By Jeff Mays
HARLEM— If you live in Manhattan and had a hankering for some souse, which is pickled pig feet, or cou cou and flying fish, the national dish of Barbados, it used to require a trip to Brooklyn where there are dozens of Bajan and Caribbean restaurants.
But ever since Bajan Bistro opened on Park Avenue and E. 121 St. in East Harlem, Bajans and non-Bajans alike have been coming out of the woodwork to what may be Manhattan's only Bajan restaurant.
"It never occured to me that we would be the first," said Fiona Ghassomians, a native of Barbados who owns the restaurant with her Greek husband, Alen. "But if there was a Bajan restaurant anywhere in Manhattan, a Bajan would know."
Some patrons figure the restaurant is just Caribbean.
"A lot of people come in and think we are Jamaican and they ask for patties," said Alen Ghassomians who operates other restaurant ventures. "We have patties but they are made of puffed pastry."
Head chef Stephen Alleyene, who learned the secrets of Bajan cuisine while watching his grandmother cook before being professionally trained, said Bajan food is similar to other Caribbean food but with a twist.
Bajan food is about the spices like thyme, garlic, scallions and parsley. There's also a lot of hot pepper used and freshness is emphasized because in Barbados, the fish on the plate that night was likely caught that day. Vegetables like okra and collards are also favorites.
Alen Ghassomians said the idea for the restaurant came when a friend, one of the owners of Balducci's, asked him to help rent the space on 121st Street between Park and Lexington avenues.
Ghassomians saw how nice the space was and decided to take it himself.
"My husband asked me if I wanted to sell the food of my culture. I thought about it and realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime dream come true," she said.
Ghassomians said she wants walking into the restaurant to be like taking a trip to Barbados. The restaurant has bright yellow walls and wood plank floors painted blue, just like you would find in a rum shop or pub in Barbados.
Steel drum music plays in the background and pictures of the sea and green lushness of Barbados line the wall. The colorful plants known as Joseph's Coat that are common in Barbados spruce up the windows.
Also imported is the friendliness and hospitality that Bajans are known for. Even while he's rubbing fish with lemon or creating his own special seasoning, Alleyene waves to someone outside the restaurant every few minutes.
"I want people to walk in the door and get a taste of the food but also the culture; how we act, how we speak and treat people. Some people may never get a chance to go to Barbados," said Ghassomians.
Patrons say its working.
Denise Gomez, 27, works at a non-profit called Single Stop on 125th St. She and several of her colleagues came in for lunch and Alleyene already knew what several of them wanted.
"The food is really fresh and delicious and other places around here are kind of greasy," said Gomez who has had the pork chops and curry chicken.
Gomez' co-worker Vincent DelSignore, 23, has tried the kingfish and the fish and chips.
"If the food wasn't good we wouldn't be here. It's food that you normally wouldn't be able to get around here," said DelSignore.
On Saturdays, Alleyene breaks out all the Bajan specialties and folks, many of them from Barbados, come eat souse or cou cou and flying fish and relax.
Lloyd Sherwood's mother was from Barbados. Although he has never been, the 58-year-old who is the sexton at St. Phillip's Church, likes to ride his bike up from 111th St. to get all the dishes he grew up with.
He said Fiona Ghassomians always serves him up a bit of Barbados history and culture with his meal.
"My brother is the one who told me about this restaurant and so I was on the phone telling him how good the cou cou and flying fish was but then I told him I had to hang up before my food got cold," Sherwood said with a laugh. "I ate that food nice and slow. I savored the memories and the flavor."
That's what Fiona Ghassomians wants to hear from her customers.
"I want this o be a place where people can sit and socialize or escape and have a good time or a heated discussion because this is how it would be if I was back home," she said.