C hapo is a perfectly logical spelling of the French word for hat, which the French don't happen to use. And there actually is a hat at Chapo Restaurant, a derby perched on the end of a ceiling beam. That's Chapo for you: a little eccentric, but neat.
The owners used to have a restaurant in Belgium called the Curiosity, and actually I suspect the hat is a little fun they're having with the excessive neatness of the Belgians. Belgium is a country where guests invited to dinner at 7 p.m. arrive at 6:50 or so and stand outside the door without knocking until the very second of the hour. I know such a practice would drive me to sticking a derby on a rafter.
Foodwise, there's not much that reflects Belgium, though. Certainly Chapo knows its endives; the Caesar salad is a tile pattern of endive leaves, each containing a little mustardy sauce and some Parmesan (down at the bottom, there are some romaine leaves to throw us off). The mussel soup, made with particularly good mussels in a cream and sherry broth, might be a Belgian dish.
The basic style of the place, though, is Franco-Mediterranean with a definite personal accent. With the bread, in place of butter, comes a bowl of olive oil flavored with basil. The French fries (called "Curiosity fries," referring to the Belgian restaurant) are made from waxy potatoes and flavored with rosemary and red pepper.
There are pastas and such, but a lot of what's going on here is quite classic French. The wonderful smoked salmon comes with a toasted brioche. Lamb garnished with small white beans in garlicky lamb stock is agneau a la bretonne , and the pork in a sauce of mustard, cream and meat juices could come straight from Normandy.
But the place seems nouvelle /California at the same time. Nothing could be more nouvelle /California than a sandwich of goat cheese and chicken thigh meat with romaine lettuce and grilled prosciutto. (It does slide around a little on the good chewy French bread.) There's a three-mushroom salad with balsamic vinegar, and a field salad with toasted pine nuts scattered over it. There's also grilled ahi and black-and-white fettuccine with seafood, which happen to be the only uninteresting dishes I've had here.
But the restaurant ventures into areas where nobody around here has really gone yet. Our relentless California eclecticism only rarely plays with the possibilities of Moroccan food, but one night Chapo had a special of a "spicy lamb sausage" with sweet peppers that was certainly Provencale/North African. And nothing anywhere is quite like the osso buco with ginger risotto. Yes, ginger risotto, rich with meat juices and glowing with ginger. It's probably the best single thing on the menu.
The desserts are European or American, however, and uniformly excellent. They can be as simple as a lemon cake ("like a really good birthday cake," as someone put it) or a chocolate pecan pie with caramel sauce, or as elaborate as an apple tart with a lattice crust that is itself topped with a layer of paper-thin apple slices in apricot glaze. The best might be the incredibly creamy cheesecake.
This is a great little place. I guess my hat's off to it.
Chapo Restaurant, 7661 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 655-2924. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner nightly. Beer and wine. Valet parking. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $55.