Monday, June 18, 2012

Downstairs at Calabash

Calabash Bistro on UrbanspoonMy friend doesn't come in from Chilliwack often, so I'm always nervous choosing restaurants for us to go. Fortunately, Calabash Bistro turned out to be a great choice -- with caveats.

Let's get the big negative out of the way: The neighbourhood. Within a few blocks of its Gastown location are some notable dining spots like The Irish Heather and Cartems Donuterie (now open till 6pm!). But just on that walk up Carrall are also some really seedy places with equally seedy people. No folks, despite all the construction and new businesses hanging out their shingles, Gastown isn't gentrified.
I considered Calabash for a get-together earlier this year when it was dark in the early evening, but nixed it. It just wasn't an appropriate choice to bring a lady. But she was intrigued by the place and its casual vibe, music, and small bites, so we did eventually try it just this past weekend on Saturday. It was bright out at 6.45 pm when I got there, and still bright when we left after a lazily paced dinner. That, I felt better with.

It's a tiny-looking place if you peek in the window, but there's a downstairs that's got more floorspace than the upstairs. It's no less noisy, and in fact more so if you're sitting near the DJ and the decommissioned old elevator car (the building used to be a hotel once upon a time). However, on hotter days that's also a fairly good place to be because they've got a medium sized but powerful floor fan, important for a basement with no windows.

The music goes all night and is quite loud over the din of conversation, making Calabash not a particularly friendly place for largish groups if you don't just want to talk to the people adjacent to you. However, it can accommodate quite a big group downstairs with their easily mutable table arrangements.

After the cramped-feeling please-wait-to-be-seated upstairs, the next thing you'll probably notice is the pro-active service. Someone tries to greet you right away. Staff going by but presently unable to attend make sure to acknowledge you with a "someone will be with you shortly". This must've happened to me about three times while I was waiting to be led to the table reserved for us.

It's a bit dimly lit (and busy most times) but if you get the chance, the decor is worth a bit of wandering. Quite a few pieces are apparently purchased from patrons and there's a mish-mash of stuff that still somehow all works together to create an ambiance that is chaotic looking but not off-putting. Downstairs also features a small collection of vintage vinyl.

The menu features weekly specials and many dishes typically feature an interesting sweet-and-savory taste combination not too often found (unless you count Hawaiian Pizza). On Saturday, we went with Jerk Pork & Dumplings, Jerk Sablefish, Fresh Seafood Curry, and Brie & Guava Stuffed Coconut Dumplings. For a beverage, I went with Ting.

If you're not familiar with Caribbean cuisine, you may not know about Johnny Cakes -- what are called "dumplings" at Calabash. Many cultures have their version of Johnny Cakes, but what you will typically get in a Caribbean restaurant is a ball of deep-fried dough that is very much like a cake donut, only denser/heavier. They look small, but they're quite filling all on their own, so be wary if you're not looking to be accidentally stuffed to the gills.

A small pot of chili is brought to the table before your meal, and you can use the zip from it kick up your meal a notch. It builds up heat quite slowly, and leaves a buzz in your mouth without any heat. Somewhere in there, however, there's quite a hot-and-bitter kick to it. Be careful. It's quite different from other chili sauces, so if you've never had it before, I recommend just a taste to see how it works out for you.
  • (June 15-21 weekly menu special) Jerk Pork & Dumplings - Marinated pork smothered in jerk sauce. Served with fried coconut dumplings and fresh cucumber. $10.
    • This was really decent. The pork was quite tender, and the sauce was delicious. The sauce goes well with the sweet dumplings if you cut them open and let them soak it up a bit.
    • The dumplings were about ping-pong ball sized and deep fried to a dark brown. The coconut was mixed right in, and they were quite sweet.
    • A good sized portion for just an appy. For smaller appetites, this could've been a light meal all on its own, if you had to finish off all the dumplings (I think there were four) on your own.
  • (June 15-21 weekly menu special) Jerk Sablefish - Seared and oven roasted sablefish finished with jerk sauce. Served on curried ground provisions with sauteed green beans. $26.
    • Can't go wrong with sablefish. Juicy, smooth, flake-apart tender. It was, however, a smallish portion of fish that only looked big because it sat on top of the "ground provisions".
    • The "ground provisions" turned out to be curried yam and plantain, with cracked pepper mixed in the sauce. After you get over the unexpected crunch (from the pepper), you'll settle into really enjoying this tasty sauce that contrasts very well with the sweet yam and plantain.
    • For $26 and with no rice or roti, I thought this was a bit of a small portion overall, but it's hard to complain when it was so tasty.
  • Fresh Seafood Curry - Fresh snapper, scallops and shrimp, marinated in a house-blended curry and cooked to order. Served with rice & peas and salad; or in a roti, with salad. $15.
    • I went with the roti option because I'm a sucker for roti. The roti was quite pale and didn't look seared enough, but it tasted fine. The server explained that the Guyanese chef made their roti in the layered Guyanese style so that it could be crisped on the outside layer while still tender (chewy) on the inside, which in turn meant you could wrap stuff in it and expect it not to break apart even though it had been toasted nicely outside.
    • I asked for it to be cut into three portions (we were a party of three) and it worked out quite well, without the stuffing immediately bursting all over the place. Not a lot of sauce in there, so it wasn't a mess.
    • The scallops were mini, like those tiny marshmellows you can buy. There seemed to be just one sizable prawn. The rest of the shrimps were really shrimps, and very small (definitely smaller than a regular small prawn) -- six to eight added together might have been as much mass as your thumb. They were so small that they were I think accidentally undercooked in the curry, and there wasn't much flavour to them, sadly.
    • Overall the seafood curry was quite tasty, but I got one of the end pieces of the cut-into-three-pieces roti, and there was a lot of roti to contend with. This isn't a fault per se, but just the reality of a roti that needs to be sealed at the ends. You get about triple the amount because of the folded-over flaps and not enough curry to go around. I ended up isolating the excess and applying the chili sauce on it. More curry sauce would have been better, but then you couldn't pick it up and eat it as it might make a messy spill.
    • For $15, this was, I think on the pricey side considering the roti was itself probably only slightly bigger than a Long John donut. On the plus side, the roti was thin so most of it was seafood; and the filling didn't have a lot of sauce, so it was stuffed with the "meaty" part of the curry.
  • Brie & Guava Stuffed Coconut Dumplings - Three warm, sweet and savory stuffed dumplings. $6.
    • Came with thin slices of slightly sour mango, which were a nice contrast to the overall sweet taste.
    • Sadly disappointing. The coconut was of course mixed into the sweet dumpling, and there was clearly guava jam, but we could barely make out any brie. There was just a small visible portion on one out of three dumplings, which mildly presented its flavour. The other two dumplings were out of luck -- there was brie, but it had apparently vanished (along with its flavour contribution) into the dumpling.
    • You'll get enough dumplings (though without any guava jam) in other dishes, so pass on this and choose another dessert.
  • Ting - Carbonated grapefruit drink. $3.50.
    • I haven't had pop drinks in a long time, so this probably hit me as being more refreshing than it ought to have been. My friend tried some and said it tasted like 7-Up. So $3.50 for an imported 7-Up is pretty darned pricey.
    • For a grapefruit drink, it doesn't have any bitterness to it. It is a refreshing citrusy drink, no doubt about it. But there isn't any novel taste or experience here to justify $3.50.

Overall the food scores at "good" or better (with the odd dud, such as the brie & guava stuffed coconut dumplings). Price seems a tad high. However, it is a musical venue, so some of the cost goes into the DJ and occasional live music, if you're into that.

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