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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Neighborhood Eateries in Silver Lake

February 10, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are neighborhoods that have good restaurants and then there are neighborhoods with good neighborhood restaurants--the distinction being that some restaurants are worth a trip across town and others aren't, although you might pop in for a bowl of pasta or a chop with some regularity simply because they're in your neighborhood.

Hyperion Avenue in Silver Lake has recently seen the opening of two decent neighborhood places, Lo Sabroso and Caffe Capriccio.

Lo Sabroso (which means "the delicious one") has replaced the popular, well-worth-a-drive Sabor (which meant "flavor"). Sabor's owners departed to concentrate on Sabor Too, their other place on Pico in Santa Monica. But Sabor's chef stayed to cook at Lo Sabroso.

If you knew Sabor, going into Lo Sabroso may be a little unnerving at first, as in a dream where you go somewhere familiar and everything's almost the same, only different. Sabor's colorful Fiesta-style tableware and vegetable-shaped salt and pepper shakers remain, but the oddly glitzy statues and Mexican folk art are gone, giving Lo Sabroso a stripped-down look.

At the back of the restaurant is Houston's, a piano bar, and there seems to be more of its din and stale bar air seeping into the dining room these days. Gone too is an elegant edge to the service: Lo Sabroso feels more like an informal, family-run restaurant. The food is reminiscent of Sabor, but less consistent. There are no more Cajun overtones and, lamentably, no more of Sabor's exemplary fried chicken.

The gordita , a chewy cornmeal cake filled with chiles and melted cheeses, is superb. Sopes , masa cups filled with lifeless barbecued beef, are dull. The same beef barbacoa makes an equally dull stuffing for the ancho chile rellenos; far better is the pasilla chile relleno stuffed with goat cheese.

Entrees are also sporadic in quality. An angel hair pasta with seafood has a strong, briny broth and rubbery, overcooked seafood. Seafood enchiladas in a chipotle chile sauce are much more interesting. Well-seasoned lamb chops are expertly cooked, and pork roast in verde sauce is salty and compelling. Lo Sabroso's prices, while moderate, seem high for this now-modest neighborhood place.

Across the street is the small, tidy Caffe Capriccio, an unabashedly mom and pop affair. Tony DeMonte is in the kitchen while his wife, the chattery, friendly Rosemary DeMonte, runs the floor. The walls are pale yellow cinder-block; there are blond wood cupboards and an empty wine rack poised for the day their beer and wine permit comes. (In the meantime, customers lug in their own.) High-backed iron chairs add a certain snazziness. Too bad the room's always so cold; the concrete floor makes ice cubes of your toes.

Even if Mrs. DeMonte's well-meant ramblings don't engage you, Mr. DeMonte's cooking will draw you in for a quick bite. On ordering, you get a basket of sturdy bread, focaccia and tapenade. Salads are "splittably" large and fresh, although they could be better with less emulsified (thickened) dressings. Fresh mozzarella has the desired taste of cool, sweet milk.

Pasta is the strong suit here: Spaghettini with shrimp is a simple, elegant composite of good ingredients. A hearty rigatoni with mushrooms and chicken has a great tomato sauce tempered with just a few drops of cream. Penne with broccoli is supposed to come with oven-dried tomatoes, and terrific as it is, there's not a fleck of red in the dish.

A chicken breast sauteed with lemon and capers is a plump, juicy version of chicken piccata. Italian sausages come on a heavy bland mattress of polenta. When I ask for vegetables with my chicken Toscana , I get an excellent fettuccine--but I'd just had spaghetti as an appetizer. Mr. DeMonte's cooking, spirited as it is, seems characterized by such small improvisations: Oh well, if you insist on perfection, you might have to leave the neighborhood.

* Lo Sabroso, 2538 Hyperion Ave., (213) 660-0886. Open for dinner 7 days. Full bar. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$65.

* Caffe Capriccio, 2547 Hyperion Ave., (213) 662-5900. Open Wednesday through Monday for dinner. Closed Tuesday. No alcohol served. Cash or check only. No credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $21-$48.

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