Love Bites

The warmth comes from more than the food at this Haitian original in the CD.

Waid Sainvil believes in love, which is why he opened Waid's in the Central District. "The sign out front is the sign of Erzulie, goddess of love in the Haitian voodoo religion. I had it tattooed on my right arm years ago. I didn't know why then, but Erzulie is what's behind the whole thing here." If my acquaintances are any measure, half of Seattle can claim to know the charismatic Sainvil. He's been a fixture on the club scene for years, bartending at places like Des Amis. With piercings and muttonchops, long plaits, and the occasional fur cap, he's a host par excellence. Every trip to his three-month-old Haitian restaurant-bar-lounge begins with handshakes and introductions to Sainvil and his staff. You're also likely to meet your fellow patrons. "No one is allowed to eat alone here," says Sainvil, who eases strangers into conversation with one another. No one leaves without a handshake or a hug, either. "I want this place to be a lounge where people become friends for the next 15 to 20 years." It's a big mission for a startup restaurant, and though the love is there, the clientele hasn't quite arrived. Once a grocery store, the room has space enough for a small dance floor, a megascreen television, a full bar, and a mezzanine with a "makeout room" (head for the green lights). The look is dusk, palm-rimmed, with attractive wood booths and walls a quilt of Caribbean-rich hues. Yet during the dinner hour, before the drinkers appear, it still feels disconcertingly empty. The place yearns for a crowd juiced up on cocktails and ready to dance, which is what it aims to be after the dinner hour's over. Inexpensive and interesting, Waid's offers a chance to try a cuisine that rarely makes an appearance on the West Coast. While the names and composition of many of the dishes are unique to Haiti, the overall Caribbean character of Waid's will be familiar to anyone who's dined on jerk chicken, morros y cristianos, tostones, and Stamp and Go. The menu is as exuberant as its author: Of the poul, it claims, "Eating chicken will never be the same";the pwason (fish) is described as "C'est très delicieux! Excuse my French." In the interests of authenticity, Sainvil only staffs his kitchen with Haitian cooks and imports some of the ingredients from the islands. Not all his dishes worked for me, though I'm not sure whether that's due to their execution or to the gap between what tastes authentic to Haitian palates and what tastes appealing to mine. For example, the chiktay—a sweet, rust-colored spread of salt cod and vegetables—was so spicy that two bites' worth required a 10-minute recovery time. Ekrevis (shrimp) sauteed in coconut milk didn't taste its freshest. Taso (goat) was marinated and then fried . . . and fried . . . and fried. But the off dishes were outweighed by tasty ones. Two appealingly flaky half-moon pastries—the pate kreol stuffed with seasoned, smoked fish; the marinad ak poul with peppers and shredded chicken—were paired with a carrot-onion slaw that's hot enough to scare the winter right out of you. Legume, a vegetarian eggplant-tomato stew that tasted like it could have come from Turkey, was luxuriously rich. His poul (fried chicken) was seasoned to the bone. And the most addictive entrée, the griyo (pork), came off as a Haitian carnitas—chunks of pork fried until the fat melted out and the meat pulled apart easily, its crisp exterior slathered in spice. All the entrées came with a flavorful rice pilaf and a half-dozen sides that rivaled Waid's walls for color: ruby beet salad, green beans, the harlequin carrot-onion slaw, starchy plantain chips with a raucous crunch. Waid says that his restaurant is becoming the headquarters of Seattle's Haitian community, which until now didn't realize its own numbers. He also wants to use the proceeds of his business to bring medicine to his native country and build schools and hospitals there. Setting aside his host persona for a second, he says, "This restaurant is my gate to help Haiti."

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