A Creole Chill in Cambria Heights

3 Feb

Brasserie Creole

I had maneuvered the car on top of a mound of snow. I hesitated before opening the door. The temperature was barely in double digits and the city had just been blanketed with a foot of snow. I was a block from our destination, Brasserie Creole, on Linden Boulevard in the Cambria Heights neighborhood in Queens. I finally opened the car door and shuffled tentatively on an icy sidewalk toward the restaurant chosen by Mike from Yonkers.

Before I got to the restaurant I noticed the “Handz of Godz” barber shop across Linden Boulevard. I fumbled with my camera, reluctantly taking off my gloves; my fingers practically useless against the cold metal of the camera. I clicked a few shots and then moved my camera to Brasserie Creole, which, according to the sign said “La Boisserie”

Who wouldn't want their hair styled by the "handz of godz?"

Who wouldn’t want their hair styled by the “handz of godz?”

As I was trying to focus in the limited street light, a voice in the dark called to me. “Hey, you. What are you doing?”

I ignored it at first. The voice, which had a Caribbean lilt to it, was not familiar and why would it be addressing me?

“I’m talking to you,” the voice said, making it clear who it was addressing. I turned to see that it was coming from a man in a parked car that had rolled down his window.

I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“I see you taking pictures around my neighborhood. Why are you doing that?” the man asked in a not very neighborly tone.

I was cold. I just wanted to get into the restaurant. I really didn’t know what to say to him.

“I…I…ah…I’m going to eat here,” I stammered, indicating Brasserie Creole, “I like to take pictures of the places where I eat.” He obviously was not familiar with the annoying food blog universe trait where everyone photo documents their meals; a trait I am admittedly often guilty.

“I know you are not from this neighborhood,” he added.

“No, I’m not,” I agreed.

I could see him nod from inside the car. “We need to know who’s in our neighborhoods. It’s dangerous out there.”

“Yeah, it can get dangerous,” I said with my own nod and shoved my camera into my coat pocket. “Now I’m gonna go eat.”

And with that I pushed open the doors to Brasserie Creole.

With the exception of a couple of patrons at the bar, the restaurant which featured a dance floor and small stage for live acts, a bar, and a dining area that wrapped around the dance floor, was deserted. We were seated at a table in the moodily-lit (meaning dark) dining area where cloth napkins were ornately tucked into stemmed water/wine glasses. Not a good sign for our unrefined group. And that I was still cold after taking off my winter coat, but keeping the other multiple layers on was another bad sign. Still I was excited. We were at a Haitian restaurant and though I’ve had Haitian food and liked it, for our group this was a first.

Cloth napkins and stemmed water glasses at Brasserie Creole.

Cloth napkins and stemmed water glasses at Brasserie Creole.

A tall man came by our table and introduced himself as “Alex.” He said he would help us with any questions about the menu.

He mentioned that the steamed fish was the most popular menu item.

“What kind of fish?” Zio inquired.

Alex thought for a moment. “It’s a big fish,” he said, opening up his arms to indicate how big. “The chef cuts it into slices.”

“Do you want to start with appetizers?” he asked.

There were no appetizers on the menu given to us.

“We can cook some up for you,” he offered.

“Sure, why not,” Mike from Yonkers said with a wide smile. “Make it enough for the five of us.”

Alex nodded and went into the kitchen.

It wasn’t getting any warmer in the restaurant as we waited. I was glad I was wearing long underwear, but even with two pairs of socks, I was starting to lose feeling in my toes. Our waitress and Alex returned carrying two large platters of assorted fried appetizers; calamari, chicken wings, accra (fried yucca) and fried plantains. On each platter was a small bowl of what looked like cole slaw but was actually a fiery hot sauce. The hot sauce was very welcome because without it the dense fried selection was just dull. We picked at the appetizers, leaving half of one of the platters untouched.

Two platters of fried appetizers with Haitian cole slaw.

Two platters of fried appetizers with Haitian cole slaw.

Taking Alex’s recommendation, three of us; Eugene, Mike from Yonkers and me, ordered the steamed fish while Gerry chose the fried goat and Zio the pedestrian. chicken Creole. We noticed people coming in out of the restaurant with orders to go and there were a few bar patrons eating, but it was primarily just our group that was keeping the kitchen busy.

