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.
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.
I'll also be back for a lunchtime "da gumbo wrap," even though I'm not expecting the green tortilla to be stuffed with coleslaw under its bay shrimp, shredded chicken, sausage rounds, mango and bell peppers.
An excellent triple-decker Cubano club sandwich is attention-grabbing, too, layering lightly toasted red pepper bread with turkey, spiced ham, bacon, lettuce, chopped tomato, soft white cheese and a thin smear of guacamole. The promised plantains are missing, but I'm too enamored of the heat-packing roasted yellow and red bell pepper dressing to really care.
If the kitchen has prepared roasted red pepper soup as its daily "soup carnival," order it. The thick purée soothes, then sneaks up with a fine spicy burn. And any day's a good day for Jamaican pepperpot soup, looking a lot like swamp water but brimming with ham, crab, callaloo and vegetables. The kicker? The strong, crab-infused broth has been spiked with honest amounts of Scotch Bonnet peppers, a chile so hot that chefs must wear gloves to handle it.
There's no holding back on jerked chicken wings, either, in spice or size. Dismiss any thoughts of drumettes; these are full-fledged wings -- bones, joints and all. Seven meaty marvels are lightly slicked in potent chile sauce, tamed with a dreamy cucumber dill dip that hints of yogurt.
Why doesn't every restaurant offer appetizer sampler plates? Callaloo does at dinner, and in the best way: a choice of any three starters. Caribbean barbecue ribs go well with mini wraps and island crab cakes. Three fat, fall-off-the-bone ribs benefit from being jerked around -- the sweet sauce on the regular-spiced model is flat -- leaning even sweeter when paired with coleslaw and a dusting of tri-color bell pepper confetti. Two little wraps, blandly described as chicken and shrimp -- come with charming surprises. There's bacon, grilled red bell pepper, avocado and red pepper mayo in the green-tortilla chicken bundle; and callaloo and a mustardy sauce in the red-tortilla shrimp bundle. A crab cake is bursting with real seafood, a whisper of salt and tangy marinated fennel just strong enough to fight off a sugary pink guava sauce. Sides of spiced roasted corn, chopped mango and pineapple, and avocado purée round out our forks.
For all the sweetness starring on these plates, coconut shrimp wisely holds back. In fact, I barely taste any coconut at all in the half-dozen deep-fried, medium-size creatures lounging in a puddle of sparkly tart mango dipping sauce.
And even a simple house salad's got style, pairing large slabs of ruby red tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, mango and jicama slivers in a great, astringent soursop vinaigrette (soursop is a member of the custard apple family).
Too bad that when Callaloo's Caribbean cruise sinks, it goes down like the Titanic. Blue Mountain rib eye steak is just horrid, the dry, stringy 12-ounce fillet rubbed with coffee and drizzled in an off-putting rum and peppermint sauce. What a riot of flavors -- the beef is paired with a puckery tart blueberry hash, acidic callaloo and a few bits of marinated fennel.
Jamaican jerk chicken doesn't do it, either, bringing two spindly thighs flopped in a loose sauce that tastes too much of cinnamon. Ordered "regular," there's no heat at all. Sides of callaloo plus bland corn and okra risotto don't add any energy.
I'm simply confused by all the commotion in the Montego Bay salad. Mixed greens nestle under an ample salmon fillet, cuddling with hard-boiled egg, julienne mango and jicama -- very nice. But whole Kalamata olives are overwhelmingly tart for this mix, the salad further muddled by seriously fruity pomegranate vinaigrette.
The calorie-conscious will want to plan for sugar, too. Callaloo's meals start with dessert -- a complimentary cake of festival bread that resembles fry bread dusted with powdered sugar. They end on a sweet note, too -- Jamaican rum cake is like gingerbread stocked with rum-soaked tropical fruits, vanilla ice cream and zingy fruit sauce.
So Caribbean food is the restaurant industry's hot new trend? Callaloo's good enough to Jamaica believer out of me.
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