Agrikol: Hot spot of Haitian cool in Montreal
MONTREAL GAZETTE | SUSAN SEMENAK | Published June 5 2016
Backed in part by Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne and Win Butler, Agrikol is humming with a sleek young vibe that is redrawing the map on Haitian culture in the city.
Feels like Friday night in Port-au-Prince.
We’re pouring our own Barbancourt rum over ice, adding fresh-pressed sugar cane juice and a squeeze of lime for a DIY ti ponch. Plates of the crispy pork called griot and fried plantains have just arrived at the table, and the backdrop of sultry, jazzy kompa music means there will be dancing any moment now.
The atmosphere oozes sexy Haitian cool, but the address is Amherst St. in Montreal’s Gay Village. Agrikol is the new restaurant and bar venture by Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne (who is the daughter of Haitian immigrants) and Win Butler and Toronto restaurant owners Jen Agg and Roland Jean (who grew up in Port-au-Prince).
Just a few months after opening, Agrikol has already become a popular space for Haitian food, drinks, music and art. It’s full most nights and there’s often a lineup for a table on weekends. And already, it is expanding, with a lush new backyard terrasse that just opened and Ti Agrikol – a Haitian-style café with its own beachy Caribbean vibe opening next door any day now.
Montreal’s Haitian community, numbering more than 100,000, is one of the largest in North America. There’s no shortage of Haitian grocery stores and mom-and-pop restaurants, especially in Montreal North and St-Michel with their large concentrations of Haitians. But with Agrikol and its sleek, young vibe, it’s like Haitian culture in Montreal just got a stylish makeover.
“We wanted it to be authentic, but not in a kitschy or folkloric kind of way. It had to be a young and trendy kind of place, a place that Haitians would love and feel at home in,” Agg says. “But also a place where people who aren’t Haitian would come and say ‘Haiti is so cool.’ “
And so it is. Martine St-Victor, a communications strategist of Haitian descent who has been hanging out at Agrikol, says it marks the community’s coming of age.
“These days, everyone in Montreal seems to be Haitian or have a friend or a colleague or a doctor or a partner who’s Haitian. And in that way there’s a growing connection between Montreal and Haiti,” she says. “That has sparked an openness toward Haitian food, music and culture.
“If you look at the crowd at Agrikol, you’ll see a snapshot of a new culturally open Montreal. You’ll see a crowd that is Haitian and not Haitian, young and not-so-young, black and white, anglophone and francophone. It’s fun.”
Walking through the door at Agrikol is like stepping into the Oloffson Hotel, the legendary Port-au-Prince gingerbread mansion made famous in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. It’s a tropically gorgeous, art-filled two-storey space with a grand wrought-iron staircase and a long bar backed with floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with liquor. There’s a cubby hole to the kitchen with the menu on the wall and a sign above it that reads Bon Bagay, “good things” in Creole. The owners have paid close attention to detail. The menu is in French and Creole. The rum is Barbancourt, the beer is Prestige, both of which are Haiti’s national drinks. The food – goat, the spicy coleslaw called pikliz, fried plantains, accra fritters, whole grilled fish – is served on blue-rimmed enamelware plates like the ones sold in Haitian markets.
Most nights you’ll find Jean, an artist and self-styled music historian, at the bar mixing Haitian music – always live recordings – everything from kompa to the smooth ’50s and ’60s mini-jazz that his mother used to play, the big-band sounds of the Orchestre Tropicana, troubador ballads and the croony tunes of Sweet Micky, the Haitian superstar who was once also president.
Agrikol began as a kind of art project when Chassagne and Butler visited Agg and Jean’s Haitian-themed Rhum Corner in Toronto and the two couples decided to start a restaurant bar in Montreal. Agg, who presides over a mini empire of restaurants in Toronto including The Black Hoof, Rhum Corner and Cocktail Bar designed the space, tearing down a ceiling to create a two-storey space and an upstairs balcony area. She papered the walls in tropical turquoise and coral wallpaper. Then the four owners travelled to Haiti together to collect paintings and sculptures, with which to fill Agrikol, along with contributions from Chassagne and Butler’s own extensive collection of Haitian art.
Chassagne drew abstract motifs on the chandelier globes and wrote Creole poetry on the stairwell in felt pen. Jean, a painter known for his bold modernist art, painted a musician on the wall. His sister Monique Jean, an accomplished cook who lives in Port-au-Prince, was seconded to oversee the creation of the menu, which features simple Haitian bar food, including oxtail stew and pork ribs, rice and beans, and mac and cheese.
St-Victor says Agrikol makes her feel like she’s left town and headed to the Caribbean.
“It’s like when I’m out with friends in Cap-Haitien or in Port-au-Prince,” she says. “Everybody’s talking and socializing and then the music comes on and you start to dance and leave everything else behind.”
Agrikol is at 1844 Amherst St. Open Thursday to Monday from 5:30 p.m. until closing. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. No reservations, except for large groups. For details, go to agrikol.ca.