CADET’S CARIBBEAN (2436 Danforth, at Main, 416-850-8582) Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $8. Open Monday to Thursday 9 am to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 9 am to midnight, Sunday and holidays 1 to 9 pm. Licensed. Delivery. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Before opening Toronto’s first Haitian restaurant, Henri Cadet worked the customer service desk at Swiss Chalet. Most of the calls he fielded came from angry customers who’d placed an order for delivery and wanted to know what had happened to their goddamn chicken. That can’t have been fun.
“Well, they were happy when I told them it would be free, ” laughs Cadet.
Learning how to deal with the public has kept the easy-going first-time restaurateur in good stead with the east-enders who’ve slowly been discovering his low-key café since it launched last June.
They don’t come for the decor – a bare-bones storefront decked out with a few tables here and there, a plasma TV over the bar tuned to CNN, fluorescent lighting overhead – but for the island-style comfort food and the genuine hospitality.
Though Cadet’s short lineup also includes a number of Jamaican and Trinidadian dishes to help pay the rent – jerk chicken ($7.99), goat roti ($7.50) – we’re here for the Haitian grub. Among the unfamiliar-to-most appetizers, accra turns out to be skinny little falafel-like fritters made from grated taro and black-eyed peas, boulette tasty little meatballs (both $2.50) and banane peze ($3) smashed and deep-fried plantain (aka tos-tones).
They all come unaccompanied except for the bottle of Frank’s Red Hot on each table, but I find their flavours really perk up when dunked in what Cadet calls chicken sauce, a tomato-based hot sauce that’s served with chicken but contains no fowl. Worth asking for.
But unless you’re a fan of very well-done meat, both griot and tassot – fatty lime-marinated pork shoulder and stringy stewing beef (both $7.95) – can be tough going for the uninitiated. Sided with Jamaican-style red rice and kidney beans or, for an extra buck, far superior sun-dried mushrooms and lima beans with garlicky rice, they’re first stewed and then fried. I mean really fried. We’re talking shoe leather here, folks.
But add a spoonful of picklise, a deceptively tame-looking coleslaw land-mined with incendiary pickled Scotch bonnet pepper, and you could eat a mukluk. There’s also a slightly milder version minus the chilies for you wimps out there ($3 for a life-time supply).
Fainter hearts and vegetarians will dig mais moulu ($8.25), a plateful of buttery cornmeal polenta topped with stewed veggies and sauce pois, the latter a thin kidney bean purée halfway between Indian dal and Mexican refried beans. Call it the Haitian equivalent of Mom’s mashed potatoes and gravy.
Only soupe joumou ($7.50) falters. A smooth pumpkin potage, it’s loaded with yellow pepper, carrot and thyme as well as maddeningly mushy macaroni. But follow it with a slice of boozy gateau au beurre, pineapple upside down cake spiked with Haitian rum ($3.50), turn up the zouk and kompa on the jukebox and all is well with the world.
Here’s another important lesson Cadet learned at Swiss Chalet. He delivers within a three-mile radius of his resto. Beats a rotisserie bird and prefab fries any day of the week.