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Two Strikes and a Haitian Feast

Today’s was a hard-fought food quest.

After two failed attempts to persuade cabbies to guide us to their favorite spots to eat – taxi driver #1 flat-out refused to reveal his preferred restaurant in Queens, while hack #2 tried to take us to Carmine’s – we climbed into Leslie Destine’s cab.

After 40 years in New York City and 20 behind the wheel of a taxicab, Leslie’s blood pressure is sky-high, and his cholesterol is in the danger zone – which means he can no longer eat at what he considers to be the best Haitian restaurant in Manhattan.

Though it took a roundabout journey to convince him that we wanted to taste what he was talking about, Leslie eventually delivered us to Le Soleil.

But not before sharing the secret behind his 39-year marriage.

“Too many friends break your marriage,” he said, “Too much talking, too much temptation. It’s no good.”

His 40th wedding anniversary is coming up in January. To celebrate the “beautiful wife I will never leave until I die,” he’s going to surprise her with a diamond ring and take her to Paris.

“She’s a lucky lady.”

“She worked for it.”

They met in Haiti and emigrated to Brooklyn as newlyweds. In the beginning, Leslie said, life was hard. They suffered together. Now the youngest of their four kids is 25 and doesn’t want to leave the house. At this point, he can’t imagine going back to the Caribbean.

“I’m going to be lost. I’m going nuts. I have nothing to say to people,” he explained, “New York is the best place to live. You can find everything here. Day or night, you’ll find it.”

When we arrived at Le Soleil, we were thrilled (but not surprised) when Leslie parked, hopped off his pillow and got out of the cab to exchange Creole pleasantries with the owner.

An easy smile spread across her round face as he gestured toward us, telling her to treat us right (and undoubtedly explaining the health reasons behind his six-month absence from her restaurant).

On the strength of the tiny cabbie’s introduction, we wandered into the empty Haitian diner, where the AC was off and jars of home-made habanero sauce dotted the tables.

Though we were only two, the owner directed us to a 4-top against the wall. We studied the English/Creole menu, searching for the dishes Leslie told us he ordered when he was craving good Haitian food.

Single men began to arrive as we waited for our dinner.

Every one of them ordered cow feet stew ($10), which Le Soleil only serves on Mondays (and which Leslie must’ve assumed we wouldn’t want to try, since he hadn’t mentioned the dish).

Our feast – fried plantains, red beans and rice, red snapper ($16) and stewed chicken ($10) – turned out to be more solid than stellar.

The unsalted starchiness of the fried plantains fell flat with us. But the pork-flavored red beans and rice were a good backdrop for chicken that literally fell off its leg bone and a whole snapper fish that I cut with my fork.

I was a little disappointed when our server told us that both had been poached in a mixture of onions, tomato paste and Maggi bouillon cubes (The ubiquity of Maggi in Latin America is at least partly responsible for a lot of the high blood pressure in the region).

Even so, we left no scrap of meat uneaten and soaked up every drop of sauce with our rice and beans, sipping ginger beer and bubble gum-flavored Jamaican soda – and wondering about the secrets in the cow feet stew.

Le Soleil

877 10th Ave. between 57th and 58th Sts. – Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen
Tel., 212-581-6059
Entrees (including salad, rice and beans): $10-16
Open: 7 days a week for lunch and dinner

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