730 E. Jericho Tpke., Huntington Station
AMBIENCE: Homey storefront turning out compelling Haitian dishes for dining in or takeout
ESSENTIALS: Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Saturday noon to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; parking lot, beer and wine, major credit cards accepted, wheelchair accessible; call ahead for takeout
Marie Michele Destil loves ginger so much she named her new Haitian counter-service spot Gingerbites — two words that blend into one as she says it. A root touted for its medicinal powers, aromatic ginger lends food a peppery warmth, yet it’s also refreshing.
Haitian fare is a variant of Creole cuisine influenced by African and French colonizers. Plantains, yuca, squash and breadfruit fall among oft-used ingredients, as well as leafy greens, fish, chicken and pork. Destil uses them all in her 20-or-so seat storefront. A regal woman, ageless, even, she is extra-hospitable as she kisses her palm and hastily blows a kiss to a repeat customer.
Once she’s caught up with orders, she exits the kitchen to the dining room and tells stories of Huntington parties where she cooks for her guests. Over her 20 years of living on Long Island, those experiences inspired her to open a restaurant.
In the center of the room, an accent wall has been transformed into an artful chalkboard, with dishes listed by their French Creole names inside a drawing of a ribbon. Folk art hangs elsewhere, and a trio of beer taps sits at the corner of a small bar that runs down the length of the room.
An unofficial national dish called griot — pronounced GREE-oh —is cubed pork marinated in an epis sauce, which is like a Haitian pesto of scallions, parsley, garlic and ginger, then fried in a skillet. Served burnished red to brown, the savory meat begs for Destil’s pickled red onions. Or better yet, pair a bite with pikliz — pronounced pick-LEES — my new favorite condiment, a brunoise of cabbage, onion, carrot and Scotch bonnet in vinegar. With acid, texture and heat, pikliz transforms an interesting dish into an addictive one. It’s a dish I’ll order as often as I visit.
But I’m ahead of myself. Start with appetizers, such as the accra croquettes made with the mashed root vegetable malanga, along with scallions and chili for this fritter’s interior. A soft plantain serves as a cup for the plantain etoufee, filled with chopped sausage, bell pepper and onions. Festival fries, a medley of sweet potatoes, yuca and breadfruit tempt the starch addict.
For an entree with more variety than griot, fritay offers a big plate of fried offerings: pork, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, plantains and sausages, also served with pikliz. Stewed conch — lambi — is also traditional. Vegetarians should order the stew, with spinach, cabbage and eggplant — listed on the menu as the legume entree.
Do not miss the humble rice and red beans. Served as a side or on the side of several entrees, it’s dirty rice, but not wet, wearing clove, garlic, parsley and thyme. There’s ginger, of course. It’s the key ingredient.