Caribbean Dreaming

The tame tastes of Kallaloo may be authentic, but they're not what you'd expect.

Columbia City's Caribbean-Creole restaurant, Kallaloo, could be compared to the Andes mints it provides at the end of each meal. The mints are a pleasant treat, but they're not truffles, where you'd relish each bite with half-closed eyes and tell your friends, "You have to try one of these." And I make this judgment with sadness, because I really wanted to adore this restaurant. I've always loved Caribbean food (especially the spicy stuff), so I thought this would be a no-brainer. The restaurant is in a bustling neighborhood, its peach walls are soothing, the servers are sweet, and thus I imagined the food would be transporting. However, after sampling a wide variety of dishes at Kallaloo, I realized the entrées don't have intense enough flavors to motivate me to sing their praises. Though the mellowness is intentional—more on this later—I think it's harder to take when you come expecting everything to be swimming in spices. "If you get caught between the moon and New York Ciiiity. . . . " That irksome song was playing (with some sort of uplifting Calypso beat added) at lunchtime the first time I went to Kallaloo, and after I left, I couldn't get it out of my mind. Nevertheless, I went back for more, as the veggie roti sandwich ($5.95) I had eaten was comforting and yet inventive. The flatbread that encased the ingredients was grilled ever so slightly; it contained a curried assortment of soft pumpkin, channa (garbanzo beans), and potato. The jerk chicken ($11.95), served with beans and rice, was not spicy at all (the ingredients rubbed on the skin were somewhat sweet), but the chicken pieces were tender and the fried plantains that came with them were delightfully warm and fresh. The Creole salad ($6.25), with its spinach, butter lettuce, mandarin orange slices (canned), avocado, candied ginger, jerk cheese, toasted almonds, and citrus vinaigrette, was ideally crisp and cool on the summery day. Candied ginger provided some sass with each bite. Warning: I don't recommend pairing your meal with Kallaloo's lifeless coconut water ($2.50); after two sips, I gave up on it. At a recent dinner, better music—tunes from the Dominican Republic–born Christian singer Juan Luis Guerra—was being piped through the sound system. The wide front windows of the restaurant were open, and the Cuban-style ceiling fans were slowly turning. The laid-back mood was just right for sipping Red Stripe beers ($3.50) and guava wine ($5.75/glass) and diving into unique appetizers, such as catfish escabèche ($7.95), fried plantains ($3.95), and callaloo ($3.95), the cooked leaves of the taro root. The standout was the escabèche, a mixture of catfish, onion, olives, and capers in a citrus vinaigrette. The olives and vinaigrette perked up the precisely cooked catfish, which we stabbed with forks or put on the thick jerk toast provided. The fried plantains came cold and were not as good this time around— a big disappointment, since I had talked them up to my friends. The grassy callaloo, according to one of my dining companions, reminded him of those "TastyBite spinach boil-in-a-bag meals you get at Trader Joe's." Try it for yourself, though—novelty can be its own reward at Kallaloo, if one goes in with managed expectations. "One of the—I guess you could say—hurdles is trying to educate diners about the food," says ever-friendly co-owner Gail Williams, over the phone. (The other owner, Kal Gellein, is the chef.) "In the English Caribbean, food is not peppery." The heat, according to Williams, is generally added at the table. So, for those who are looking for hot stuff—this English-Caribbean- inspired restaurant is not your place. What you will find, on the dinner menu, are more mild preparations of fish, chicken, pork, steak, and, yes, goat. Case in point: The Creole fish ($11.95), red snapper with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices, will not blow you away with seasonings; in fact, the predominant spice we tasted was cinnamon. Garlic halibut ($13.95) was also tame in terms of taste; nobody raved about it as a result. Stewed chicken ($12.95) had a lovely "smoky" taste, according to my friend, though the rest of us liked the dish's accompanying mac 'n' cheese pie more (big noodles, deliciously creamy). The cou-cou ($2.50 as a side dish) and sautéed cassava ($3.95 as a side dish) are both interesting, for lack of a better term. The cou-cou was accurately described to us by our patient server (we had already asked her five questions) as a polentalike mash. The cassava—so I've heard—is an acquired taste; I found its chewy texture to be disconcerting at first. As for the curried goat ($13.95), when I went back to try it another day, I was told it's not offered at lunchtime. I did learn, however, that Williams and Gellein purchase it from Bob's Quality Meats. "It tastes like beef," Williams told me. It sits in its curry sauce overnight, so supposedly it's bursting with juice and flavor. She alerts diners about the bones that come in the dish—but most don't seem to mind. A simple dessert menu includes a handful of options, ranging from fruit sorbet ($2.95) to bananas flambé ($4.95). The raisin bread pudding with warm coconut-rum sauce ($5.25) was insanely good. Each chunk of cool dessert held together well, and the coconut-rum sauce added warmth, without any rum aftertaste. Should you find yourself on the bustling Columbia City strip, take a side detour just for this dessert. My friends and I politely declined the last bite, though it was obvious we all wanted it. After dinner, it's natural to sit and relax in the airy space, which is dotted with tropical plants. Woven seats and lampshades and multicolored Fiestaware dishes give the place a very subtle island vibe. Luckily, there's no kitsch—everything (including the food) is understated, though maybe too much so. In the future, it's my hope that Kallaloo can jump to the next level and leave Andes territory in search of loftier heights.

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