Atlanta Orders In: New Smyrna restaurant has fun with Haitian fusion

Taking inspiration from a Cuban sandwich, Zeke's offers one with Haitian components: epis-marinated pork and brisket, pikliz and an epis aioli. Courtesy of Zeke's Kitchen and Bar

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Taking inspiration from a Cuban sandwich, Zeke's offers one with Haitian components: epis-marinated pork and brisket, pikliz and an epis aioli. Courtesy of Zeke's Kitchen and Bar

Editor’s note: With the latest COVID-19 surge having disrupted the restaurant industry, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has suspended restaurant reviews. Instead, we will be publishing weekly takeout reports. Restaurant reviews will resume when in-person dining conditions are safer.

Ashley Jean-Louis grew up in Milledgeville, and hadn’t eaten Haitian food until she met her husband, Zeke Jean-Louis. He’s a first-generation Hatian-American, raised in Queens, New York, whose large family began moving to Atlanta in the late 1990s.

The couple figure that Haitian staples like epis (an herbaceous seasoning base), pikliz (pickled vegetable relish) and djon djon (a black mushroom used for flavor and color, especially with rice) are probably as unfamiliar to many Americans as they once were to Ashley.

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“In my perspective, if you don’t know a Haitian, if there’s no type of Haitian contact, you don’t know what Haitian food is,” said Zeke, whose 20 years in the restaurant industry has ranged from steakhouse to Italian to Applebee’s to opening all three metro Atlanta locations of Stockyard Burgers and Bones.

The couple hope to introduce more locals to Haitian flavors with Zeke’s Kitchen and Bar, which opened in late October in a small strip mall on South Cobb Drive in Smyrna.

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Haitian fusion restaurant Zeke's Kitchen and Bar opened in late October on South Cobb Drive in Smyrna. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Haitian fusion restaurant Zeke's Kitchen and Bar opened in late October on South Cobb Drive in Smyrna. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

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Haitian fusion restaurant Zeke's Kitchen and Bar opened in late October on South Cobb Drive in Smyrna. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

“I want to be Smyrna’s local Haitian friend. It’s up to me to show you, gain your trust and introduce you to some great Haitian cuisine,” he said.

The casual menu at Zeke’s isn’t what you’d find on the streets of Port-au-Prince, or even coming from the kitchen of Zeke’s Haitian mother, Marie Marthe Jean-Louis. Rather, you’ll find starters like plantain nachos and griot tacos, entrees like Rasta pasta, sandwiches and bowls that hold a mélange of Haitian ingredients.

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Griot tacos are filled with epis pulled pork and pikliz before getting a drizzle of epis aioli. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Griot tacos are filled with epis pulled pork and pikliz before getting a drizzle of epis aioli. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

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Griot tacos are filled with epis pulled pork and pikliz before getting a drizzle of epis aioli. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Some of these dishes have roots in the Jean-Louis household. The Creole burger, for example, transforms into a patty the meatballs that Zeke’s mother prepared and served with diri kole (red rice and beans).

His mother isn’t necessarily a fan of all her son’s contemporary ways. “I don’t know if I accept that,” she has said about him not cooking lima beans with black rice when preparing djon djon, the base for one of Zeke’s bowls. “I took it out, because the lima beans would be black,” he said. Instead, the lima beans are cooked separately and combined when plated, so that the green color pops against the dark rice. “Now, it’s appealing to the eye and the tummy,” he said.

I had less of a problem with the color of the lima beans than with the disjointed flavors of roasted corn, cherry tomatoes, pickled red onions and fried sweet plantains that weren’t harmonious with the unique, earthy flavor of the rice.

An entrée of oxtails over red rice and beans was less saucy than expected, but the method that Zeke and his sister (who can be found in the restaurant’s kitchen) devised for cooking the oxtails leaves them deeply flavorful, and with a slight, satisfying tug.

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A jerk Alfredo sauce brings Haitian flavors to Rasta pasta at Zeke's Kitchen and Bar in Smyrna. Courtesy of Zeke's Kitchen and Bar

Credit: handout

A jerk Alfredo sauce brings Haitian flavors to Rasta pasta at Zeke's Kitchen and Bar in Smyrna. Courtesy of Zeke's Kitchen and Bar

Credit: handout

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A jerk Alfredo sauce brings Haitian flavors to Rasta pasta at Zeke's Kitchen and Bar in Smyrna. Courtesy of Zeke's Kitchen and Bar

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

The Rasta pasta easily makes the must-try list. An exemplary take on fusion, this plate sees cavatappi, sauteed shrimp, mushrooms and peppers all coated with the warm heat of a creamy jerk Alfredo that clings beautifully to the nooks and crannies of the spiral pasta.

And, there’s everything to adore about the Haitian sandwich. A playful riff on a Cuban, this hot-pressed handheld homage to the motherland piles unctuous epis-marinated pork and brisket, Monterrey Jack cheese, tangy pikliz and a smear of epis aioli between slices of fresh Cuban bread from famed Florida bakery La Segunda. Each bite tastes both wonderfully familiar and surprisingly new. “Haitians don’t know what aioli is,” Zeke joked.

Customers at Zeke’s also can taste the work of other local Haitian culinary talent, such as pastry chef Manouchka Herard, owner of Sweet Treats by Ma. Zeke’s offers Herard’s super-rummy, moist rum cake on the dessert menu, but takes it up a notch by searing the slices to give them a French toast-ish crunch and serving them with a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream, topped with pineapple chutney and fresh mint.

I look forward to dining inside Zeke’s, when I will be able to experience fully the rum cake, hot off the flattop and fancily plated on a banana leaf.

In the meantime, I appreciate that the knowledgeable, friendly staff at Zeke’s does a fine job fielding orders and tidily packing dishes to go, so that we can enjoy these reimagined flavors of Haiti at home.

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Zeke's Kitchen and Bar in Smyrna has a full bar and offers seating for up to 85 diners. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Zeke's Kitchen and Bar in Smyrna has a full bar and offers seating for up to 85 diners. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

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Zeke's Kitchen and Bar in Smyrna has a full bar and offers seating for up to 85 diners. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

ZEKE’S KITCHEN AND BAR

Food: Haitian fusion

Service: dine-in, takeout and delivery; call ahead or order in person; third-party delivery via DoorDash and Uber Eats; the cashier was friendly, the food came out quickly on both visits, and it was neatly and thoughtfully packaged

Safety protocol: staff wears masks and is fully vaccinated; dine-in customers are socially distanced from other parties when seated

Best dishes: Rasta pasta, oxtails, Haitian sandwich, rum cake

Alcohol: full bar

Credit cards: all major credit cards accepted

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays

Address, phone: 4454 S. Cobb Drive, Smyrna. 678-293-5176

Website: zekeskitchenandbar.com

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