Nowadays, if you went looking for a Haitian restaurant you’d probably try Flatbush, Canarsie, or Marine Park. But in the 1960s, the area around 57th Street on Manhattan’s West Side was a Haitian stronghold. The area was called Bois Verna, after a neighborhood in Port-Au-Prince known for its ancient latticed houses. New York’s Bois Verna once boasted bookstores, churches, cafes, and bodegas called petit magasins. One of the only institutions remaining is Le Soleil ("The Sun"), a restaurant founded in the early 70s by Rolande Bisserth, cook and owner, on a busy stretch of 10th Avenue just north of 57th, where cabbies and limo drivers often double-parked to hurry in for carry-out.
In 2011, a new landlord and rent increase forced the long-running institution to close. But this is the rare restaurant real estate story that has a happy ending, because in 2013, Bisserth triumphantly reopened Le Soleil across the street and down the hill, still on 10th Avenue but now technically in Hell’s Kitchen rather than the Upper West Side. The new premises is far more handsome and well-appointed than the previous one, with peach-colored walls above brown wainscoting, with the same collection of colorful tropical landscapes lining the walls, mainly in the celebrated Haitian Primitive style.
One of the only Haitian institutions remaining is Le Soleil.
The menu at the new place remains pretty much the same as the old one. Divided into two parts, the first lists a core of dishes always available, including the greatest hits of Haitian cuisine; the second offers three to five specials per day that run to Sunday’s beef tongue, Thursday’s guinea hen, and Saturday’s pizzle — bull penis. Approach at your own risk. Not all the specials are available on the days promised, but on any given day you’re likely to find a choice of 10 or so main courses from both parts of the menu, all displaying the same winning mix of French and African elements that characterizes Haitian fare.
Each of these set meals starts with a simple salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers served with French dressing — you know, the orange, gloppy salad condiment that comes in a bottle. There’s nothing really French about it; how the dressing got to Haiti decades ago and was accepted as Gallic is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, unless you secretly have a bottle of the stuff stashed in your refrigerator, eating a salad slobbered with it is at least an interesting novelty.
As an aside, there’s only one appetizer: accra ($1 each). These elongated fritters are made with mashed malanga (aka cocoyam, yautia, or dasheen), a gnarled tuber of the elephant ear plant often seen in Latin groceries. Mixing malanga with black-eyed peas and scallions, these crisp brown fritters develop a creamy gray interior and taste twice as good if you spoon on the hot sauce called piklis, which sits in a jar on the table. Formulated with vinegar, chopped cabbage, and scotch bonnet peppers, it packs a prodigious wallop.
The national dish of Haiti is lambi, but many Haitian restaurants in Brooklyn no longer serve it due to spiraling costs. Here it remains king among entrees, though at $20 it’s also the priciest. Known in English as conch, and Italian as scungilli, lambi is the horny creature pulled out of the pink-lipped shell that you hold up to your ear to hear the ocean. The thing takes a lot of tenderizing to be palatable, and Haitian cooks are experts at it. At Le Soleil the shellfish is fricasseed in a vinegary pink solution as beautiful as the shell. It’s probably unlike anything you’ve tasted before and a big raw onion ring rides on top.
Legumes turn out to be the most African dish of all: a glorious moosh of leafy vegetables stewed with a few carrots and beans, flavored with chunks of beef.
Other notable entrees include griot ($12), a confit of fatty pork chunks achieved by marinating the meat in sour orange and shallots, boiling them in the marinade until it evaporates, then frying the pork chunks until dark-colored and delicious. The same very French treatment is afforded goat (cabrit), beef (tasso de boeuf), and turkey (tasso dinde) with similar results. Pork is still the best, with turkey second. Love goat? On Wednesday and Sunday, it’s available in an orangish brown gravy (cabrit en sauce, $14).
If you’re really famished, go with the red snapper. Like the lambi, it will set you back $20 for a large specimen. The fish is fried head-on and whole, then strewn with onions. For lovers of plain seafood, it’s spectacularly fresh. On the other hand, vegetable adorers will select a dish with the generic-sounding name of legumes ($12). It turns out to be the most African dish of all: a glorious moosh of leafy vegetables stewed with a few carrots and beans, flavored with chunks of beef. Pour on the piklis.
Entrees come with rice and peas and a whole boiled plantain at lunch. At dinner you get fried plantains instead of boiled, and djon-djon rice colored an alarming shade of black, not in the Italian manner with squid ink but by boiling the grain with tiny, spindly black mushrooms native to Haiti called djon-djon. These impart color and subtle flavor, but the mushrooms themselves are removed after cooking because they’re too damn tough to eat. The djon-djon rice also contains lima beans.
Ultimately, the prime allure of Le Soleil may not be its French or West African elements, but the sheer size and generosity of its app and entrees, and the warmth of the welcome. If you’re a meat and potatoes person who likes plain fare expertly cooked, give the restaurant a try. There’s no way you’ll go away hungry, or much poorer.
Cost: Dinner for two, featuring salads and two main courses, $40, including tax but not tip. Cash only.
Sample dishes: Lambi (fricasseed conch), fried chicken, poisson rose (fried or stewed red snapper), accra (malanga and black-eyed-pea fritters), griot (pork confit).
What to drink: Soft drinks, fruit juices, and Haitian milkshakes are available, but one of the best aspects of Le Soleil is its BYOB policy. A medium-bodied French or Italian red goes nicely with most of the entrées, though maybe bring a rose, festive fizzy white, or riesling for the lambi or red snapper. Lager or pilsner are great, beer-wise.
Bonus tip: Though every main comes with an introductory salad and copious sides, you may want to appetize by getting a couple of accra fritters (be forewarned they really fill you up), or by splitting an entrée as a starter. Grito is perfect for this purpose, since you can eat it with your fingers.