Callaloo To You

Harry Singh's
3205 Cedar Ave. S., Mpls.; 729-6181

THERE'S SOMETHING TO be said for quiet longevity. Harry Singh's Caribbean Restaurant has gone through various stages of thrive and ebb in Minneapolis, first in Northeast, then on Lake Street, and now, for the past three years, at Cedar and 32nd. Things look much less chaotic than they did during the Lake Street years: The jumble of colored beads and the zoo of plastic animals have been cleared away, leaving only the most necessary embellishments: miniature steel drums, an ominous waist-high glass jar of hot peppers deteriorating provocatively in lime juice, a couple of pink flamingos, souvenir maps of Trinidad and Tobago, and a couple of "TING" advertisements hanging from the light fixtures. The atmosphere is still more genuine than you get at other more revered "urban escapes," and the sneeze of spice you get when you open the door lets you know that you've found someplace uncommon.

The menu hasn't changed very much over the years; it continues to impress with generous portions of authentic Caribbean food spiced with a heavy hand. For starters, the crucial appetizer is a large pile of vinegary, browned chicken wings, succulent, plump, and mercifully missing your standard gelatinous barbecue sauce; the "salads" portion of the menu leaves you choosing between Caribbean salad ($2.25) and, well, nothing. But that's fine because it's got enough to satisfy three rabbits and a horse: a drift of carrots, green and purple cabbage, lettuce, celery, onions, and tomatoes, all doused with lemon, vinegar, and lemon pepper. If you need something more to satiate yourself, or perhaps are looking for something less than a full dinner, a simple bowl of red beans ($1.50) will do you well, stiff kidney beans sauced over with peanuts, tomatoes, and white onions.

More variety can be found on the list of cold drinks marked "Caribbean," which include such exotic refreshments as Caribbean punch (your typical red'n'sweet beverage), guava juice, a lip smacking ginger beer, mango juice, sorrel, sour sop, mauby, and the lush peanut punch (made fresh on the premises), each available for a mere $1.50. Dullards can go for coffee, tea, milk, soda, etc.

Dinners are so good, it's near impossible to be disappointed, unless you're utterly unable to find joy in anything. Among the West Indian specialties offered is the sonorous callaloo ($10), a huge mountain of baked chicken parts over rice, sided with finely chopped spinach and okra and well dressed with coconut juice, butter, and a variety of curries, peppers, and garlic. The roti is another fine option, soft, toasted flat bread cradling spiced ground peas, curried potato, and your choice of chicken, shrimp, or beef ($4.95-7.95). These are served with homemade Caribbean lime-juice pepper sauces available in mild, medium, and hot--even the mild will be enough to cause your cheeks to burn sweetly.

Creole rice dishes take up another section of the menu, with a choice of stewed fish, shrimp, browned-down chicken or browned-down beef. All are tossed with a fistful of spice (including a heady blast of nutmeg) and a garden of tomatoes, chopped cabbage, celery, and carrots. Vegetarians are treated well here, and there's plenty of potential for this becoming one of your favorite veggie spots. Choose from lentils and rice ($4), red beans and rice ($5), vegetarian plate ($7.95), vegetable roti ($4.95), potato roti ($4.50), pigeon peas and rice ($5), and more. Desserts, if you're able, are light and refreshing homemade ice creams--they lean more toward ices, actually--in kiwi, coconut, and mango flavors ($2.25).

It's hard to imagine a nicer restaurant to recommend to the uninitiated, mostly because you feel like you're being served for the sole reason that the cook has made some delicious food, and he wants you to try it for him because, well, just because nothing would make him happier (i.e., not just because you're paying for it). It's quiet, clean, cheap, and informal enough that the owner might even come and drink coffee with you after he's cleaned up. So if you think that the restaurant scene in this town is losing its charm and personality, try popping into Harry's. You're sure to return.


TABLE HOPPING:

THE BOOT, VIA BENSONHURST: One of our editors writes: Since summer skipped out we've spent more than one evening warming our souls at Sophia's Italia on Nicollet Ave. (and 14th) in downtown Minneapolis. Opened quietly this spring by Brooklyn-born Michael Itskovich (one of the chefs responsible for putting Café Un Deux Trois on the map), Sophia's is by our Tuscan-blooded measure the best traditional Italian joint in town (not to mention the cosiest, with a fireplace, comfy seating, low noise, and a great mix of jazz and vintage pop on the sound system). As an alternative to their standard menu (which includes roasted garlic soup, excellent homemade bread and pizzas, and an impressive rolled meatloaf that would give even your Grandma pause), Sophia's has been offering a special Monday night prix fixe menu spotlighting a different region of Italy each week.

A couple of weeks back, we sat down to a spread from Molise, one of the country's poorer regions that nevertheless makes the most of what it has. The caponata salad (made with fresh tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, pungent olive oil, a trace of anchovies and chewy chunks of fresh bread) was followed by a simple potato, onion and tomato tart. Both were served at room temperature, allowing the subtle flavors to do their stuff. The main course pasta was smothered in a wonderfully spicy meat sauce, heavy with sausage and pancetta and topped with a dollop of creamy ricotta; the wine--a 1993 Labrandi Ciro Rosso--was feisty enough to parry it. A simple, eggy custard tart finished things off, covered in a thick, sharp cherry sauce that was closer to jam than syrup.

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