Old World Charm 

Caldera Speaks Simply

Caldera

6031 SE Stark

238-8242

At the beginning of last century, the acres that skirt Mt. Tabor bristled with apple orchards. It was one of the far outreaches of the city. A streetcar ran from downtown and crested along the hills. In 1910, as downtown started to sprout tall buildings, at the top of Stark Street, a local pharmacist built a drugstore that doubled as the trolley stop.

Although the city has elbowed into most of the neighborhoods around Mt. Tabor, this area still remains a throwback to a quieter, simpler time, and the pharmacy remains preserved almost down to its original nails. In January, Caldera, a restaurant focused on homecooking, moved into the space. With a tip of their hat to the earlier century, they've decorated it with plain elegance. In the evening, the dining room is lit mostly by candles. Although the space is sprawling and holds dozens of diners (with a peaceful covered back porch), each nook and cranny feels intimate.

Unfortunately, the setting occasionally outclasses the food. With most dishes based either on rice or pasta, the main plates are not much more dynamic than the food you would expect at a friend's dinner party. Granted, the dishes are intended to be simple comfort food, and with that they succeed. Even so, paying $10-plus for a plate, one expects more zing and creative undertones.

The beef stroganoff was good enough, but pedestrian. The sauce was neither rich, spicy nor extraordinarily creamy. All told, the stroganoff was sturdy and reliable--but those are adjectives one wants for a linebacker, not a main dish. The Cajun shrimp--containing spicy shrimp, mushrooms and red peppers over rice--was what I call a "one shrill note" dinner. Whatever spice the cook used (from my estimate it was an overzealous amount of Tabasco sauce), it out-muscled the rest of the food on the plate.

The soup and salad were, by far, the most intriguing dishes of the meal; dynamic, drawing in more flavors and underscoring them with subtlety. A pumpkin soup was served as a seasonal special, and tickled the tongue with a light taste of curry. Conversation completely stopped as my dining partner and I greedily spooned it up. The Tabor Salad also disappeared quickly. Avocado, orange, and hazelnuts were tempted with a playful sweet and sour dressing. Clearly, it is in the salad department that the most detailed attention has been paid. It's the light touches--like toasted hazelnuts balancing the avocados--that make the salads stand out. The Caribbean Salad, with papaya, garlic rubbed pork, and an orange cilantro vinaigrette, was equally alluring.

Beyond that, the deserts at Caldera have an adolescent charm: S'mores! Root beer floats! The wine selection is also strong. And the beer selection draws on local breweries like Hair of the Dog and Lucky Lab.

Despite the flatfooted main dishes, we had a wonderful dinner. The ambiance, the waitstaff (friendly enough to date), and the delicious starters all combined melodically. Away from the bustle, Caldera is a charming oasis, borrowed from another era.

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