Restaurant: Calabash Bistro
Last Visited: May 4, 2012
Location: Vancouver, BC (Gastown)
Address: 428 Carrall Street
Transit: EB E Hastings St FS Carrall St
Price Range: $10-20+ ($18-22+ mains)
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
Service: 2.5 (friendly, but slow)
- Jamaican owned and operated
- Traditional/modern Caribbean cuisine
- Local favourite
- House made food
- Busy at peak hours
- Reasonably priced
- Casual atmosphere
- Lively, but not loud
- Live music nights
- Cocktails/Good rum list
- Dinner only
- Monday-Sunday 5pm-late
**Recommendations: Ginger Plantain Gratin, Coconut Dumplings, Cassareep Marinated Beef Tenderloin, Oxtail, Brie & Guava Stuffed Coconut Dumplings
It’s the first Caribbean or Jamaican restaurant I’ve been to ever since Follow Me Foodie to Jamaica last year. So why after experiencing authentic Jamaican cuisine would I have a desire to check it out in Vancouver, BC? Well I wasn’t eager to explore it but part of me was still very curious for comparisons sake. We’re also not in Jamaica or the Caribbean, so it’s silly to refrain from trying ethnic cuisine in your own city since it can still be good. It might not be as “authentic” given the circumstances, but it can still be enjoyable. My aim is more to point out the differences and then take it from there and at the end of the day it’s about whether or not it tasted good, can I get it better and would I order it again.
Calabash Bistro offers Caribbean cuisine too, and not just Jamaican, so it is a bit more “fusion”. Caribbean food includes influences from Jamaica, Africa, West India, East India and China, and I found Calabash served it well in a West Coast context.
What is authenticity anyway? Well that’s a fully loaded question I’ll attempt in a future essay, but it would be naive to think my couple experiences in Jamaica and the Caribbean would show me all the authentic cuisine those places have to offer. On the other hand it gives me an idea and literal taste, but there is always something more to learn.
Calabash Bistro was actually a random plan D since plan A, B and C backfired with full houses and unexpected restaurant closures. It was about 7pm in Gastown on a Friday night so I was lucky to get seated anywhere and luckily it was here. It was already quite busy, but little did I know that this restaurant had a basement level with comfortable and spacious seating – very rare trait for Gastown.
The service was friendly but slow (much like it would be in Jamaica), and the vibe was lively but not loud and it didn’t feel pretentious. The lighting was low but not dark, and contrary to the rumours I’ve heard, it didn’t smell grassy, so I would say it was family friendly although not a family restaurant. All of the above really made it quite an enjoyable dining atmosphere, besides the slow thing.
Now for the most important part – the food. Well for me at least. The menu had traditional and modern interpretations of Jamaican and Caribbean cuisine. The more traditional dishes were traditional, but still a bit catered for West Coast tastes. The flavours weren’t necessarily “authentic”, but the food tasted good enough for me to overlook authenticity. As for the modern dishes, they were pleasantly creative and not butchered Caribbean food, so I had no issues with that. Many ingredients aren’t even available here to make authentic Jamaican or Caribbean cuisine, so for what it was, it was solid.
For the amount I ordered there were almost no misses, but again the food just looked and tasted more Westernized. The food was approachable to the masses and not “mass produced”, however the spices were toned down. At times the sauces tasted repetitive, but for the most part it was home made with flavour. Yes, it lacked the heat and spice of “authentic” Caribbean and Jamaican cuisine, but fair enough that they need to cater to their customers. I wouldn’t really ding them for that as long as it still tasted good and generally it really did.
If I compare it to other Jamaican/Caribbean restaurants I’ve tried in Metro Vancouver, I would say it’s more traditional than The Reef (which is still good for something very casual and “fun for everyone”), and then compared to Jamaican Pizza Jerk it was less authentic in flavour and ingredients, but more refined and professional in execution. I actually appreciate all of the above for different reasons though. I wasn’t expecting too much from Calabash Bistro and in the end I was quite impressed with the whole experience, so I understand why it’s so loved by locals.
On the table:
- Fior de Cana 7 year old rum, chilli tequila, mango puree, fresh lime, agave syrup and kaffir lime leaf $9
- This was quite thick and creamy and heavy on mango puree, but the tequila and rum kicked in at the end of the sip.
