A taste of the islands, and tropical hospitality

Dad is in the kitchen getting dinner ready while Mom welcomes guests at the front door. In the dining room, their fifth-grader is finishing up his homework. Sounds just like your house on the average weeknight, right?

Well, maybe not, but that could be you and your family at the door, arriving for dinner at Kallaloo, a Caribbean-Creole restaurant that is the newest spice on the rack of ethnic eateries in Columbia City.

Kal Gellein is the chef here, but it's his wife Gail Williams' Caribbean roots that inspire their menu. The roster runs to homey stews and fragrant curries; pan-fried chicken and spice-rubbed fish; tropical salads and a slew of hearty, vegetarian-friendly side dishes. This is the food that Williams grew up on in Trinidad and Tobago and that she enjoys cooking for family and friends.

Now, she says, a little chagrined, her husband — a Seattle native and veteran chef — cooks these dishes better than she.

His stews are especially satisfying, whether it's chicken, oxtail or goat simmering in the pot. Goat is so tender it could be veal, and so delicious it's worth the annoyance of navigating through the many small bone shards lurking in the thick curry sauce. Oxtail goes into the Guyanese Pepper Pot. This pliant meat needs little nudging to free it from the gnarly bones, and the dark, rich sauce is thickened by cassareep, a juice distilled from cassava root.

Stewed chicken with macaroni pie and callaloo is a traditional Sunday-night supper in Trinidad. The bird is braised with tomatoes, herbs and onions until the vegetables caramelize and the chicken becomes pull-apart tender under a rich, brown glaze. Macaroni pie is mac and cheese without the creamy sauce but with the baked cheese crust. Callaloo is the slightly bitter green leaf of the taro plant purred with garlic, onion, okra and coconut milk — and a welcome hint of smoked pork in the non-vegetarian version.

Pungent with spices, none of these stews is aggressively spicy, which is characteristic of English-style Caribbean cooking in general, Williams said in a phone interview. "This is everyday cooking that can be eaten even by young children."

Families flock to Kallaloo. Side dishes like macaroni pie, rice and beans, cou-cou, cassava and christophine gratin are not only vegetarian, they are kid-friendly as well. They accompany various entrees but also can be ordered separately.

Macaroni pie makes a dandy accompaniment to crispy oven-fried chicken tangy from its buttermilk marinade. Cou-cou, a cornmeal mush that is a Caribbean cousin to grits, cushions a fillet of well-seasoned red snapper, perfectly pan-fried and sauced with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions. Sautéed cassava accompanies moist, oven-roasted halibut, and the vegetable's blandness underscores the fish's pungent garlic sauce. Christophine is chayote squash; the baked flesh is scooped out, mixed with onion, garlic, okra and cheese, then baked again.

Appetizers are portioned to share. Plantains stuffed with ground beef weren't as ripe and sweet as they could be, and catfish escabeche — a cold salad combining green olives, capers, onions and chunks of fried fish — needs more oomph than its citrus vinaigrette provides. But Jamaican patties, savory chicken-filled pastries much like empanadas, are a very nice nosh, and the mango-sauced curried crab cakes are simply divine.

Salads make great starters, too. Hibiscus vinaigrette spiced with clove and cinnamon graces a simple house salad of mixed greens, mango, red onion and jicama. The Island Salad sports a trio of large, succulent grilled shrimp, roasted red peppers and ripe papaya, along with shredded green papaya, tossed with a captivating curry vinaigrette.

Williams, ever the serene hostess, keeps her eye on sweet young servers (including her daughter, who helps out occasionally). They know the food, so follow their advice. It might lead you to the raisin bread pudding with warm coconut rum sauce for dessert. You won't be disappointed.

Glimpsed through the kitchen pass-through, Gellein moves like a squash player up and down the line keeping up with orders. Sometimes food takes too long; some things don't come out just right. Fried chicken might get a little burnt, a pork chop is overcooked, rice clumps. But these are anomalies.

Giddy with tropical colors, Kallaloo is as pretty as a hibiscus blossom and as comfortable as a veranda. Fans swirl in the ceiling. Basket lamps cast striated shadows on the walls after dark. Come for lunch, and you'll find broad windows letting in the light and a shorter menu that includes a few sandwiches.

A party atmosphere prevails on weekend nights when local musicians sometimes play. That's when the bar sees some action. The bartender, busy dispensing wine, beer and pink martinis, can't tell you much about the lovely aged rums on the shelf, but ask for a shot of Aniversario. It tastes like cognac mellowed with vanilla and spice.

Sample menu

Island Salad $ 6.95

Curried Crab Cakes $ 9.95

Stewed Chicken $12.95

Curried Goat $13.95

Garlic Halibut $13.95

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Chef Kal Gellein, of Seattle, has mastered his wife's native Caribbean cuisine at Kallaloo. (ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Kallaloo 2.5 stars

3820 S. Ferdinand St., Seattle;





Reservations: for parties of six or more.

Hours: lunch 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. Mondays- Saturdays; dinner 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Prices: lunch soups, salads, sandwiches $3.95-$9.95; entrees $9.95-$11.95.

Drinks: a short list of wine and beer, a longer list of "Island-style" cocktails.

Parking: on street or in nearby lots.

Sound: gets noisy when crowded.

Who should go: anyone in search of a cheap, quick, virtual Caribbean vacation.

Full bar / all major cards / no obstacles to access.