaten with macaroni au gratin. Mr. Grasso’s is a mix of macaroni and penne in mornay sauce, topped with buttery breadcrumbs. The goat stew is also a must, soft and richly flavoured, served with loose maiz that Mr. Grasso makes from Italian corn meal, vegetable stock, far more thyme butter than is strictly necessary, and black beans for earthy bite.
There are more than a hundred rums here, available by the glass or in flights, as well as what the menu calls “Rolly’s Rhum Corner” – that’s Barbancourt by the quarter, half or full bottle, with cut limes and imported Coke from Mexico (it’s sweetened with cane sugar instead of hideousness).
Or if you really want to feel like a member of the club here, ask for a Daq’d Up. It’s an off-menu special: a double Barbancourt and Coke with a frozen daiquiri topping and an aromatic shave of lime zest. They go down ridiculously well.
Ten minute’s drive north at St. Clair Avenue West, La Creole plies many of the same flavours and ingredients as Rhum Corner, but with a goal of casual fine dining in mind.
Co-owner Ben Cherette moved here from Haiti in 1998; his partners Paterson Louis and chef Magda Louis are second-generation Canadians who grew up in Montreal. Though they’re working to include the foods of Martinique and other French Caribbean islands on their menu, La Creole’s long, elegant room, draped in ivory fabric that ruffles in the breeze from open windows, has fast become a gathering point for the city’s diminutive Haitian community (there are 16,000 Haitians in all of Ontario, according to Stats Canada, compared with more than 110,000 in Quebec).
One night this spring, 20-odd people sat at a long table eating pwason la creole, legim ratatouille and kribish ak sabyen – that’s whole fish, stewed vegetables and shrimp with sweet potato chips – while a volunteer taught them Creole proverbs.
“In Creole tradition, you don’t just eat,” Mr. Cherette wrote on his blog a while ago. “Food becomes the centerpiece of a whole affair.”
Ms. Louis’s accra de morue – salt cod and potato fritters – are simultaneously light, doughy and flavourful, exactly as you find them in the French Caribbean. Those creole shrimp are tasty little prawn bites, particularly against the crunch of sweet potato chips. Another starter, of cubed, deep-fried beef, came dry and chewy, which is to say it was highly authentic.
The stewed whole snapper is a must-try: it’s served on the bone, sweet and moist and infused with the flavours of white onions and hot peppers. The kitchen wasn’t entirely consistent over my two visits there: fried plantains were leaden one night, light and crisp another, and the creole chicken, bland one evening, was sensational the next.
Since my last visit the kitchen has added quails cooked with guava, and lamb chops done with tamarind and apricot. The cooking is evolving, Mr. Cherette said.
The drinks here are in many cases as fascinating as they are delicious. The malta ak let, made with Malta Créole malt beverage and condensed milk, is a gluggable dead-ringer for Christmas pudding with brandy sauce.
Even better is the house drink called Le Kremas, which combines Barbancourt, cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise with coconut milk that Ms. Louis makes from whole coconuts in the back.
It’s a liquid dessert, effectively. You shouldn’t leave without trying one.
Atmosphere: West side cool tempered with warm Caribbean hospitality, in one of the sexiest rooms in town. Loud.
Wine and drinks: More than 100 types of rum; best-in-city cocktails; good beers; bottle service that doesn’t leave you feeling used.
Best bets: All of it (except the tripe). Bring friends. Order everything.
Prices: Small plates, $3 to $7; entrees and sharing plates $12 to $28.
NB: No reservations. Cash and Canadian debit only.
Atmosphere: A simple, friendly room filled with Haitian-Canadians and curious mid-towners. Take the window table if you can get it.
Wine and drinks: Excellent, interesting cocktails; tropical juices including soursop; traditional Haitian coffee; a few mass-market beers and wines.
Best bets: Accras de morue and tostones, kribish ak sabyen shrimp, stewed pwason la creole, creole chicken.
Prices: Appetizers, $4 to $12; entrees, $12 to $23.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won’t blow a lot of people’s minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.