Kompa, one of the many music traditions of Haiti, flowed from speakers on the stage as a sound technician worked on the audio equipment; the volume jumping between loud and not so loud. Over the music we listened and shivered as Eugene boasted about his upcoming Punta Cana all-inclusive.

“It has eight restaurants,” he said.

“Are you going to leave the property?” I asked.

He shook his head definitively.

“Yeah, and I’ll be in Puerto Rico,” Gerry announced out of the blue.

“When?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” he said as if a trip to Puerto Rico during a polar vortex was no big deal.

Zio and I just muttered into our plates.

Thankfully the talk of tropical vacations was interrupted by our dinners—the portion of steamed fish placed in front of me enormous and accompanied with a family-style mound of rice and beans.

“This is the tenderest fish I’ve ever tasted,” Eugene shouted from the opposite end of the table.

The "tenderest" unidentified fish.

The “tenderest” unidentified fish.

It was tender; the flesh succulent and seemingly never ending. We may not have known the name of the fish we were eating, but after a few bites, we didn’t care. I piled some of the rice onto my plate and shoveled a forkful into my mouth. In the dark of the room, I hadn’t noticed the Scotch Bonnet pepper that was concealed within the rice and on my fork about to enter my mouth. Needless to say, the hiccups were fierce and a beer was very much needed to put out the fire.

Yet despite the heat of the pepper, my toes were still frozen.

“I can’t believe how much meat was on that fish,” Eugene again bellowed over the music.

Mike from Yonkers nodded his agreement as he slowly and methodically worked on the fish not caring that everyone else was done and waiting to get out of the frigid restaurant and into their comparatively balmy cars.

Feeling impatient eyes on him, he threw up his hands and announced that he was done.

But we weren’t done yet.

When our waitress asked about dessert, Zio couldn’t help himself and suggested we try the Haitian cake.

Apologizing, our waitress said they were out of the Haitian cake, whatever that was. So, thankfully, we all passed on dessert and began to assemble the layers needed to exit the restaurant when, from across the room, our waitress announced that she had “good news.”

“We do have Haitian cake,” she said.

The good news kept us waiting almost fifteen minutes for two slices of what was an ordinary, layer cake with colorful frosting. I had a few bites, but really couldn’t discern what distinguished Haitian cake from Dominican cake or any other cake for that matter. Most of the two pieces were left untouched especially after, along with the cake, we were brought our tab.

The remains of the Haitian cake.

The remains of the Haitian cake.

“We have a new record,” Eugene announced after tallying up the bill. “$38 per person.”

“Maybe now they’ll have the funds to turn on the heat,” I grumbled as we headed out into the polar vortex.

Only Gerry smiled. “Thank God. I’m finally off the hook,” he said. Our tab at Brasserie Creole had eclipsed the former record held by Bay Shish Kebab, the overpriced Turkish place in Sheepshead Bay, The Lamb in Sheepshead (bay) Gerry had burdened us with many years ago.

The next day Mike from Yonkers, still deflecting responsibility over the folly of his choice, sent an email explaining why we were way over our loose $20 per person budget.  He wrote: “I’ll have you all know that the love-of-my-life forgot to tell me that Haitians charge an arm and a leg for appetizers!  Could have been invaluable information, you think?” The “love of his life,” being his girlfriend, who, of Haitian descent, was the person who suggested Brasserie Creole for our group.

There was a lesson in there somewhere, I thought, but it had nothing to do with what Haitians charge for appetizers.

Brasserie Creole
22702 Linden Blvd.
Queens

4 Responses to “A Creole Chill in Cambria Heights”

  1. Anonymous February 3, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Excellent piece. Who else ever thinks of seeking out Haitian cuisine on the coldest night of the year. If only the cake icing had been scotch bonnet pepper flavored.

  2. Neckbones February 4, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    Scotch bonnet icing might have improved the cake though I doubt it would have defrosted any ice outside.

  3. Bennett Paris February 5, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    Nice. I liked the danger element in the beginning. 

    This is a funny line: “It’s a big fish,”

    Around here, when people don’t know what kind of fish it is, they just say pescado, which means pretty much nothing. The other day I bought a bunch of baby barracuda that the fish sellers called pescado. 

  4. Neckbones February 5, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    Here, it’s tilapia. But this fish was not tilapia.

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