Restaurant Reviews

A Trip to the Islands

Though Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties are logistically very close together, each county has distinct characteristics and inhabitants. So it takes a unique restaurant to draw customers from all three areas. Most of the eateries that have succeeded in doing so have been très upscale spots with celebrity chefs, like Mark Militello's places on Las Olas Boulevard and in Mizner Park or Darrel Broek and Oliver Saucy's Café Maxx. Patrons regard these venues as places to celebrate landmark occasions and believe they're worth braving the frequent lane closures on I-95 that have plagued us commuters lately.

Enter Calypso Pub, where a Caribbean-inspired meal is decidedly not in the fine-dining category. How could it be? The storefront restaurant, located in the Garden Isles Shopping Center in Pompano Beach, is a small square of bar attached to a larger rectangle of dining space. The blue-and-white linoleum floor is set with varnished wood tables, and brightly painted wooden fish and Caribbean-hued textiles hang on the walls. The place exudes such a casual air that servers sit down at your table (if there's an available seat) to take your order -- not because it's the trendy thing to do, but because the place is so busy they could use a few seconds off their feet. And though prices can reach the somewhat lofty height of $27.95 for special entrées such as the pound of king crab legs, main courses average about 15 bucks.

Yet Calypso manages to attract patrons from all over the tricounty area, people who not only willingly traverse the interstate but stand three deep at the bar while they wait for an available table. It doesn't have to be someone's birthday, either; no reason for a visit is required other than an appetite. Diners flock there for the food, which for the most part is not Caribbean fusion but rather a mélange of regional specialties drawn from island nations like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Think jerk chicken, rotis (flour pancakes) stuffed with curried lamb, stamp-and-go (salt codfish cakes), all spiced and seasoned to waken your palate, not bury it beneath an entire herb garden.

These are the standards on which Calypso rests a well-earned reputation that survived eight years in a decaying strip mall, the kind where you crossed the parking lot with your keys held like a weapon. The restaurant moved to its current location about two years ago. It's still located in a strip mall, but the worst fear you might have would concern the raw shellfish. And even that you can set aside -- Calypso has a cleanliness habit (everything from beer taps to bathrooms is spotless and gleaming), and its shellfish comes from pristine sources.

Of course Calypso does the responsible thing and posts consumer warnings about raw shellfish right on the menu. If that kind of thing scares you off, try your shellfish appetizers cooked. Calypso turns out an excellent platter of oysters Rockefeller -- freshly shucked shellfish topped with creamed spinach and Parmesan cheese. Or skip the oysters altogether and focus on the more islandy stuff, like the "scorched" conch, which is really just grilled over a high flame. You can order this as a starter or a main course, and either way you can't go wrong. That's because the conch, pounded with mallets and marinated in citrus juices until tooth-tender, is a wonderful example of how that frequently tough foodstuff should be served.

Despite being endangered, conch is now often farm-raised and is pretty much always available at the restaurant, so order away. Your conscience might not be quite as clear if you order the flying fish, which often shows up on endangered-species lists but is sometimes considered fair game, depending on the breeding season. Trust Calypso to carry it when it's politically correct, and when the eatery does have it in stock, take advantage. The cooks marinate the firm white flesh in lime juice, then roll it in bread crumbs and deep-fry it. As with the conch, you can ask for this as an appetizer or entrée, and it's greaseless enough to savor as a main course.

Portion sizes can be decreased as well as increased; we enjoyed crabcakes, a special main course that evening, as a starter instead. The three pan-fried cakes, meaty with crab but not chunky, were accompanied by a wonderfully spicy rémoulade. If any item's not vibrant enough for you, though, feel free to experiment with one of the numerous hot sauces that litter the table. Just be warned that Scotch bonnet peppers, which are featured in many of these sauces, are considered among the hottest chiles in the world.

Ordering too many appetizers could spoil your appetite for dinner, since all main courses come with a house salad (try the homemade Jamaican ginger dressing) and a choice of two side dishes, including some terrific homemade potato salad, homemade coleslaw, and spiced cucumbers. Some diners might want to skip straight to the main course of West Indies chicken curry, a sublime creation featuring mild, white-meat chicken simmered in a beautifully balanced sauce. The stew was ladled over pigeon peas and rice, an island staple. (Calypso's version could use some more pigeon peas.) Braised lamb shanks weren't so good: gamy as goat, with a texture more consistent with being roasted than cooked in their red wine­onion gravy.

When it comes to the specials, Calypso aims a bit higher, with mixed success. Pork Havana nueva, pork tenderloin marinated in bitter orange and lime juices, was a juicy pleasure. The pork was served on a bed of caramelized onions and sautéed red bell peppers and was surrounded by a mountain range of home-brewed black beans, white rice, and deep-fried plantains. Yuca-crusted dolphin, a frequent guest on the dinner specials list, wasn't quite as accomplished, since the fish itself was not only overcooked but overwhelmed by the amount of horseradish in the crust.

If you do become disenchanted with a main course -- and you won't if you stick to the Caribbean plates on the regular menu -- chalk it up to experience and wash it all down with a Pirate's Brew lager, just one of the microbrews from the well-chosen beer list that puts the "Pub" in Calypso Pub. Or put it aside and reach for dessert. Avid sweets fans groan over the flourless chocolate cake, baked on the premises, which had a lightness of texture usually found only in flour cakes. Homemade key lime pie was also wonderfully rendered, with just the right amount of tartness, but in the end the raspberry-chocolate cream tart, garnished with huge, ripe berries, took the blue ribbon. Note that the coconut cream pie is the only dessert not baked in the Calypso kitchen; sample at your own risk.

Indeed, try for a table at your own risk. You'll probably have to wait for a seat, for starters; on top of that, you won't be invited to take your place until your party is complete, unless you're willing to order appetizers right away. The staff does try to ensure timely turnover and accommodate waiting customers, but it doesn't always work. They couldn't do anything, for example, about a party that decided to play cards at its table instead of paying up and departing. But that's par for the course -- patrons are so anxious to hang out at Calypso that when they finally do score a seat, they don't want to give it up.