Hours: Tue.-Thu. 5-10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 5-11 p.m.
Prices: Soups and appetizers $4.95-10.95; entrees $14.95-22.95
Atmosphere: Colorful and casual
Marty Pickholtz wants to tell you a story. It's about a young chef from Mount Lebanon who gets on a plane to a tropical land. There he encounters sounds, smells and, above all, tastes unlike anything he has ever encountered before. The island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, so captivates him that he stays for 20 years, soaking up the local color -- and flavor. When, finally, the prodigal son leaves his beach-view balcony behind and returns to Pittsburgh, he packs a bag full of exotic tricks: peppery curries and fruity sauces, slow-cooked meats and quick-seared fishes.
Alas, we weren't in a position to hop on a plane to St. Thomas, but a trolley ride to Castle Shannon gave us a welcome mid-winter's taste of the tropics. Here, Marty has transformed a rambling storefront space into Paradise Café, a romantically lit bistro that is bright with Caribbean color and ornamented with island paintings, crafts and other souvenirs of his years on St. Thomas. An underlying black-and-white theme (literally -- it includes the checkered floor) hints at another personal passion: cows. In fact, the café also houses Marty's jaw-dropping collection of cow figurines (viewable upon request).
Each place-setting includes a palm fan, which at first seemed superfluous for this time of year, but was quickly revealed to be a clever cover for the menu. The relatively brief list focuses on the Caribbean's distinctive ingredients and preparations -- fish, conch, curry and barbeque -- without wasting words on bland burgers or chicken dishes for the unadventurous.
Jason placed his order for conch chowder practically before he got his coat off. His impatience paid off in one of the best bowls of this Caribbean classic we've ever had. Its white color led us to expect a creamy flavor, but instead our palates were awakened by a citrusy tang surrounding assorted vegetables and several fat, tender conch.
The curried vegetable-cashew turnovers -- a mildly spicy mixture of veggies, Habanero peppers, spices, and cashews -- provided a pleasing variety of flavors and textures within a firm, flaky pastry shell.
A special appetizer, Three Tastes of Tuna, featured slices of this appetizing fish crusted with coconut and wasabi, with black sesame, and au poivre -- all accompanied by a chutney-esque sweet chili-garlic sauce. The tuna slices were seared to perfection, with tender pink centers surrounded by toothsome crusts. In an appealing touch, each of the three "tastes" was presented on a different slice of citrus: lemon, lime and orange.
Angelique revisited seafood for her entrée, rum- and pepper-painted snapper filet with curry banana puree. The fish itself was firm, flaky and fleshy. Its well-blackened exterior was piquant from the peppery rub, but despite the curry in its name, the banana puree was a mild, soothing salve to the palate. Served in pale-gold dollops with darker amber centers, looking whimsically like a trio of broken eggs, the puree made another delightful presentation.
After a lot of dithering between seafood and pork, Jason decided to have it both ways. A half rack of Miss Ruth's ribs (plenty for one) and an order of red curry shrimp each reflected a different aspect of island cooking. The tender, sweet-spicy ribs evoked meat wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked in a sandy pit, while the saucy shrimp (colossal, just as the menu promised) were fiery with pepper and blackened at the edges. The accompanying scoop of wild rice featured some unfamiliar but tasty grains. It proved a good curry-sopper-upper, while maintaining its independent taste and texture.
Like any good vacation, our visit to Paradise Café seemed all too brief. And we haven't even told you about the unique key lime cheesecake, with a nutty crust and tart lime curd topping. Or about the delicious coconut "dumb bread," a sort of fluffy, sweet biscuit baked in the shape of a fish. Or the matchstick-thin grilled asparagus.
But you can just take our word for it, and take your taste buds on an island vacation at Paradise Café.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 4 stars