Newlyminted Calabash Bistro brings the flavours of the islands to Vancouver

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Music, food and a laid-back Caribbean vibe

Mia Stainsby

Calabash Bistro owners (from left) Roger Collins, Sam Willcocks and Cullin David hoist a couple of cold ones at their Caribbean restaurant. Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun / PNG

At a glance

Calabash Bistro

Where: 428 Carrall St.
Open: Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner.

Are you a Caribbean foodie? If so, there’s something you should know, something I learned upon interviewing Cullin David.

He, with the loud, striped Caribbean tam upon his head (the flashy striped knitted Caribbean headgear), is the chef and one of the owners at the newly splashed down Calabash Bistro, another opening in Vancouver’s tenderloin district.

What you should know is that ackee, a staple in Caribbean cooking, is no laid-back reggae kind of fruit. It has a streak as vicious as the sound of its name. Unless it is harvested, prepared and cooked just so, it can kill you, but more likely, it will make you sick. Long story short, do not try cooking it from scratch yourself.

“Traditionally, it’s served with saltfish and normally, it’s eaten for breakfast,” says David, who grew up in Guyana.

Calabash Bistro, on the other hand, is pretty laid back, as a Caribbean restaurant should be. You’ll enjoy the music (at least I did), spun by a DJ or playing live, downstairs in the loungier space. Expect reggae, jazz, R & B, soul, hip hop. Roger Collins, the second partner, also runs Foundationradio. ca. Third partner, Sam Willcocks, was co-owner of Cassis Bistro until a year and a half ago.

David’s last gig was as a sous chef at Provence Marinaside, under Jean-Francis Quaglia, kicking up the Mediterrean food with a hint of the Caribbean. He’s also cooked at Reef (another Caribbean restaurant in town) and at Giraffe, in White Rock.

At Calabash, murmurs of Provence sneak into dishes like the warm curried goat cheese over mixed greens and the Italian stew (in a spiced-up coconut sauce). But make no mistake, it’s Caribbean food. Jerk dishes, ackee and saltfish, curries, oxtail stew, calliloo soup, rice and peas, plantain chips, fried coconut dumplings and specials daily.

The cuisine is a pastiche of the history of domination, slavery and colonization of the islands by many nations, a patchwork of African, British, Spanish, French, and Indian influences — but brought together in a uniquely Caribbean way.

My favourite dish was the oxtail stew ($12.50); it’s intense and delightfully tender. The advertised home-made dumplings, however, were either infinitely tiny or missing. The three curry offerings ($10 to $13) are served entree-style or in a roti with a side salad. Rotis are made with white flour. (I think whole wheat rotis are nuttier and more flavourful.)

Jerk mussels with jerk french fries, on special, featured fresh seafood and just-right seasoning. Fry fish ($12), fried in spiced flour, however, was very un-Caribbean and barely seasoned. An avocado and mango salad ($11) is a refreshing contrast to intense flavours. Much of that comes from the spices and the cuisine makes great use of what North Americans generally consider to be baking spices, like allspice, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. (Allspice takes its name because it was mistakenly believed to be a blend of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.)

Curries are gently spiced for wussy tastebuds. Considering the scotch bonnet, one of the hottest peppers, is on the Caribbean roster of spices, consider yourself lucky. But if you have intestines of steel, just ask for the fire-breathing version. It might also be able to withstand many samplings from the excellent rum list here.

Calabash is a package deal. The food’s priced for comfort, the room’s funky and cheerful and the staff look like they’re best friends forever. It’s kind of a Cheers with spicy food and good music.

The block is a postal code in transition. Look out the window and you see it before your eyes. There are purposeful professionals and then there’s, well, the old guy, sitting in a medical scooter that’s been tented in plastic on a hot, hot July evening. For 15 minutes, he sits in what must be a sauna, re-arranging what looked like Moses’s robe; then in the blink of an eye, he roars off, full throttle, down Carrall, and stops again. Peking Chop Suey, said a faded painted sign above him on the brick wall, a ghost from another era entirely.

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