- It was on the sweet side and the alcohol was faint, but it was good to try and pretty basic with the flavours.
- I love mango, but I just wanted it to be more cocktail and less virgin cocktail.
- Mount Gay Silver Rum, Coitreau, guava, lemon juice, egg white and Angostura bitters $9
- Call it last year’s “cocktail trend”, but I like egg whites in cocktails. I liked the texture it brings.
- This one had a bit too much foam though, but it was well balanced with sweetness, acidity and bitters.
- I preferred this to the mango cocktail which surprised me, but this was just more dynamic in flavours.
- Hibiscus flowers brewed with ginger, citrus and soda $3.50
- This is a light and refreshing non-alcoholic drink and it was more tangy from lemon juice than sweet.
- It’s less sweet than most carbonated drinks and if it was authentic it would probably be even sweeter.
- It was quite aromatic and strong with fresh infused ginger flavour which I like, but it wasn’t spicy.
- Fresh fried roti served with warm curried chicken dip *Vegetarian option available $4
- The roti is made upon order and they did a good job! The roti was big enough for 2-4 to share as an appy.
- It wasn’t fluffy and stretchy like Malaysian style roti canai, but it was more Indian style.
- The roti was slightly flaky, soft and chewy and it was quite salty alone too.
- The curry sauce was really thin and watery, but it had good flavour.
- It’s not meant to be as strong as most East Indian style curries and the spices are different.
- The sauce was salty with levels of savouriness and it was infused with a chicken flavour and perhaps chicken seasoning.
- I wouldn’t be surprised if the chicken cooked in this curry sauce and it didn’t taste like it was added after.
- It was slightly spicy and there were little bits of chicken in it since it was the sauce right from the chicken curry.
- There was the texture of melted potatoes too and I could just imagine a giant pot of chicken curry sitting in the back.
- The roti needed more curry sauce which I asked for and it was an additional $1.50. It’s not a big deal, but I just wanted to know during the order and not at the bill.
- For arguably “the best” Caribbean roti I will suggest Rehanah’s Roti in Port Moody as well.
- Patties are a big deal in Jamaica and they take them more seriously than one might think.
- There’s a “huge” debate between Juici Patties VS Tastee Patties which are the two local favourites for Jamaican patties – see my post here.
- This version was really small (snack for one person), and if I wasn’t in a Caribbean restaurant I wouldn’t have guessed it was supposed to be a Jamaican patty.
- Beef is the most typical patty and traditionally one might stuff the patty in CoCo bread – see here.
- It was home made and it tasted good, but just looked and tasted different from an authentic one.
- The puff pastry I doubt was made in house (no big deal), but they reminded me of the Chinese beef curry pastries.
- Jamaican patties are Chinese influenced to begin with though.
- The dough isn’t supposed to be a buttery puff pastry and it should be much more flaky, but again it was still good if you have nothing to compare to.
- It was standard puff pastry filled with minced beef, carrots and potatoes.
- It was almost like a curried beef pot pie and the filling was moist and very mildly spicy.
- Jamaican Pizza Jerk doesn’t make theirs in house, but it is closer to the original – see their Jamaican Patty.
- This was pretty much the same as the beef except with chicken.
- Again it was really small and it was good, but I wouldn’t have to order it again.
- It was home made and it tasted fine, but just looked and tasted different from an authentic one.
- Just like the beef version, it reminded me of the Chinese chicken curry puff pastries.
- The chicken was nice and shredded and it tasted like a curry chicken pot pie.
- Roasted layers of plantains, goat cheese and pecans *Vegan option available $9
- This is their own creative take on Caribbean cuisine and it worked! I liked it.
- It was a similar concept to candied yams with pecans, but instead with plantains.
- Plantains are starchier, firmer, less sweet bananas and they were almost stewed in this case.
- It was a sweet, savoury and slightly spicy “banana stew” or casserole with salty goat cheese which was quite pungent, but not that gamey.
- I liked the textural contrast of crunchy pecans next to the sweet creamy bananas, but there wasn’t enough pecans.
- It was chunks of plantains with a very mild ginger flavour that was almost forgotten and then some pureed red pepper, onions and tomatoes as the base for the sauce.
- It didn’t have the gratin crust because the goat cheese wasn’t going to bake up nice and crispy, so I did miss the crust.
- The plantains are substantial, but the dish isn’t necessarily rich and it was a good side dish.
