Our restaurant critic checks out Port-au-Prince Authentic Haitian Cuisine in Silver Spring
Two kinds of fritters make their way to the table to begin my first meal at Port-au-Prince (PAP) Authentic Haitian Cuisine in Silver Spring. One batch—herbaceous and mildly spicy from a hint of habanero pepper—is thin, crispy akra fritters made from a paste of mashed, yam-like malanga root, scallions and onions. The other is marinad—round, flour-based fritters that resemble hush puppies and pack a heat wallop, as does their accompanying slaw. Called pikliz, the slaw is made with green cabbage, carrots, onions, habanero peppers, vinegar, lime juice and sea salt and is a condiment that accompanies most Haitian meals. The heat jolts at first, but as your taste buds adjust, you crave more of the habit-forming stuff. The slaw is a good entry point to discovering more of Haiti’s Creole cuisine and its harmonious blend of Spanish, French and African influences.
Haiti is the western third of Hispaniola, the large Caribbean island between Jamaica and Puerto Rico that also includes the Dominican Republic. When you enter PAP, you get an immediate feel for Haiti as your eyes fix on a stunning mural on the back wall of the beguiling 50-seat eatery, which chef Roberto Massillon opened with his brother Makendy in Silver Spring in February. The mural depicts a rara (music fest) in front of Port-au-Prince’s white-as-a-wedding-cake—and now destroyed—presidential palace, with a throng of joyful people in brightly colored jewel-tone clothing, dancing and wielding vaccine (large, single-note bamboo trumpets) and maracas. (The capital city’s palace collapsed in the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.)
“As soon as people enter the restaurant they know they are in Port-au-Prince,” says Massillon, who prefers to be called chef Don Berto. The painting is by Haitian-born and Boston-raised artist Fritz DesRoches. Many of DesRoches’ vibrant, airbrushed, acrylic paintings adorn the seafoam green walls of PAP.
Massillon, who is 40 and a U.S. Army veteran, was born in Jean-Rabel in northwest Haiti, but grew up in Port-au-Prince. At 19 he came to the Silver Spring area to live with his father and earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and modern language from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He works full-time for the U.S. State Department as a language and culture teacher for diplomats going to Haiti, which makes Port-au-Prince Authentic Haitian Cuisine a side gig. (The restaurant is only open for dinner and Sunday brunch.)
In college, Massillon, who started cooking with his stepmother when he was a child, would cook for friends. After college, he regularly organized potluck parties and started being known for his cooking. In 2016, at the urging of fans who lamented that there was no Haitian restaurant in the area, he started a weekly pop-up brunch at a downtown Silver Spring restaurant. “The people loved it and wanted more, so [Makendy and I] put all of our assets together and opened a restaurant,” he says. That’s a win-win for all of us.
Massillon’s menu is so brief that a party of four could order its entirety: five appetizers, five entrées (plus an entrée salad) and two desserts (rum cake or house-made ice cream). The offerings, devoid of pork and shellfish, reflect Massillon’s religious upbringing. “Growing up Seventh-day Adventist in Haiti, we abided by the dietary rules spelled out in the book of Leviticus, which included not eating pork or shellfish,” he says. He honors the religion also by observing its Sabbath, so PAP is closed Fridays and reopens Saturdays after sundown. (Continued on next page.)
Port-au-Prince Authentic Haitian Cuisine
Overall Rating: B+
7912 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-565-2006, paphaitiancuisine.com
Favorite Dishes: PAP chicken wings, marinad (puffy fritters), whole red snapper, fried turkey or goat, legume casserole, rum cake
Prices: Appetizers: $5 to $10; Entrées: $14 to $25; Dessert: $6 to $7.50; Brunch: $35 with bottomless mimosas, $30 without.
Libations: A Haitian specialty is Rhum Barbancourt, a dark rum made from sugarcane juice. At Port-au-Prince, tasty cocktails made with it include the Wap Konn Joj (with ginger syrup, ginger beer and lime), the Manmzel (with Triple Sec, lime juice and hibiscus syrup) and the M’ap Boule (pineapple and mango-infused Barbancourt rum, lemon juice and club soda). Other notable libations are Bwa Kochon, a boozy house-made elixir infused with herbs, roots and spices and sold by the shot, and Prestige Haitian lager beer.
Service: Enthusiastic and attentive, even if it can take a while for cocktail orders to be filled