At Marie Mondesir’s Nouvelle Lune Cuisine, the multi-layered flavors of crisp, fried plantains and hearty, Creole stews tell a tale of colonization in Haiti even as they reward the tongue. Tender okra evokes West Africa, finely-sliced capsicum introduces the produce of the Americas and sautéed onions, imported to Haiti on the ships of European merchant-adventurers, are a token of the Old World. Using recipes and techniques refined by a long family tradition, Mondesir, a native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, proudly continues the rich culinary traditions of her island.
Entering Nouvelle Lune, an intimate and discreet restaurant tucked between a row of stores on Massachusetts Avenue, guests are greeted with an explosion of the senses that only serves to heighten the appetite. Inside the compact space, a frying pan hisses loudly from behind a wall, the soft aroma of rice lingers in the air, and the noise of the kitchen crowds the dining area to create a welcoming and homely ambience. The quaint dining area, with its simple, checkered table cloths and sparse table decoration, resembles a room in a doll house.
There are three seemingly separate menus at Nouvelle Lune, each with different selections and prices: a printed menu with explanations of dishes, a green board with white lettering hanging from the ceiling and the waiters’ own spoken menu. “What we serve daily depends upon the availability of produce,” explains Genecia Deraville, Mondesir’s daughter. “We buy our meat from the Haymarket, and they don’t have items such as goat and conch daily.” A phone call beforehand to inquire about the menu can prevent disappointment.
Simplicity and versatility are the foundations of Haitian cuisine. With ingredients culled from the island’s soil and seas, Haitian cuisine is both simple and satisfying. Capsicum and onions form the basis of the sauces, and flavor is then enhanced with spices, other vegetables and meat. Although more exotic meats such as goat and conch are featured sparingly, Nouvelle Lune’s offerings are dominated by hearty servings of pork, beef, fish and chicken. The preparation itself is kept simple and devoid of fuss, with no precise recipe for any dish. Meats are usually fried or boiled and then left to soak in the sauces, with the exact composition determined by the chef’s preferences and the availability of ingredients. It is this very resourcefulness that ensures a refreshingly rich and harmonious blend of flavors and spices.
“When you’re starved, a potato has no peel,” says a Creole proverb. In keeping with the abundance of the island’s produce, servings are hardly scarce. At Nouvelle Lune, Mondesir serves meals that are twice blessed with surprising blends and generous portions.
On my first visit to Nouvelle Lune, a plate of Poisson Gotcel ($8.50) piqued my interest in Haitian cuisine: I was greeted with an entire red snapper—head and tail intact—doused in the signature red sauce with onions and green peppers. A gracious serving of red beans, rice and two thick, crisp, fried plantains accompanied the meal. The fish was cooked to a tender perfection, while the sauce, mild yet zesty, complemented the meat wonderfully. The fried plantains, infinitely more textured than the thin, supermarket, potato-chip variety, boasted alternating layers of crispiness, saltiness and tender plantain. I vowed to return to sample the goat meat.
When I did, I ordered a small plate of cabrit (goat in sauce, $6.50) without even glancing at the menu. My companion choose tasso boeuf (beef marinated and cooked under a low flame, $6.50), and we both opted for a side order of fried plantains ($2.00). The meal began with a skimpy and unexciting salad: iceberg lettuce, shredded carrot and green pepper, served with honey mustard dressing. The goat and beef arrived, accompanied by the usual red beans and rice and fried plantains. The goat meat was tender yet chewy, soaked in the signature onion and green pepper sauce. The rice acted as a powerful absorbent of sauce. “This is Haitian home-cooking,” Deraville says. “What we eat at home is no different from what we serve at the restaurant.”
She also refuted my assumption that conch was the last food frontier of a very brave soul. “Conch is a specialty. It’s very tasty,” she says. “The problem is that it is usually very costly and hard to come across. Plus, it takes a long time to cook. The meat is chewy, so it has to be boiled for a long, long time in a pressure cooker before it is soft enough to eat.”
The selection of new and unfamiliar dishes is so vast that the eyes tend to focus on the menu’s main courses. But the list of beverages is equally intriguing. Nouvelle Lune serves a variety of fresh juices, including papaya, orange, grapefruit, strawberry and many others. I ordered a papaya juice ($1.50), a delightful blend that used a fresh papaya puree. My companion selected a Cola Lakay ($1.00) from the freezer, a carbonated drink that tastes rather like a punch-flavored Jolly Rancher.
Nothing ends a Creole meal better than a praline ($1.50). Haitian pralines differ from American ones in that the island variety mixes cashews or peanuts with sugar and hardens them into asymmetrical disks. Wrapped in standard Saran wrap, these sweets are unassuming treasures. I purchased a praline for the road, and munched on it while walking to the T-stop. In seconds, the sugar melted in my mouth, perfectly complementing the flavor of the cashews.
Nouvelle Lune Cuisine
2263 Massachusetts Ave