New Orleans’s culinary richness is rooted in its cross-cultural pollination. The city’s long colonial history and its strategic value as a port of entry assured a steady flow of goods, services and international influence over time. When we sit down to eat here, the product on the end of the fork is more than a tasty bite. Often it represents the latest twist of an ongoing experiment with French, Spanish, West African influences and more.
Fritai, a Haitian newcomer from the charismatic up-and-comer chef/owner Charly Pierre, is a case in point. There is an underrecognized alignment between the cuisines of Haiti and New Orleans, in large part due to these same colonial influences and shared histories. What started out as a food stall at Auction House Market has recently expanded into a spacious new home on Basin Street. Here you will find food that can be both comforting and surprising, sometimes both at the same time.
“Haitian cuisine and New Orleans cuisine have very similar flavor profiles,” Pierre explained. “They link so directly with three main components: French, West African and Spanish. So, when we do our Creole sauce it is much like a New Orleans Creole sauce, we cook down peppers, onion, garlic and lots of spices.” Yet the road diverges with epis – the bedrock Haitian seasoning that underscores much of the flavor from this point forward. “Green onions, cloves, garlic, scotch bonnet peppers all blended up with oil. So that is epis – our trademark seasoning,” Pierre explained.
Start with “Akra,”spicy vegetarian patties served alongside a ramekin of pikliz – a fiery concoction of cabbage, carrot, bell pepper, hot pepper, citrus and vinegar. Similar to chow chow, it is the national condiment of Haiti. “We serve it with everything,” Pierre said. “Even breakfast.” Mirliton aficionados will be pleased to see New Orleans’s most idiosyncratic squash featured in a flavorful salad with grilled carrot, red onion, vinegar and candied plantain. If you can’t choose between, a sample platter is available as well.
For entrees, there are bellwether dishes like an “Epis Jerk Chicken” that hit all the predominant Haitian notes, and casual family-style options that will make you do a double-take like the “Crabmeat Mac and Cheese.” “I’ve never been to a Haitian party or event that didn’t have a tray of mac and cheese handy,” Pierre said. “It dates from the 1970s, when a lot of international influence was sweeping through Haiti.” In Haiti it is often prepared with shelf-stable pantry staples like condensed milk. For his version, Pierre includes fresh pasta, smoked herring and local blue crab. Comfort foods like “Sos Pwa” – black beans and rice flavored with coconut milk – are a good vegetarian option (there are many here) but carnivores can make it their own with a braised oxtail upsell. Perhaps the most compelling dish is the “Griyo” – morsels of fried pork with plantains, beans and rice and pikliz on the side.
Along with the food, Fritai offers a robust drink menu lined out across categories – think Cream-based, spirit-forward and others featuring fresh fruit juices. The “Spicy Island Breeze” makes use of a scotch bonnet syrup, and the Clarinha is offered with soursop juice.
Fritai, 1535 Basin Street, Treme, 264-7899, Fritai.com
About the Chef
Charly Pierre is a chef to watch. He brings an intellectual curiosity to his menu that sets him apart. Born in Boston, he learned to love cuisine from both practical and emotional capacities thanks to his father (a chef for Marriott) and his mother, who cooked real Haitian food at home. He intentionally steered a course through culinary school, back of house as well as front and management positions over the course of his career (including some of Boston’s finest restaurants) and he got some national shine when he won on the Food Network’s Chopped competition. He moved to New Orleans in 2015, working at a series of notable establishments, before testing the waters in St. Roch Market. Fritai is his first brick and mortar.