Jamaican Whoopie

Take a vacation to Callaloo

Last May, the National Restaurant Association asked Americans which ethnic cuisines they preferred. Not surprisingly, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Thai and Middle Eastern were the most popular. Unexpectedly, however, Caribbean rounded out the list of winners. Pretty interesting for a food that traditionally has barely made a blip on most diners' radar screens.

Enterprising restaurateurs are taking the report seriously, though, jumping in with concepts designed to tempt our tropical taste buds. Since last summer, the Valley has welcomed several new Caribbean restaurants, including Bahama Breeze, a national chain with locations in Chandler and (coming soon) Phoenix, plus Cocomo Joe's at Tatum and Dynamite. Three weeks ago, Max and Myrl's Caribbean eatery made its debut at Central and McDowell.

In September, the doors also opened at Callaloo, a calypso-chic eatery on Fifth Avenue in Scottsdale. Is Callaloo a suitable substitute for a Caribbean vacation? For the most part, yes. When Callaloo's kitchen is on, it's great. Unfortunately, when it's off, it's a disappointing tropical trip indeed.

Tropical feast wave: Callaloo brings the Caribbean to Scottsdale.
Erik Guzowski
Tropical feast wave: Callaloo brings the Caribbean to Scottsdale.

Details

Appetizers:
"Da sampler": $12.95
Jerk chicken wings: $6.95
Pepperpot soup (cup): $3.95

Entrees:
Curried goat: $13.95
"Dat ting": $15.95
Cubano club (lunch): $6.95

Dessert:
Jamaican rum cake: $7

480-941-1111. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

7051 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale

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Given Callaloo owner Michael Washington-Brown's heritage, we expect authenticity here. Brown's mother is from Barbados, his father from Jamaica. Given his training, we expect obsessive attention to detail -- most recently, he worked at Restaurant Hapa and RoxSand in the Valley. He even picked a native Jamaican, Keith Gallimore, as his executive chef to ensure official island cuisine showcasing traditional fare from Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Aruba and Jamaica.

And actually, on many counts, the Callaloo experience is better than the real thing. For all the region's postcard glamour, unless we're staying at a fancy resort, dining on a real Caribbean island can be dangerous.

Sparkling white-sand beaches lapped by crystal-clear turquoise-blue water. Coconut palms rustling in the island breeze. The images are alluring. But many visits to Caye Caulker, a tiny outpost island off the coast of Belize, have taught me what the travel agents don't tell you: The rule for tropical dining is never sit underneath a coconut tree. Witness the natives wandering about with furry imprints on their skulls. Iguanas attack, and when they do, their fleshly bodies move fast, snaking and weaving around unsuspecting toes. There are bugs -- bugs the size of locomotives -- that will suck the flesh from body parts you didn't even know you owned. And sometimes, there are crocodiles lurking nearby, nestled beneath the mangroves, waiting to spin on you with gnashing teeth and foul intentions.

All we have to fear at Callaloo, though, is embarrassing ourselves after too many cocktails. It's hard to stop at just one, with the alluring flavors of a firefly martini (vodka, pineapple juice, apricot brandy), a yellowbird (rum, banana liqueur, Galliano, pineapple and orange juice), or the Callaloo cooler (vodka, peach schnapps, Midori, coconut rum, cranberry and orange juice).

No "authentic" rickety wooden benches here, either. The dining room looks fabulous, with every island-theme detail in place, and a mood that's more upscale than we expect from a ya-mon menu. Festivity abounds with an interior designed by Jeff Zischke, an artist who also was the creative force behind Zen 32, Madison's Bar and Grill, Axis nightclub and Radius nightclub. Drawing from a palette of sun-washed pastels like mango, banana and mint, Zischke invites us to relax at hand-painted wooden tables topped with fresh flowers, at a comfortable bar or under brightly colored awnings on the patio out back. On Fridays, Saturdays and Wednesdays, there's live steel drum and reggae music.

Care has been taken with the menu, too. Some of the dishes are outright exciting, in fact.

One is Callaloo's best-selling entree, a superb curried goat stew. Perhaps the most abundant comfort food to be found in the Caribbean, goat stew is a classic one-pot meal that came as a way to disguise the tough chew of animals aged past their usefulness. The better result is that stewing allows flavors and textures to merge, enhancing all the ingredients. ("Pity those who never mix their foods, those who eat everything separately," laments Washington-Brown on Callaloo's Web site.)

Here, the goat meat is a quality cut, braised in chunks, seasoned and simmered in a thick, pleasantly gritty curry with morro (pigeon peas and rice), bits of bacon and plantains (a banana variety tasting mildly of squash). Topping it all off is a fistful of callaloo, steamed taro roots leaves that resemble bitter spinach. For maximum impact, be sure to get a taste of everything on each flavorful forkful.

Callaloo's servers wear blue jeans and black tee shirts emblazoned with "Jerk This!" The rather tacky invitation reminds patrons that the restaurant -- in a twist on Caribbean tradition -- doesn't serve its food spicy. To increase the heat level, guests are supposed to call out the phrase when ordering certain dishes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I order my goat hot, but barely get a tingle.

It does work, and how, with another delightful dinner, "dat ting," a hefty pork chop rubbed in Jamaican jerk seasoning (usually chiles, thyme, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, garlic and onions). I've once again requested hot, and the pig piece comes fit for Satan. A sugary passion fruit sauce cools the flames some, as do sides of plantains, sweet corn and annoyingly gummy okra risotto.

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