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RESTAURANTS | THE REVIEW

One door closes; another opens

Cafe Capo spins off some favorite dishes from Capo in Santa Monica, on the site of the former Opaline.

September 22, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Bruce MARDER, the chef-owner behind Broadway Deli and Capo in Santa Monica, has ventured east -- to the hipper demographic of Beverly Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea avenues, which is fast becoming the new restaurant row.

When the wine-driven restaurant Opaline foundered, Marder and company moved in quickly with a pared-down version of Capo, his cozy -- and breathtakingly expensive -- take on the Italian genre.

Slightly less expensive than the original, which does not by any means make it a bargain, Cafe Capo puts veterans from Capo in charge of the kitchen, while Marder remains behind the stoves at the mother restaurant. He's also in the midst of launching yet another restaurant, slated for late fall, this time a brasserie on West Channel Drive in Santa Monica.

Despite an attentive staff, glossy decor and a menu that encompasses Capo favorites, Cafe Capo -- which has been open a few months -- is still a work in progress. Not quite Capo, not quite something else, the cafe hasn't yet settled into its own identity.

Partly, it could be because of the traditional decor imposed over the bones of the starkly contemporary room, with big windows that wrap around the corner of Beverly and Vista. Marder, who is usually pitch perfect when it comes to creating a seductive ambience for his restaurants, has gone for cliche here: He's hung burgundy curtains, turned down the lights and put candles and red roses on every table. The black and fluorescent paintings he's chosen for the walls give the place a thrown-together feeling.

The staff is ready to spring the minute anyone walks in the door. That's the Marder style, established back in the '80s, when he presided over then innovative West Beach Cafe and its rich boho crowd, who have followed him to Capo, the now-closed Rebecca's and wherever he chooses to cook. The clients who flock to Cafe Capo could well be the children of his original fans.

He hasn't stayed in business this long without knowing his mostly well-heeled customers through and through. Service is a big part of his continuing success. Marder and company belong to the theatrical school of restaurant management. This means a personable host who remembers everyone's name and exactly what they do and where they stack up in the pecking order. Waiters tend to be crisply efficient or effusive to the point of seeming to mistake you for a TV producer and carrying on as if dinner were a once-in-a-lifetime audition. How else to explain the response, "It shall be," whenever you ask for more bread or another plate. Some people lap it up.

Marder subscribes to the Alice Waters maxim -- great ingredients, unfussy recipes -- much of the time. He certainly doesn't stint on the quality of the produce or meat. Your server or the host may cannily reveal that chef Bruce just picked up the tomatoes or the eggplants or whatever at the farmers market.

The cooking is competent and consistent, both virtues that aren't as common as they should be, and that are especially hard to find in spinoffs of successful restaurants. But I would have expected something more from Marder. In the four or five visits I've made to Cafe Capo, the menu has hardly changed at all, and when there are specials, I've met almost all before, so the cafe ends up feeling like Capo Junior.

The kitchen rarely strays from the sure thing. And why should it? This crowd is not looking to write up lambs' cheeks or veal kidneys in their foodie journal. Instead, Cafe Capo has all the comfort foods -- pasta, salads, and meat and potatoes. For cautious diners, it offers the pizazz of going out to an Italian restaurant, but one where you can still decide after reading the entire menu to go with a steak. And a very good steak it is -- prime, dry-aged, perfectly cooked. And flamboyantly priced.

Starters that please

The coddling begins with an amuse, the little taste the chef sends out as a welcoming flourish. It's usually a dainty Gruyere-laced puff pastry with some mascarpone inside -- like the gougeres Burgundian winemakers serve with their wines, but given an Italian twist with that dollop of mascarpone. Sometimes it's followed by a diminutive portion of gnocchi sauced in a light, fragrant tomato sauce showered with ribbons of basil.

Prosciutto as an antipasto may seem ho-hum, but please don't pass it up on Cafe Capo's menu. Rather than the more common prosciutto di Parma, this is the exquisite prosciutto di San Daniele from the Friuli region of Italy. The beautiful pink, overlapping slices, each with a ribbon of fat at the top, cover the entire plate.

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