Caldera is an inviting spot for folks from near and far
It is fitting that Caldera Restaurante inhabits a building that served as a pharmacy in the early 1900s.
According to owners Kevin and Becky Overby, the stately 1910 structure was surrounded by orchard farmland, a lonely stop along the streetcar line that ran up Stark Street. One imagines the pharmacy was valued as much for providing an informal gathering spot for farmers as it was for supplying tinctures and tonics.
Caldera Restaurante, open since January, carries on this tradition, offering affordable food and drink and a place for nearby residents to convene.
Neighborhood restaurants, diverse in their cuisines, are unified by their reliability, comfortable environs and value-priced menus. They can be counted on to dish up satisfying fare and a stiff drink and a bit of conversation should you seek it Ñ all with maximum efficiency and minimal fuss. If Caldera is soft in any of these areas, it is in the food end, though its overall charm does much to compensate for some ho-hum dishes.
Caldera's strongest selling point is its wonderfully welcoming interior. An impressive antique bar anchors the front room, beckoning you to run your fingers over the smooth grain. Mismatched but tasteful wooden tables, chairs and benches provide comfortable seating throughout the main room and in an antechamber toward the back of the restaurant. The grand paneled ceiling is painted powder blue, making a statement so lovely you'll wonder why ceilings are almost always painted white.
A compendium of simple family recipes, the menu offers little in the way of excitement but seduces you with nostalgia. If your mother didn't make beef stroganoff, manicotti or sherry chicken with mushrooms, a friend's mom probably did Ñ and chances are you haven't had the like in years. As with old friends, you're happier to encounter some more than others.
Lusciously creamy, the beef stroganoff is all it promises to be: lean, thin strips of beef and curly pasta tossed in a rich, unctuous sauce. Cheese-filled manicotti is similarly formidable, its piquant marinara adding necessary tang to the mellow cheeses. A plate of curried julienne ham with pineapple chunks over jasmine rice is a winning meld of sweet and spicy flavor, but Caldera's other sugar-and-spice attempts are not as successful.
Spicy shrimp linguine, with medium-sized, springy prawns, would be fine if it was just spicy Ñ but it is also unexpectedly, unfortunately sweet. Seashell-sized halibut pieces in an overly sweet mustard bath are even less palatable, the cloying flavor begging to be cut with tart citrus or fiery spice.
Caldera has a lighter touch with salads. The Tabor salad is a fresh mix of avocado, orange segments, hazelnuts and assorted lettuces; like the other specialty salads it is available in two sizes, working well as a starter or light meal. The garlicky Stark Street salad is an uncommon, tasty combination of baby greens, cashews, shelled peas and tomato. With the exception of a serviceable antipasti plate laid with prosciutto, wedges of pecorino Romano and sliced Bosc pears, the appetizers are as basic as it gets: chips and salsa, garlic bread, baguette with hummus.
A trio of healthy-sized but ordinary sandwiches and a few children's options round out the menu.
And then there's dessert. Caldera is wise to augment its plain menu with a few memorable desserts, leaving diners with a very good impression and enticing them to return for another low-key dinner.
The strawberry and mascarpone tart, served in a sweet, cookielike shell, is a heavenly version of strawberry shortcake.
But the true star is that uncomplicated Girl Scout classic, s'mores. Heated to gooey-melty perfection, the s'more will turn you into a sticky mess after one bite, but Ñ talk about nostalgia Ñ each bite is just as good as you remember. Caldera's considerable charm aside, this treat alone has the power to lure diners from the Mount Tabor neighborhood and far beyond.