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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Calypso: Close, but Not the Caymans

October 06, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To create Calypso, the recent West L.A. spinoff of Cha Cha Cha, Encino, take a former Velvet Turtle space and eliminate all booths, brass, plushness and privacy until you have a vast, cavernous underground room. Paint the floor like the sea, with different-hued currents and flashy tropical fish. Scrawl palm trees on each column. Faux-finish chandeliers in eroding blue and green and slat-backed chairs in celery, coral, cobalt and canary. Set tables with bright California pottery.

For an extra tropical breeziness, render trompe l'oeil windows, one per wall, each view overlooking a dock stretching into a placid, tropical bay. Garnish any empty wall space with obsessively busy paintings of women cavorting with animals. If desired, add a mural of a moonlit island night in the bar. Throw open doors. It may not be the Caymans, folks, but it's as close as you'll get on Sawtelle.

The original Cha Cha Cha on Virgil, Calypso's conceptual and culinary grandparent, started out as a small, ultra-hip, quirky gem in a bad part of town. At Cha Cha Cha you sat with hipsters, ate Toribio Prado's smart, tasty upscale Caribbean fare, and yelled over the music in Mario Tomayo's fanciful version of Third World charm.

It took just two generations and a split in the original partnership to reconfigure this concept into a large commercial venture with mass appeal. At Calypso, you sit with families, sedate dates and anniversary parties, eat huge portions of a sweet Caribbean fare in the bunker-like room while the omnipresent Gypsy Kings sing at a reasonable volume.

*

The waiters are good-looking, personable and exhibit an obvious flair for salesmanship. They sell hard, these guys, really push the half-dozen most expensive specials and menu items. It's been a while since I've encountered a wait staff so invested in what my guests and I want to order. Several times, choosing a drink, a dessert or appetizers became a battle of the wills. "No, for the third time, we do not want the appetizer plate. We want to make our own selection. . . ."

The room is so enormous, it's a trick to get any food to the tables before it cools. Indeed, the red-haired runner, his arms loaded with plates tilted alarmingly in all directions, tears across the floor as if to at least get close to his destination before gravity wins. Our food lands intact, if slightly slid together.

Despite that full-tilt dash from the kitchen, soups are barely warm. This version of the classic Cha Cha Cha corn chowder has too much tarragon when only a whiff is needed. A thick curried mushroom soup is spicy, comforting.

Salads seem poorly conceived: Why pack goat cheese into unripe Roma tomato halves? A special salad begs the question: Why feature a salad with pears if the pears aren't ripe?

We're much happier with the appetizers: Banana boats, deep-fried plantain-wrapped vegetables, come with a delicious fresh pineapple-onion salsa. Corn tamales, served with black bean and tomatillo sauces, are alluringly sticky-sweet. Quesadillas, with sweet little rock shrimp, are wonderful. But steer clear of the crab cakes, which resemble clumps of fried tuna salad.

Entree portions are generous, although the plates themselves aren't as tidily composed as the appetizers. Jerked chicken breast is appropriately spicy, but the meat's dry. A waiter was right about one thing: The tender rack of lamb is probably the best item on the menu--also the most expensive.

*

Many sauces are fruit-based; half a roasted chicken has a decent passion fruit and ginger sauce; soupy St. Barts Curry Shrimp, decanted into half a pineapple, is spicy-hot, citrus-sweet. A gelatinous guava sauce drapes and sweetens a lovely piece of salmon. Intense, dark and, yes, sweet, an apricot sauce candies pork chops. All this sugar is clearly part of the food's popular appeal.

Desserts, if only to differentiate them from entrees, are sweeter yet. One bite of an ice cream sandwich made with macadamia nut cookies and my blood began to race. The baked Alaska is a clever pineapple-shaped meringue filled with rock-hard sorbet, it's so cloying and so impenetrable, we put down our spoons, defeated.

* Calypso, 2255 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles . (310) 477-4255. Open for lunch and dinner 7 days. Saturday and Sunday brunch. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$62.

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