- Grilled jerk marinated chicken breast $7
- Thanks to Scotchie’s Jerk Chicken, I am now very picky and biased when it comes to Jerk chicken.
- Authentic Jamaican Jerk chicken is even hard to find in Jamaica because traditionally it’s grilled over sweetwood and pimento wood logs.
- Of course I’m not going to expect those cooking methods at Calabash, but even so I found these quite standard and good, but not memorable.
- It didn’t even really have a dry rub and instead it was swimming in sauce and bordering a Jamaican version of Teriyaki chicken. I would think there was soy sauce in it too.
- The chicken breast was very moist and tender, but the sauce was syrupy and sweet and I missed the aroma and flavour of grill marks and spicy Jerk seasoning.
- I just missed the flavours of all spice, thyme and peppers and it didn’t even really seem grilled, but almost pan fried.
- The parsley garnish is a Western thing and it doesn’t bother me, but just pointing it out. For colour, sure why not?
- Again this was still good, but I wouldn’t have to order it again and I do prefer the Jerk Chicken at Jamaican Pizza Jerk or even the Jerked Wings at The Reef.
- I also highly recommend the Jerk Chicken from Jamaican Thyme which is my favourite in Vancouver to date.
- Sauteed with bell peppers, red onion, tomato and spices. Made fresh to order. Served with rice & peas and salad $18
- This is Jamaica’s National breakfast dish, but in Vancouver they always serve it for dinner. I normally love this dish.
- In North American culture it’s easily perceived as a dinner item because it’s so hearty as a breakfast.
- If you have never tried this sweet and savoury dish it’s almost like scrambled eggs and veggies, but those yellow chunks are ackee.
- Ackee is a fruit and it has the same texture as Jackfruit or durian (without the smell), or even the texture of avocado meets scrambled eggs.
- It’s creamy, buttery, silky and slippery smooth, a bit sweet and barely has a chew.
- The only ackee available in Vancouver is canned, so this is canned and it’s not as fragrant or sweet as the fresh kind.
- I wish it had more ackee though and there wasn’t much of it. The dish should be almost 60% ackee.
- Normally it’s sauteed with much more onion and saltfish than red peppers and tomatoes and adding those veggies are not as common.
- I wasn’t keen on the quality of the saltfish (preserved cod) and I found it really hard, chewy and dry.
- It wasn’t that salty, but the texture was tougher than normal and I don’t think the saltfish was soaked long enough.
- I love the dish for what it is and this one was good, but the fish put a dinger on things.
- It is meant to be eaten with starchy sides liked boiled bananas, roasted breadfruit and fried dumplings (Johnny Cakes), but they served this with rice and peas and salad.
- The salad was dressed in a coconut dressing and it was nice and slightly sweet and fragrant and perhaps made with a hint of mango juice too. It was very light and I enjoyed it.
- I would recommend trying the one at Jamaican Pizza Jerk – see their Ackee & Saltfish.
- To see Ackee and Saltfish in Jamaica see my post here.
- Beef tenderloin marinated in casareep, herbs and spices. Served with rice and peas and seasonal vegetables $26
- This was excellent, but I really didn’t see anything Jamaican about it although I would still order it again.
- For a non-steakhouse it impressed me a lot!
- The tenderloin was incredibly succulent, tender, buttery and well marbleized and it was cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was so easy to cut even with a butter knife.
- The steak was swimming in a rich cassareep sauce.
- Cassareep is the juice of bitter casava roots, but it’s boiled down and reduced with added spices so it actually ends up being syrupy, aromatic and sweet like molasses and not bitter. It’s also similar to tamarind, but sweet and not sour.
- It was a really rich and thick cassareep sauce and it reminded me of the Jerk chicken sauce.
- If I didn’t know it was cassareep sauce I would have thought it was just a syrupy red wine and natural jus reduction.
- It had some aromatic spices of cloves and all spice which were still on the mild side though.
- It was slightly spicy and I wouldn’t be surprised if they reduced it in some sweet rum instead of red wine, but it didn’t taste boozy.
- The rice and “peas” (actually beans) were fantastic and even better than the rice and peas I’ve had in Jamaica.
- The rice was just much more fragrant with sauteed onions, dried rosemary and thyme and although a bit mushy and soft, the flavour made up for it.
