When we spotted the beautifully dressed families outside Ambiance Caribbean Restaurant on Avenue L on Saturday evening, my co-adventurers and I had two thoughts:
1. We were headed to the right place.
2. We hoped that the right place had six seats for us.
Luckily, the restaurant has a huge banquet room in back. While the family celebrating their daughter’s initiation into temple were rocking out to reggae and eating cake, there was plenty of space for us in the dining room.
It was thanks to Gardy, the cabbie/X-ray technician who grew up on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, that we were there in the first place.
During a ride from Chelsea to Union Square a few days earlier, Gardy told me that Ambiance was his chosen spot to cool his heels and get a taste of home (although he was a little vague about his favorite dishes).
Between pink and green neon, Cubist paintings, a psychedelic mural, and a saxophone rendition of “Amazing Grace,” I had a hard time focusing on the French-English menu.
After some rough translating, we finally narrowed it down to three dishes: griot (fried pork marinated in sour orange juice), goat and deep-fried snapper. We asked our server to recommend a fourth.
When she looked at us as if we’d asked her to do a flying trapeze, we realized that she was used to speaking Haitian Creole with most of her customers. One of her colleagues rescued her, telling us to order garlic shrimp, which turned out to be the best dish of all.
The shrimp were enormous, perfectly cooked in a garlic-curry sauce that we ended up pouring all over our rice and red beans. We were sorry there were only six on the plate.
Deep-fried snapper was the runner-up. Fresh and mild and lightly battered, it was something I could imagine ordering at a shack on some Caribbean beach.
Despite the crispy pork fat that surrounded it, our griot was overdone, its sour orange flavor snuffed out by too much time in the oven. Our goat was dry and tough, too.
Pork and bean-based dipping sauces were what saved these two dishes. We dipped the meat in them, soaked our rice and beans in them and dunked our side orders of perfectly salted fried plantains in them until there was no sauce left.
The temple initiation party ended while we cleaned our plates. Parents hauled out leftovers wrapped in tin foil. Kids carried balloons. Before we knew it the banquet room was decked out in pink for the next fiesta: a birthday celebration for a one year old girl. We asked about dessert.
“There is no dessert,” our server said, “You want cake?”
I bet the party throwers would’ve given us some if we’d said ‘yes,’ but we were too embarrassed.
Plus, one of my co-adventurers had smuggled in a bag of champagne truffles from La Maison du Chocolat, which sent everyone but our non-chocolate eating fishetarian into throes of ecstasy. They were dark chocolate with just a bit of tart fizziness – slightly bitter, very unctuous, simply ridiculous.
The staff at Ambiance let us enjoy our truffles with the ease they’d shown us at the door – it was same shade of laid-back acceptance that Gardy wore while I’d chatted with him in his taxi.
Stuffed with a few of the cabbie’s favorites, I hoped some of his island might rub off on me. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it might taste even better at another restaurant.
Ambiance Caribbean Restaurant
9413 Avenue L, Canarsie, Brooklyn
Open: 7 days/week, noon to 11 pm
Credit cards accepted
Appetizers: $5-10; Mains: $10-20