NORTH MIAMI, Fla. — Driving past a row of antiques stores and the Museum of Contemporary Art, you might think the MOCA Cafe & Lounge is closed. The restaurant’s black windows make it easy to miss and you have to look closely to see the sleek, italic lettering printed on the door.
MOCA Cafe, which takes its name from the Miami museum but is independently owned, is one large space with two bars, a dining room, and an area for live music. Sky-high ceilings, glossy tables, and black leather benches fill the space. Walls sport a fresh coat of cerulean paint that frames black-and-white photographs on canvas of both North and South Miami street scenes. Every Friday night, a live band plays traditional copa music.
Smartly dressed couples, the type who wear sunglasses indoors, occupy the 4,800-square foot dining room. The cafe reopened recently after a seven-month renovation, which explains its stylish, contemporary look. The cuisine, however, is traditionally Haitian, with the addition of a few Florida favorites like coconut shrimp.
MOCA Cafe is a family-run operation that Jean Michel Cerenord and Rodney Noel bought three years ago after running a successful fast food chain called Cecibon. Haitian-born George Jiles, the previous chef of MOCA Cafe, enlisted the help of local “Top Chef” contestant Ron Duprat to reconstruct the menu with French culinary influences. Manager Ricardo Philias says, “This is where Haitians come to eat outside of Little Haiti.”
Dinner guests order in Creole to a fluent, enthusiastic waitstaff. Seven of 12 servers speak Creole and the other five are learning. Water glasses stay full and servers replace black cloth napkins often. The owners are usually in house wearing big smiles.
The appetizer selection is tantalizing, fried fare. Akra — grated malanga, a subtropical root vegetable — arrives as a large plate of oblong fritters, a heavy dish fit for any American bar menu, alongside jalapeno poppers. Kibby are chunks of beef. Pikliz, a spicy cabbage and carrot condiment and the Haitian answer to hot sauce, ushers each plate to the table.
Duprat, a heavy-set, congenial man educated at the Culinary Institute of America, trudges confidently through the dining room in his chef’s coat and kitchen clogs adorned with crossbones. He smiles at a guest giving two thumbs up and exclaiming “Good stuff!” He moved here at 16 from what he describes as “the poorest family in Haiti.” He dubs his own success story, “From the banana boat to Top Chef.” While Duprat relishes the spotlight, chef Jiles remains hidden by the kitchen stove, making Duprat’s ideas come to life.
One of the techniques they specialize in at MOCA Cafe is grilling. The lambi, or grilled conch, is a heaping stack of fresh, char-marked strips on top of a disk of starchy, fried green plantain. Unlike most conch, the meat is not chewy or overcooked. The chefs tenderize the meat and marinate it in lime juice, cilantro, garlic, and Scotch Bonnet peppers. Two griot tacos with thinly sliced red onion in soft flour tortillas accompany the conch. The dish lacks sauce, but not flavor. Griot, usually made from pork shoulder but here made with the whole pig, is in chunks, rich and much like pork belly, with that sticky, crispy fat on the outside, and more meat inside.
Colorful strips of red and yellow bell peppers decorate a griot entree. The chef goes easy on the salt in this dish, and in all of his recipes, allowing other flavors to shine. The kitchen sources many ingredients from the neighboring farmers’ market, and uses mangoes and avocados imported from Haiti.
Entrees come with white rice and a soupy red kidney bean sauce or red beans and diri djon djon, rice cooked in a mushroom sauce that gives it a darker color and more meaty flavor. Even with wine and beer, the stars of the beverage menu are freshly squeezed limeade and passion fruit juice.
MOCA Cafe and its dining room and lounge have a loyal following in North Miami. It’s a fine example of the ubiquitous Haitian influence in South Florida cuisine. Manager Philias says local Haitian cabdrivers have brought in a tourist crowd. It’s one of the cabbies’ favorite spots in the heart of downtown.