When a restaurant names itself after a poem, it’s easy to assume the best. If the place’s aspiration were merely commercial, they’d have named it after a Harlequin romance. Even so, a visit to Choukoun’s Bistro was a pleasant surprise — the food was better than it had to be.
|Choukoun’s Bistro | 977 Manton Ave, Providence | Tues-Thurs, 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11 am-11 pm; Sun, 11 am-6 pm | Major credit cards | Beer + wine | Sidewalk-level access | 401.432.7200|
“Choukoun” was a Haitian Creole poem written in 1883 by Oswald Durand. Set to music, it was also popular as a song; rewritten as “Yellow Bird,” the young Harry Belafonte made it a hit. Choukoun the restaurant is a cheerful little place, as well scrubbed as a little girl in a party dress. Besides photographs of Haiti on the walls, there are an exotic African-looking stringed instrument, a small drum, and maracas. (The best musical touch, though, was a gentleman who sat waiting for an order to go, singing softly to himself. As we left, he cheerfully told us through a lilting accent how he sang all the time to lift his spirits.)
Open a year, Choukoun’s is simple place, with a simple menu chosen and priced to offer the immigrant community an inexpensive meal out or a break from cooking at home.
Poulet, dinde, griot, tassot. That is, chicken, turkey, pork, beef, and such. No desserts. There are just five tables for four and one long table for a party of six or seven. This isn’t a place for parasol drinks or culinary exotica like at the celebrated Tap Tap Haitian restaurant in Miami’s South Beach. It reminds me more of the sort of rice-and-chicken simple meal prepared by my Haitian college roommate Maxime St. Victor.
There are only a half-dozen appetizers, and the fried plaintains among them ($2 for a half-dozen) are served with your dinner anyway. Yes, prices are that low, with beef or chicken patties $1.50 and fried acra $2. Creole meatballs are $4.50, and the most expensive starters are the Buffalo wings and Creole shrimp, each $6.
As is typical with many tiny ethnic places, they were out of several items. For beer, they had Heineken, but not Corona or Prestige. The red wine is a Beaujolais, $3. For non-alcoholic drinks, there was passion fruit juice, but not the papaya frappe.
They didn’t have the meat patties either, so we started with the acra and were well pleased. Again typical with places that are as much extensions of home kitchens as they are restaurants, there’s not much concern here for portion control. Though we ordered only one appetizer for the three of us, and the menu said the serving was six, eight arrived: thumb-sized fried fritters, hardly greasy, slightly spicy and delicious. When we asked what the vegetable was, our friendly waiter soon plunked on our table an example of the starchy tuber that was shredded for the treat.
For main dishes, you can get a basket with fried plaintains, though the accompanying meat might be marinated. But for only a $1 or $1.50 more you can get the same dish as an official dinner with additional rice and beans and a salad.
Again, the pricing is as modest as the portions are generous. The most expensive dinner choice was my cabri, goat, at $10.50. It’s also an omnipresent item on South American menus and one that I often choose. This was the best I’ve ever had, not at all stringy, slow-cooked to an unfamiliar tenderness for that meat. Johnnie’s chicken ($7.50) also fell off the bone. The beef ($8.50), ordered by the third in our party, not only tender and full of flavor, was also briefly fried to add an unusual crunch, ingenious for something that was first stewed.
All three of our choices were well-marinated for additional flavor and served with the same tasty, tomato-based gravy. Each came with three pieces of fried plaintain, flat patties maximizing frying surface. (The one discordant note of the meals: not cooked to order, they were dry and not even hot.) Tasty by themselves, two heaping bowls of rice and read beans were delicious with the sauce.
Other main dishes are: fish, red snapper if available, priced to market; Creole meatballs; and something listed as “legume” and described as mashed eggplant, spinach, carrots and “coyote’s squash,” served with marinated beef. (Kids can have chicken nuggets or wings with fries, for $5.50.)
I mentioned Tap Tap above because that was a favorite memory of our world-traveling friend Nina, familiar with Haiti, who accompanied us and very much enjoyed her visit here. She loved her crunchy marinated beef. And her whole meal didn’t cost much more than a banana daiquiri.