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Cafe Caravelle Offers Wander-ful Fare

June 20, 1986|L.N. HALLIBURTON

What could seem further apart than etymology and savoring food? Yet isn't examining the roots of a word rather like carefully tasting the ingredients in a dish? When a new meaning or flavor comes through, there is a similar momentary, small glow.

I looked up the word erratic the other day, and when I found that it came from the Latin errare, meaning "to stray or to wander," it took on a new meaning for me. Couldn't the negative connotation be due to machine-age ideals that standardization is best? Is inconsistency so terrible?

We may insist that four-star establishments never fail and expect fast-food chain fare to be agreeably uniform. Yet we ought to expect quality to be erratic at modestly priced mom-and-pop restaurants. Isn't it reasonable to expect differences in food made with the mark of the hand?

French chef Charles Van Doan grew up in Lausanne. His wife, May, grew up in Vietnam. Together they run Cafe Caravelle, a small restaurant in Santa Monica. It is very much a family affair. Even the decor is a bricolage , a mix of this and that. There are framed prints of Paris and blond bentwood chairs, simple table settings and sparkling chandeliers. There is even a blond wood unused bar that might have been a sushi counter at another time.

On my visits, the meals varied too, although there was always at least one smashing dish. One night that was the garlic soup, really a garlic soup gratinee. Rich with garlic and Provencal herbs, made of a true chicken stock and blanketed in Gruyere, it was a spectacular dish. If you like eating escargots in order to soak up garlic and butter with your bread, this is a dish for you.

Another appetizer, fresh large shrimp sauteed with herbs and mushrooms, was buttery and choice. A cauliflower soupe du jour, on the other hand, was boring and pale. A green salad was fresh and absolutely plain, and the homemade duck pate was creamy and strong, rather like a commercial wurst.

The same evening filet mignon a la Caravelle, flambed at the table with Grand Marnier, embodied the meaning of melt-in-your-mouth. It was perfectly cooked and steadied with a light tarragon sauce. But a filet of sole with mushrooms in sorrel sauce was pedestrian.

Desserts also ranged from marvelous to average. A large bowl of fruits were fresh. A chocolate mousse was steadfast, neither too sweet nor too rich. But to take the cake, was a special crepe: la citronneige . (There is a wide selection of savory and dessert crepes.) Even though the name means "lemon snow," I was delightfully surprised by the tangy cuts of lemon and rind along with sweet vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce.

While service is consistently thoughtful, lunch on another day varied quite a bit. A large portion of New Zealand mussels steamed with garlic and fines herbes came in a delectable white wine and light cream sauce. An asparagus cream soup of the day was simple and mild. The garlic soup was smashing again.

Despite the tasty puff pastry crescents that decorated the crispy greens, the Caesar salad was something of a miss: the dressing too heavy on the anchovies and thick like a paste. The ratatouille crepe and the omelette maison (shrimps, crab meat, mushrooms and Gruyere) were respectable and plumply stuffed. Tender shrimp, scallops and vegetables in a white sauce and light puff pastry shell was steadfast.

Prices are quite modest, and portions are generous. There are early bird full-meal specials for $11.95. This is really a neighborhood restaurant; many of the clients seem to be regulars. Small and warm, despite unevenness, Cafe Caravelle is a serendipitous affair.

And isn't that what "wandering" is all about?

Cafe Caravelle, 514 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (213) 393-8682. Closed Mondays. Open Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-10 p.m. Open Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-11:30 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Street parking. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$30.

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