- The parsley and green onion garnish to give it colour again is a Western ingredient.
- Marinated and stewed with potato and carrots. Served with rice & peas, a fried coconut dumpling and salad $15
- This was another hit!
- Oxtail stew is a very typical Jamaican dish. Think of it as the beef bourguignon of Jamaican cuisine.
- The coconut dumplings are freaking amazing here! I would order them a la carte.
- I think the Coconut Dumplings are their own version of Jonny Cakes.
- It’s like the love child of American coconut macaroons meets savoury hush puppies (deep fried cornbread).
- The dumpling, or donut, was crispy and dense and it’s not a doughy dumpling. It’s almost cakey.
- It was slightly sweet and nutty from the dried coconut and still incredibly moist and well textured with the cornmeal.
- The Reef actually serves these dumplings complimentary (see here), but they’re not coconut ones and just the standard Jamaican fry bread. Still delicious though!
- The Rice and Peas again was fantastic and incredibly fragrant with onions, dried herbs and spices. It’s also not “peas”, but beans. It was a bit mushy and soft, but not dry and still very good.
- Again, oxtail stew is a very typical Jamaican dish and it’s almost like the beef bourguignon of Jamaican cuisine.
- It came with 3 slices of oxtail and was stewed with carrots and potatoes as opposed to the traditional broad beans.
- It looks small, but it’s a hearty dish.
- If you’ve never had oxtail before it’s like the beef version of pig’s trotter. It’s slightly gelatinous, but when it’s made well it’s fantastic.
- I’m not keen on pure gelatinous textures and when I have oxtail I like there to be a balance of fat and meat and the tendon-y parts to be not chewy. This was executed pretty much perfectly.
- The meat part is similar to short rib meat or brisket and those gelatinous parts almost melt in your mouth so they’re not distracting.
- The oxtail was falling off the bone and the meat was moist and tender. It was likely braised for hours over low heat.
- The sauce tasted very similar to the Jerk sauce and the Cassareep Marinated Beef Tenderloin, but it was still good – just repetitive.
- The sauce was likely made with soy sauce and all spice and it was slightly spicy, but I missed the scotch bonnet pepper heat again.
- I’ve had this at Jamaican Pizza Jerk before (see here), but I liked it much better at Calabash.
- Light layers of chocolate cake, banana rum cream and chocolate ganache $8.50
- This was served chilled and it was pretty good, but I wouldn’t have to order it again although I’m glad I tried it.
- This was much more dense and rich than a typical trifle and it was pretty intense and made for chocolate lovers.
- I found it quite sweet and the chocolate ganache on the top was hardened so it was almost like a chocolate seal.
- The chocolate cake was moist, but quite a standard chocolate cake.
- It was denser than a sponge cake and lighter than a brownie with pieces of bitter sweet chocolate chips.
- The cake wasn’t soaked in rum and it was more chocolatey than banana-y.
- There were two layers of naturally sweet and creamy mashed banana in between. I wish there were chunks of banana too.
- My favourite part was the banana rum cream on top and that’s the only component where I could taste a bit of rum.
- It was a fluffy sweet cream and it reminded me of banana cream pie. I loved that part and wanted that in between the chocolate cake layers too.
- Three warm, sweet and savoury stuffed dumplings $6
- These were amazing and such a deal! I would come back even just for these.
- It’s a substantial dessert and even one is a lot, but you can’t miss them!
- This is their own creation and it was a fabulous modern Caribbean dessert.
- Jamaican fry bread of Johnny Cakes are usually the savoury starch to the mains, but this was a unique dessert version of them.
- It was pretty much the coconut dumplings, which I described as the love child of American coconut macaroons meets savoury hush puppies (deep fried cornbread).
- It’s basically a doughnut, but better. They’re dense and almost cakey and very moist.
- It was equally sweet as it was savoury which is why I loved it so much. I love that contrast and it wasn’t too sweet to start with.
- It was sweet and nutty from the dried coconut and I’m not even sure if there was cornmeal in it, but it has that texture.
- They were crispy on the outside and stuffed with a good amount of creamy buttery salty gooey brie and the guava jam was nice and sweet, but it didn’t taste like guava. That was my only issue although easily overlooked due to its pure deliciousness.
- It was garnished with slices of fresh mango and I just wanted a scoop of coconut ice cream of coconut cream to dip them into.