Callaloo LogoWhen I entered Callaloo, I thought, this seems like a decent sort of place, but I wasn’t exactly drawn away by thoughts of the Caribbean from the decor. I’m thinking that much of the interior design in Callaloo came from the predecessor in the space, Cafe Cassisnis (or something like that,) a french bistro that always seemed to be closed when I wanted to go there (gee, I wonder why they bit it?) The atmosphere at Callaloo seemed a bit refined for what commonly passes as Caribbean here, either over the top Cuban like Pambiche (nothing refined there,) or aquatic, like Salvadore Molly’s, and its predecessor on Belmont, the often lamented Sweetwaters, a much loved place whose owners unfortunately didn’t believe in paying taxes. Thinking back to my time in Barbados and St. Lucia, however, many of those places just had normal restaurant decor, sometimes adapted from a previous restaurant, I don’t remember many of those places looking like an advertisement for Sea World either. Perhaps there’s a comment lurking in there somewhere about our stereotypicalization (yes, I’m making that word up, and I like it,) of other cultures, in this case the Caribbean, a place of a million cultures, British, French, Spanish, Dutch and African.

But enough of this anthropological discussion on America’s pre-conception of the world, especially since I barely know what I’m talking about. How were the food, the service, the acoustics, the prices, I can hear your confused queries about those topics as I hunt and peck along on my keyboard.

The food and service, pure Caribbean, (more on that later,) the acoustics, good for a change, our group of nine endured no futile shouts across the table this outing, but some of that had to do with the fact that there were not an abundance of people in the back room where our table was. The prices, strangely low for the liquor (a flight of 3 rums, only $7,) and good cocktails for $5 or $6, the food, as is obviously a Portland trend, a bit high, most entrees hovering $18-$25.

Everyone seemed happy with their drinks, the Bloody Marys, Hurricanes, and Pink Mojitos (passionfruit, I think,) all garnering favorable comments. For some reason, my second Mojito had double the rum compared to my first, but maybe they were just trying to work me into an alcoholic stupor gradually. And speaking of alcoholic stupors, kudos to Dave and Grace for their amusing journey into the world of rum flights, each of them sharing their three selections and consequently sampling six mini shots of rum. I loved some of those facial expressions. And the rum flights definately led to the evening’s most unusual moment, the waiter telling Dave he couldn’t bring him one of his selections, as he had managed to drop all six glasses on the floor and had no more of one of them. Perhaps waiterman needed to lay off the rum flights a bit. I even managed to get into the rum tasting for one brutal sip, have a taste of the “nasty brew” that was making Luana and Rebecca giggle hysterically at the other end of the table. My opinion of this particular rum? YIKES should suffice.

Lots of very Caribbean starters on the menu, from a $9.00 fruit salad that no one tried, but which is reported to be very good ($9.00 for fruit salad though?,) to elegantly presented Tuna Tartar, crunchy conch fritters, Rasta Rings with two sauces (very light calamari,) to the curried goat, which could be ordered as either an appetizer or entree. I had a taste of the appetizer version, which was served almost like a goat burrito, and I must say it was very flavorful.

As far as the entrees, the Jerk Pork, although reputed to be on the mild side, certainly had the most unusual presentation I’ve ever seen (and I’ve actually seen a great deal of jerk pork in my day,) rolled up like a stringy brown egg or a teeny sized football. I have absolutely no idea what was in the thick and sludgy appearing Callaloo stew, but the two people who ordered it insisted it was delicious. The most popular items at the table were scallops, either prepared in Callaloo’s standard way, big mounds served in a circular pattern by themselves or as a special of the day, mixed with several other items. Both versions were certainly attractive to the eye, and I heard no complaints as far as quality or preparation. My entree, Palomilla (Cuban grilled steak,) was probably the tastiest version of this dish I have had in Portland, this particular cut (hanger steak) was tender, pleasantly spicy, and cooked perfectly to my desired doneness (this is the first time in recent memory I was asked just how rare I wanted my steak, rare or rare rare.) Just last week I was complaining to someone I know that I have lost my taste for eating polenta, but the little dome served with my Palomilla was some of the best in recent memory, creamy inside and delicious.

It was also a big night for dessert ordering, the chocolate lava cake incredibly carmelized on the outside and rich and gooey inside, the coconut flan extremely coconutty, the passionfruit pie creamy and tart, and the chocolate hazelnut torte (the only dessert ordered that I didn’t taste,) looking yummy but elegant.

Our server, although personable and knowledgable, seemed to have issues with beverage service, forgetting one drink order completely and flinging the other on the floor. He definitely had that “what, me worry, everybody be happy” casual vibe I have seen at almost every other Caribbean restaurant in Portland (the only exception I know to this rule, Pambiche, where sometimes your water glass is refilled per sip.) He got gold star points, however, for insisting he would divvy up the bill for us per group or individual. This was a pleasant first, especially the part where he tried to charge my entree to Tori and Dave. It was a so much nicer way to pay than the previous outting, where we were all squinting in the dark trying to translate everything we had individually ordered. A strange note to the evening, however, the salt shakers that were impacted saline wads stuffed in glass dispensers, seemingly they had been left outside during recent rainstorms.

Did I like Callaloo? Pretty much. Caribbean dining is almost always interesting, and this particular selection of island cuisine was to my liking. The prices were a tad high for Caribbean food though, but I read somewhere this is because of the quality of the ingredients used in the food at Callaloo. For anyone who enjoys Caribbean food, Callaloo serves as a great menu contrast to two of the other major Caribbean eating outposts in Portland, Pambiche and Montego Bay, each having a totally different sort of menu, but both heavily stew centered. Callaloo is more of a “greatest hits of the Caribbean” kind of place.

Dave’s review

“Callaloo was a swashbuckling affair without the risk of having to walk the plank. The decor doesn’t immediately put a person on a beach sipping fruity drinks, but the surf shop wait-staff set the tone for an
inviting evening with good drink recommendations and an overt obsession with mango butter- to which is more butter than mango. Somewhere after the first cuba libra and sampling appetizers, one end of our table decided it would be great to start doing rum shooters. That’s about the time the evening began to feel like a Johnny Depp sequel. Rum fans rejoice as the selection at Callaloo is great and you can actually taste the subtle difference between samples, although some choices could almost pass for paint stripper given the alcohol wallop.
The mains were well presented and the scallops were delightful. The jerked pork rillette was also tasty, but needed salt to make it sing. Should you be a salty dog yourself, make sure to bring your eye protection to Callaloo because getting the shaker to work was like mining your own salt from the dead sea. Overall, the food was good and the drinks very affordable. The bottom line is if you enjoy rum
accompanied by a little island adventure, I suggest you dust off the pirate hat and set sail over the 405 for Callaloo.”