THE NEIGHBORHOOD restaurant business is not an easy game. There's not a lot of fame in it, or glory, or much attention to speak of at all, except for the devotion of regulars should the chef's efforts consistently convey a passion for the cuisine—which isn't always easy to achieve before the attention begins. So restaurant critics look for neighborhood restaurants with lots of regulars; these are places to pay attention to. Calypso Caribbean Kitchen
7917 Roosevelt Wy NE, 525-5118
Tue-Thu 5-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 5-10pm, Sun 5-9pm
MC, V; beer and wine Calypso, which has held down the corner of Roosevelt and 80th for the last two-and-some years, appeared to be such a place, at least in my drive-by research; every time I passed, the place looked crowded with people who looked quite happy to be there. Then again, I thought as I walked in for a sample, it doesn't take much to crowd this place. It's smallish, on the unassuming side of sophisticated, with cheerful apricot walls and green accents. Chef/owner Paul Decker opened the place after stints in heralded Italian kitchens Ave! and Salvatore, and the Caribbean restaurant Jimmy B's; he wanted his own kitchen in which to honor the cuisine of his Trinidadian grandmother. That he does—along with that of grandmothers from Jamaica, Curacao, Puerto Rico, and all over the West Indies. The Caribbean is nothing if not a melting pot, with flavors from Africa and the Orient, France and Denmark, Britain and Spain, and all manner of Latin neighbors contributing to the mix. In the Caribbean, this means a marvelous interplay of cultures; at Calypso it makes for a fascinating menu. We tried the Keshy Yena ($8), a bubbling dish of baked Edam cheese filled with raisins, shrimp, and olives. Like fondue, it arrived with toasted rounds of herby French bread for dipping, which turned out to be a fun and rewarding endeavor. Each piece came back dripping with the mild cheese along with bits of sweet or savory surprise, finishing bright and spicy on the palate. We also gobbled fresh clams saut饤 with ginger and garlic ($8), which swam in a sauce enhanced with curry and splashes of lime. If the clams were too chewy, I didn't notice; I was paying the better part of my attention to the wonderful broth. SPEAKING OF WHICH, a cup (big as a bowl) of bright red conch chowder ($3.50) was great: Bits of the Caribbean shellfish with lots of sweet vegetables and a heady float of sherry united in a broth positively throbbing with instantaneous flavor and ending with a nice, slow, back-of-the-throat burn. Salads were similarly complex. The house salad ($2.50) was a pretty mix of crunchy greens, roma tomato slices, shredded carrots, red onions, and seasoned croutons, all doused in a rather full-throated mango-champagne dressing. The dressing was unexpectedly heavy—an acquired taste, but a good one. The seared shrimp salad ($9) was more vexing. A visual wow, it arrived with papaya spears, grapefruit slices, avocado pieces, and a big pile of marinated shrimp over mixed greens. The shrimp carried the soy-ginger-garlic marinade all the way through their tender flesh, the robustness of which overpowered the rest of the dish. Texturally, this salad was swell—the creamy and juicy fruits, the shrimp huge and firm and tenderly cooked, the greens cool and crunchy. It's just that the flavors weren't modulated very well. Where, I wondered, was the sesame-ginger dressing? It was unusual, I was soon to discover, for flavors to go missing on Decker's plates. An entr饠of pepper prawns ($16.50) featured those same gorgeous shrimp (wild Gulf of Mexico white prawns), saut饤 with garlic, jalapeno, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime juice, and finished in a silky olive oil-white wine sauce. With the fire of this dish kept at a low burn, its million-and-two flavors were able to stand up and declare themselves as well as mingle. Alongside this flavor sensation we welcomed a serving of nondescript rice and beans and a refreshing sliced zucchini, dusted with pepper and garlic. These two sides (along with a garnish of slightly wilted fruit) came with every dish. OUR WAITER had recommended Decker's beef, which he buys in bulk and cuts himself; we ordered the 9-ounce tenderloin ($20) marinated in pineapple juice, molasses, and white vinegar. The meat was flawlessly moist and tender as bread, its richness highlighted by the thick, sweet sauce. Sweet sauces are a penchant of Decker's; over his roast pork chops ($15.50) he drapes a velvety rum, brown sugar, and lime juice demi-glace, and the result is so deep and smoky and big and sugary it could walk up the stairs by itself, not unlike good barbecue. Finally, we sampled the jerk-spiced mango chicken ($14), that Jamaican spice mix so fiercely combustible it tends to daunt the uninitiated. Calypso's rendition is a good one for virgins; it won't kill you, it will just burn off a few of your taste buds. Decker grills breast paillards in the jerk spices, then finishes the plate in a smooth, sweet mango chutney and coconut milk sauce. "The jerk chicken is the main dish our regulars come back for," our waiter told us after we raved. By this time, we were not at all surprised to hear of regulars; several seemed in evidence on our two visits, with children in tow (there's a high chair and a slightly less fiery kids' menu) and acquaintanceships with the friendly servers. (Said servers, it should be mentioned, are mercifully quick-draw on the water refills.) So Calypso is a fine, imperfect little neighborhood enterprise, brimming with powerful flavor, the passion of a chef who obviously cares about his product, and the kindness of servers who obviously care about you. Dessert ends an evening on a nice pitch, particularly the bread pudding ($4.75), a large square of creamy bread slathered in Irish whiskey coconut cream—an mmmm, mmmm finish to a spicy meal.