**1/2 out of ****
1844 Atateken St. (at Ontario St. E.); 514-903-6707; agrikol.ca
Accessibility: Washrooms are upstairs, and restaurant space is tight.
Price: entrées $6-$14; mains $15-$36; desserts $4-$9
Ratings are from one to four stars: One is good, two is very good, three is excellent, four is exceptional.
Critic’s Choice: Signifies a noteworthy restaurant that is highly recommended, regardless of the star rating.
There’s no denying it: this is a rough time of year. In the sobering wake of the holidays, we’re up against at least another month (if we’re lucky) of big coats, salt stains, snow shovelling, ice scraping and sub-zero temperatures. Year after year, it doesn’t get easier — probably because we block it out — but there are ways to deal with it. The most obvious is to embrace winter, get outside and enjoy it. Another option? Take flight. If you can afford to, head down south, sit on a beach and drink margaritas until it’s time to face the cold again (with a tan).
Lastly — and one of the easiest solutions — you can travel to a warm, sunny place via your meal. Which is exactly why I decided to take a short but invigorating trip to Agrikol, the Haitian restaurant co-owned by
Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, and headed by
It was a wintry evening when I ventured out to Agrikol in the Village, a pink light illuminating the front door like a beacon of warmth. Although we were among the first to arrive (there are no reservations here), the compact dining room and bar quickly filled up with others ready to forget the cold. Peach-coloured wallpaper with a green palm print, fresh white wainscoting, patio lights, lively music, plenty of rum — I could instantly feel this restaurant’s undeniable energy washing over me in gentle waves.
, co-owned by Butler, Chassagne, Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg and her husband, Roland Jean. They soon expanded with a bar next door, Ti-Agrikol. Haitian-born chef Toussaint took over the kitchen as executive chef in 2017, and in 2018 Agg and Jean amicably decided to leave the business.
Toussaint, who recently opened his own place in
, moved to Ottawa from Haiti at a young age, eventually making his way to Montreal to forge his culinary career (including time spent at Toqué!). He returned home after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, until an opportunity brought him and his young family back to Montreal: Agrikol.
I had dined at this restaurant before, but this was my first time with Toussaint at the helm. What struck me most was the complexity of flavour and depth in all the dishes I sampled. Agrikol has always been a fun place to eat, but it seems to have grown up and become more serious about its food.
Drinks, on the other hand, have always been a strong suit, with an exciting selection of rums and rum-based cocktails to spark that warm, sunny feeling. (Pours are generous, so it won’t take long.) I thoroughly enjoyed the Dark and Stormy, with rum, lime and a pleasantly biting ginger beer. The Florita — a specialty from Toussaint’s hometown of Jacmel, named after a famous hotel there — was made in the style of a sour using three-star Barbancourt Haitian rum, lime, bitters and cane sugar. This refreshing drink had toasted biscuit undertones and a requisite sugared rim.
The menu is succinct and staff are friendly and generous, taking the time to explain each item. Our waiter was an extremely helpful guide, even talking us out of over-ordering. (He was right.) With so many traditional, intriguing options — including dishes with conch, goat and beef tail — it’s hard to choose, so we went with our waiter’s recommendations: griot (braised pork) to start, followed by a whole red snapper and Toussaint’s Haitian jerk chicken.
The griot was excellent: a hearty piece of braised pork shoulder with the best of both those melting tender pieces and the crunchy outer ones lingering in a shallow dark pool — an aromatic mixture of bitter orange, parsley, scotch bonnet, green onion and mustard — and topped with sautéed onions and peppers. Served alongside thick-sliced fried plantain best used to soak up the sauce and scoop up the pork, the appetizer was complemented by the pikliz, an addictively spicy, vinegar-soaked coleslaw condiment placed on each table, which many Haitians use in lieu of hot sauce. It helped cut through the richness of the pork with a delightful smack of sharpness and heat, and I could not get enough.
Mains were also generous. The red snapper was bathed in a lively mix of onions, peppers, garlic, parsley, cumin, bitter orange, scotch bonnet, lime and the fish’s cooking juices, served with fried plantain and a side of faintly sweet and sticky coconut rice. Meaty and flaky, the fish got most of its tang after a good soak in the fragrant sauce. I only wish they’d given us another plate for the bones, as they kept slipping into the darkness of that sauce.
Toussaint’s jerk chicken was a half bird brined for 24 hours, then rubbed in a spice mixture and marinated for six more hours before being roasted to moist perfection. More savoury than spicy, this pared-down version had lovely notes of tamari, bitter orange, thyme and mustard, and was served with more fried plantain and a subtle but highly enjoyable mound of rice and beans. The secret to the latter’s gentle complexity was the addition of some of the starchy cooking water from the beans, as well as coconut milk, onion, garlic, herbs and spices. If you want to turn up the volume, add a little scoop of pikliz to the mix.
For dessert — if it’s not rum — I highly suggest trying the coconut crème brûlée. Creamy but light and not overly sweet, this palate-cleansing dessert was garnished with coconut shavings and gave me one last taste of the Caribbean before I headed back out into the cold.
Not only did Agrikol make me forget about the winter blues, the entire experience put some pep back in my step. From the sunny atmosphere to the friendly staff, silky smooth rum and the distinct flavours of Toussaint’s comforting cuisine, along with plenty of plantain to go around, I can’t wait for my next Haitian staycation.