There are no trade winds at the corner of Northwest 17th Avenue and Glisan Street. But if you duck into Callaloo, the new venture from Capitol Coffeehouse owners Kevin and Colleen Peck, you'll spot lazy, spinning fans with palm-frond blades, straw beach umbrellas, and rum drinks on almost every table. Named for the leaf of the taro root, Callaloo brings Caribbean food to the city, and if you go for dishes made from such tropical ingredients as mango, tamarind, breadfruit, conch, cassava and passion fruit, the restaurant will set your reggae rhythms dancing.
What is done here to these indigenous elements is sometimes deeply satisfying, but sometimes overingenious and overzealous. The best dishes at Callaloo are the simplest. The conch fritters ($8.25) are like ambrosial, soft hush puppies, but sweeter and lighter. Conch (pronounced "conk") is a giant sea snail from the Bahamas; for the fritters, it's ground and mixed with milk for a sweet-briny taste offset by a tart pineapple-tamarind sauce. The Callaloo stew ($7.75) is another fine starter; the namesake leaf tastes a bit like spinach, and it fortifies a rich potage of okra, crab, coconut milk and squash. Or dig into the skewers of chicken and plantain ($7.50), that sweet potato-like fruit that seems almost like a dessert ahead of time.
The best entree is palomilla ($22.25), a grilled hanger steak from Cuba that's been marinated in a dark-red chili sauce. It's served with what I'll call Havana fries, made from cassavas (or yucas), tubers that are usually sweet but, if the bitter variety, poisonous until cooked. The cooks know what they're doing; I survived—with a smile. Alongside comes a Caribbean ratatouille, a delicious mix of mangoes, tomatoes and yucas. Another winner is the smoked jerked pork ($19.25), browned to a tawny port hue with demi-glace, then shredded for tenderness: pure Caribbean comfort food.
But other preparations seem listless and uninspired. Butterflied prawns ($9.25) in a tomato coulis lie fatigued on the plate, while tuna tartare ($11.25) is mushy, without the bracing fresh taste of the sashimi-grade raw fish that defines this dish. An order of scallops ($19.25) is typical of what can go wrong when too many items pile up on the plate: grilled pineapple, avocado, tropical slaw, passion fruit sauce, lime rémoulade and cassava chips. Such exorbitance seems to say that Callaloo thinks, "If we give you enough tropicana, you'll know we are the real thing."
And then the real things do arrive: a creamy pie ($6.50) made from passion fruit, domed with swirls of meringue and baked, with its ginger-snap crust, right into a deep serving bowl. Or a rainbow of sorbet ($6.50) with such island flavors as kiwi, prickly pear and rum, each scoop an homage to the sugar cane that sweetens the region. Order well, and you'll feel like Bob Marley.
Callaloo, 1639 NW Glisan St., 517-8220. 11 am-3 pm and 5-11 pm daily. $$-$$$ Moderate-expensive.