Modern Haitian cuisine is a marvelous mash-up of West African and French influences, with further inspiration coming across the border from the Dominican Republic on the shared island of Hispaniola. For the last decade, one has been well-advised to go to Brooklyn neighborhoods like East Flatbush, Canarsie, or Stuyvesant Heights to find the best Haitian food in town, though the city’s earliest Kreyol neighborhood was in Hell’s Kitchen, where a single restaurant remains, Le Soleil. But now the cuisine has enthusiastically reasserted itself in Manhattan on the Lower East Side at Rebel.
The restaurant occupies the old Minnie’s space at the corner of Stanton and Clinton, well-windowed and brick-walled, now decorated with colorful paintings. Among them is a striking canvas celebrating Jean-Michel Basquiat, the artist and son of a Haitian immigrant who in the early 1980s spray-painted SAMO© street art slogans in the neighborhood (my favorite: “Life is confusing at this point…SAMO©”). This being the Lower East Side of today, a well-stocked bar is the focus of the room, occupying most of the rear wall and displaying bottles of the celebrated Haitian rum Barbancourt.
That rum is used in various cocktails created by the bar staff, including the 1791 ($18), a drink celebrating the year Haiti began its revolution and featuring both dark and light rum, brown sugar, and lime juice. The rum also works its way into original recipes, including an appetizer of mussels ($18) in Kreyol sauce — a rich tomatoey concoction bathing the bivalves in their shells, festooned with colorful bell peppers and sharpened with rum. You’ll be seeing this sauce again, as a dip for chicken wings and in modified form in a fricassee of chicken.
Rebel is an offshoot of the similarly themed First Republic in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a port near Newark. The Lower East Side edition boasts a pair of chefs — Marie Charles, who also works as a fashion designer, and Dominique Hermann, who came out to talk to a guest and me one evening. “We’re the only Haitian restaurant in the neighborhood,” he told us, “and we feel like a perfect fit.”
Besides the Kreyol sauce, another constant of Rebel is piklis. I’m not sure whether to call it a relish, a sauce, or a slaw, since it functions as all three: shredded cabbage steeped in white vinegar flavored with Scotch bonnet chiles. Whatever you do with it — spoon it over the top of a dish, eat it in alternate bites, or use it as a dip — it’s the cuisine’s chief vector of spiciness, here and at other Haitian restaurants. It’s also the perfect accompaniment to the most exclusively West African dish on the menu, akra ($6). Back in their ancestral home, these crunchy oblong fritters are usually made with mashed blackeyed peas; in Haiti, the root vegetable malanga is more commonly used. Delivered warm, they’re a don’t-miss app.
The best thing I tried on Rebel’s menu is griot ($26). This confit of fatty pork chunks first marinates in a solution of shallots and citrus. According to Hermann, he uses bitter and sour Seville oranges (also used to make marmalade) in his marinade rather than the limes more commonly used elsewhere. The pork is then boiled to dryness in the marinade, causing the solid parts to anneal to the surface. As the chunks dry out and the lard is rendered, the meat cooks a second time in the fat by frying. You’ve never tasted pork so flavorful and richly textured; not soft, but fibrous and chewy.
The kitchen uses similar methods with goat and beef in separate entrees. All three are available in smaller portions, along with akra, fried sea bass, and green plantains prepared like tostones in the appetizer called fritaille — a term in Kreyol, the language of Haiti, that means “fried things,” and constitutes a separate culinary category. Pick any combination as your appetizer, paying per item.
Usually considered the national dish of Haiti, lambi ($37) is conch — the creature in the pink shell you put up to your ear to hear the ocean — fricasseed in a garlicky tomato sauce. The restaurant’s rendition is spot on and has generous quantities of the main ingredient; the price and portion size means you may want to share a serving with several others. The texture of the mollusk is its star feature, tenderer than the rubbery uncooked flesh would suggest, and smooth as glove leather on the tongue.
The gracious staff realizes that many Lower East Side habitués are unfamiliar with Haitian cuisine, and are happy to answer any questions about the menu. The dish called legumes, for example, proves to be a dense — and definitely not vegetarian — green stew of several vegetables almost cooked into a puree dotted with big pieces of beef. This entrée, like the others, is served with a choice of rice, bean, and plantain sides, including djon-djon rice. The name refers to a spindly mushroom native to Haiti, which imparts a deep black color and no discernible flavor, though the rice is nicely oiled and dotted with baby lima beans. The effect is stunning and dramatic — and it all adds up to one of the best dishes on Rebel’s distinctive menu.