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THE NOWHERE CAPER : American and Continental Cuisine Plus a Terrific Wine List Are Luring Diners to Downey

June 13, 1993|Charles Perry

There's really no such thing as the middle of nowhere, right? It's a logical contradiction. But this dark, sleepy stretch of Lakewood Boulevard could certainly pass for the middle of nowhere-near-any-uptown-Restaurant Row.

Once upon a time there was a lonely beacon of Franco-California cuisine in nearby Bellflower, until Magdalena's went out of business last year. Chef Stephen White is now working in Northern California.

But his brother, Carlos White, is now cooking at Cafe Caper in Downey, assisted by several of Magdalena's former sous-chefs. Magdalena's regulars will recognize about half the menu and several Stephen White trademarks, such as the penchant for crowding numerous little vegetable accompaniments--say, carrots, wild rice, ratatouille, wax beans and red cabbage--on the entree plates. Cafe Caper is definitely a relative of Magdalena.

It looks different, though--no French Provincial effects, just a boxy, roomy, whitewashed space with a few prints. It's plain and wholesome and small-townish, even a bit Midwestern, rather like Downey itself. A number of locals don't drink and a few are not shy about saying grace in public.

The food has more French, Continental and American nouvelle touches than Magdalena's, with flavors running to smoke, cheese, wine and herbs.

The appetizers are better than the entrees, notably the least expensive appetizer, the smoked-chicken ravioli. The pasta is silky and the chicken filling seriously smoked, like some exotic lean bacon. The equally good duck pot stickers feature pasta with an even more luscious texture, a dense duck forcemeat filling--an avian cousin of country sausage--and a raspberry-ginger reduction. Properly speaking, these triangles are also ravioli, not pot stickers--there's no browned bit to show they ever stuck to a pot.

Steamed mussels come in a curried cream sauce with a faint smoky quality, and they're sweet and tasty. But the bacon-wrapped shrimp--good shrimp, very smoky bacon--is from the old-fashioned Continental school, so rich you may not feel up to having an entree. And the mushroom feuillete , a stack of flaky pastry filled with five types of wild mushrooms, suffers from a vague, perfunctory sauce.

If you pass on the appetizers, you still get a starter, because all the dinner entrees come with soup or salad. The soups tend to be simple and satisfying, like mussels in saffrony broth or a cream of potato. The salad is mixed greens in vinaigrette dressing, but you can order a more substantial house salad of julienne carrot and celery root or a Caesar.

The entrees tend to be plainly cooked meat with stuff on the side. One is actually called New York steak 'n' potato, which turns out to be not 'n' potato but 'n' two potatoes, both quite good: roasted new potatoes and thinly sliced potatoes au gratin, with parsnip puree on the side. The slightly chewy steak has a red wine sauce with tiny chunks of mushrooms, very low-key, like most sauces here.

Caper likes the Continental cuisine combination of exotic cheeses with meat. Pocket filet is a filet mignon wrapped in bacon, like old-fashioned tournedos , except that it's also raucously stuffed with Roquefort. On the side are a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon wine sauce and a chive blossom. Likewise, the free-range chicken breast (a little dry but flavorful) arrives under some melted Brie.

The veal for the veal chop is also free-range. It's topped with oyster mushrooms and cream and comes with nice, fresh shoestring potatoes, like a dainty version of steak and fries. The organically raised lamb loin, which the waiters push, comes from C.K. Ranch in Sonoma County, and it's tender and meaty and far from gamy--pretty far from lamby, for that matter. Its understated red wine sauce smells faintly of rosemary and tarragon.

It's not all red meat around here. Fish does show up, as in a special of whitefish with, in effect, a fresh Mexican salsa. And there's a dish called duck in two styles, half of which (the confit of duck leg, rich and tender) is a lot better than the other (pink breast meat, tough, fatty and flavorless). It comes with a sauce full of dried cherry and port wine aromas. The chocolate bread pudding is heavy and dull, but the rest of the desserts are very good indeed: a macadamia nut gelati, a chocolate truffle cake with a fondant-like filling and an industrial-strength frosting, very nutty chocolate-pecan pie, and a cheesecake irresistibly flavored with toasted almonds. The last two are particularly good with the Malmsey Madeira dessert wine.

Cafe Caper is also open for lunch, and there's a budget-priced pre-theater dinner menu. A pre-theater menu in Downey! In the middle of nowhere-near-any-uptown-Restaurant Row! I'll drink a Malmsey to that.

Cafe Caper, 11655 Lakewood Blvd., Downey; (310) 869-4105. Dinner served Tuesday through Saturday, lunch Monday through Friday. Beer and wine. Parking on the street and in rear lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $34-$63.

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