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My guest chose our destination, and having never tried Caribbean cuisine I was intrigued by a night full of new flavours. Strongly scented spices wafted into my nostrils as I approached the threshold. It’s smell made me hungrier, and all the happy patrons seated inside had me hopeful. The chatter of folks enjoying themselves filled the room. The attentive staff were a varying bunch. Patient and soft spoken, they gave equal attention to all their guests. I stood by the door waiting for our reserved table to be cleared by the hostess and was approached three other times by three other employees. I immediately felt their inviting spirit. Though having the hostess booth right by the door with no room to stand and even less to wait, meant congestion at the entrance; I was constantly in the way of those passing by or wanting out. Yet with the bar and its accompanying stools only a few feet away, my options to move in were limited. Given their popularity, I see the need to condense and capture as much space as possible with actually seats, no room for a waiting area.

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There is a cultivated romantic ambience about the place. Rich red walls, candle lit tables, and smooth Latin music playing over head. The main floor was a tight space of single top tables and ones for four by the window. Additional seating was available in their basement, but tonight it was reserved for an event. We only realized later that the basement also served as their lounge. A night spot with its own schedule of ethnic music and unique events. Coconut Thursdays, Caribbean Brunch, and a rotation of live musical performances.

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The decor was rich in history. Maps, flags, and artifacts reflective of their Caribbean Cuisine, and self confessed Reggaecentric Environment. A cloth map of Antigua, a fish carved from wood, a piece of Caribbean life captured in paint, traditional tools that hung over door ways adorned with shells, native hand carved masks, curvy drinking gourds, and a picture of bob Marley. Towards the back of the restaurant, a large couch that stood the length of the wall. It’s frayed and peeling arm rests and saggy cushions told me this was a well lived on piece of furniture. Above it hung a splattered painting of a DJ and his turn tables. A show case towards the washroom held homemade beaded jewelry, knitted beanies, and organically made maracas. A display for show of culture and sale of product.

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The wooden tables, the solid wood carved chandelier, and the exotic plants in both potted variety and hanging from baskets; gave the place an earthy feel. And with each table setting lived a mason jar, in it rocks, water, and a living plant.

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The drink menu was a complete introduction to rum, the declared spirit of the Caribbean. They deal in all things rum related. They boast to have the largest collection available to the consumers in Canada. Given the various bottles lining their back bar shelf, I would agree. They have rum flights, the first of its kind I have ever seen. And once a month they even host rum tasting parties. Shame I drove and was not here to drink. Though that didn’t stop the bartender from graciously coming out from behind her station to suggest a beverage as I waited for my guest. I declined, though I was thoroughly happy to get all the check in from her and her fellow colleagues.

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My guest tonight has heard about their rum offerings and was eager to try the “Calabash Dark and Stormy”. This was on special tonight, on Thursdays it is $2 off. Their version of this Bermuda drink had ginger infused Goslings Black Seal with homemade ginger beer, Angostura bitters, and house made ginger syrup. Given the listing and deeper tone we expected a heavier drink; instead it had a light, fruity note. The dusting of cinnamon added a subtle sweetness alongside its aromatics. All together it had a tickle of spice, very complementary to our meal ahead.

The dinner menu started with a weekly list of specials in food and drinks. The “banana lassi” and “passion fruit guava mimosas” had me intrigued, but I refrained and we stuck with their core menu. This would be my first full fledge dive into Caribbean cuisine and I wanted to try what they were most known for. My mistake was going into this ordering things I thought I knew how they should taste. So the dishes we got didn’t quite turn out how we had expected. North American versus Caribbean crab cakes. East Indian roti verses Caribbean roti.

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“Fried Coconut Dumplings”. Served with your choice of mango honey or guava butter. We greedily paid the extra required for both spreads, having heard they were known for these dumplings. Delicious and sweet, we were surprised they were offered as a appetizer and not a dessert. Though there were notes of savoury in the dumpling. Each had that familiar light coconut taste without its usual grainy texture. They more closely resembled bread balls than dumplings. With a chewy dough-like texture and no real filling. The butters were the best part, they spread smooth like cream and were like nothing we have ever tasted. Both sweet and fragrant with their name sake fruit, we ended up using them on all our appetizers, deeming the mango our favourite.

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“Free-Range Jerk Chicken Skewers”. Grilled, jerk marinated free range chicken breast. The chicken was well cooked and tender. I don’t prefer white meat, but this cut was far from dry, and only a wee bit tough. This dish is an example where more sauce isn’t necessarily better. The peppery marinade was full of spice, and it completely overwhelmed the chicken. It was a lingering heat that stuck to our tongues and held fast in our mouths.

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“Roti & Dips”. Severed with your choice of jerk chicken, jerk vegetables, curry chicken, or a curry veggie sauce. The roti kept warm in its rolled up state. It was a thicker piece with many feathered layers. Flavourful on its own, but perfect for soaking up sauces. The curry dipping sauce was yellow and watery, it looked more like chicken broth than a curry. It wasn’t the thick and chunky version we had envisioned. Texture aside it was well seasoned and perfectly salted.

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“Crabcakes” made with seasoned crab meat, salt cod, and shrimp; coated with a crispy spiced cornmeal crust. Serve with cool dahi dip and a marinated green papaya salad. This was your usual light and fluffy crab cake. The thick crust had bites tasting heartier, and mouthfuls feeling grainier. It certainly wasn’t our favourite part of the cake. Inside, the patties were filled with generous flaky crab, seasoned with a stronger curry flavour than the dish before. We just finished it for the sake of finishing it. The sauce and accompanying papaya salad was able to create some lightness. The former remind me of taziki with its yogurt base.

Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
As my first dive into Caribbean cuisine I would say this was a success. I have tried flavours I have never discovered, and tasted variations on dishes I thought I knew everything about. For those who just like salt and pepper, this is not the place for you. Their use of different seasoning and gentle mouth engulfing spices is exciting to an inexperienced palette. I would like to return to enjoy their lounge and emerge myself in artistic culture as I indulge in the unique food. A solid stop for something different, but would not a go-to staple for me. Don’t deny your cravings.

CALABASH
428 Carrall Street, Vancouver BC, V6A0A7
604-568-5882
calabashbistro.com
Calabash Bistro on Urbanspoon