First Republic Lounge and Restaurant is out of saltfish, out of conch and out of goat on this uber-busy night when a birthday gal is being feted and serenaded by a few dozen friends who rock to the music of a deejay, and send ripples of merriment throughout the space on East Grand Street in Elizabeth.
We are merrier ourselves, just to be in the presence of the folks whose smiles and dance moves are interrupted only when it’s time to refuel with sips of cocktails and bites from the platters of traditional Haitian fare set upon the partygoers’ tables. First Republic—guided by its owner Stanley Neron, a member of Elizabeth’s Board of Education and a mentor to the city’s youth—has become a center for activism, a restaurant that literally puts its money where its beliefs lie.
Hop on its website or Facebook page and read about the regular programs and speakers, the film screenings and gatherings of organizers. Drop in most any night, and there’s community engagement a-happening. First Republic not only serves good food, it serves good causes.
Okay, I could’ve pouted to be so unlucky as to miss out on the much-touted salted red snapper, conch and goat. But once the joumou appeared at our table, my smiles were as wide as the birthday revelers’. This is, our server explained, a national dish in Haiti: a pumpkin soup eaten every year on January 1 to celebrate Haitian independence from European rule. Indeed, more than 200 years ago, Haiti liberated itself from slavery; it was first nation in the Western Hemisphere to do so. Eating the soup on the first of the new year, and also on Sundays all year long, is a way of toasting Haiti’s landmark independence.
First Republic’s joumou deserves toasting: A mild Caribbean pumpkin is at its base, along with a broth bolstered by beef and strewn with macaroni, cabbage, carrots and plantains. It’s a little creamy, a little starchy, a whole lot delicious. Think of it as a veritable melting pot of flavors.
The Tour of Haiti is the starter of choice here, for it’s a sampler of Haitian tastes. There’s akra, a fritter made of pureed coco, a fiber-rich root vegetable given shots of garlic and onion; expertly fried plantains; and doughy, chewy dumplings. Do a do-si-do of these fried foods with a feisty cabbage slaw called pikliz, a mild salad of lettuces and slivers of vegetables, and a toss of slivers of peppers, onions and cabbage that doesn’t generate the heat of the pikliz, but brings crunch and vitality to the plate.
Could pikliz be the next kimchi? I’m thinking this as the whole red snapper arrives. It’s swathed in a light, bright Creole sauce that doesn’t betray the soul of the mild fish. The meat flakes off the bone easily and begs to be doused in that easy-breezy broth of a sauce.
Basa, an even milder fish, is thickly breaded and fried, which doesn’t do it justice. But, that dark rum-spiked sauce given a squirt of lime juice is killer. Bottle it.
The chicken pike, a terrific stew of a dish that sees long-marinated chicken do time in a pot with tomatoes, onions, peppers and chilies, is the antidote to winter: warming, comforting and, frankly, nutritious.
I particularly loved it with First Republic’s black mushroom rice—which could stand on its own any time. Speaking of rice, you’ll get your choice of that embraceable black rice or white rice with a pea sauce or classic rice-and-beans as a side with an entree here.
If you’re looking for dessert, the pound cake seems more likely than the bread pudding to be on tap. Slices of the cake come resting in a spare puddle of sweet coconut juice that I wished was partnered by a dollop of whipped cream—something to offset the too-dry pound cake.
First Republic, which opened in the summer of 2014, isn’t just a restaurant and lounge. It’s an education in the cuisine of Haiti, where the influences of French and West African traditions marry indigenous island ingredients. And it’s an education in the art of hospitality, a place where even newcomers not invited to the party are made to feel like honored guests.
First Republic Lounge and Restaurant, 1204 East Grand Street in Elizabeth. 908-355-3940; firstrepubliclounge.com. Open daily for dinner, except Mondays.