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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Stalking the Elusive Shortcoming in Caffe Latte’s Sausages

I’m looking for flaws here, but Caffe Latte is not cooperating. It’s hard to be stringent with a genial, unpretentious place that can still hit you between the eyes with great dishes.

Caffe Latte springs from Hugo’s, the butcher shop on Santa Monica that once upon a time started serving food and turned into a restaurant, and there are some specific family resemblances such as pasta served at breakfast, an idea which Hugo’s more or less introduced to L.A. But Caffe Latte is a coffee house rather than a meat market/deli, brighter and more informal. It’s a great place to sit and rest your eyes on a big brass coffee roaster, a long row of coffee varieties, some remarkably OK paintings on the walls.

Hugo’s specializes in pasta and veal dishes. Caffe Latte also has an Italian air, but if it has a specialty it’s the sausages made by Venice’s Jody Maroni. At breakfast you might get buckwheat pancakes with a side of maple pork sausage, a sausage hauntingly flavored with grade A Vermont maple syrup. Yucatan scramble is eggs scrambled with bacon, prosciutto and another Jody Maroni sausage, the one of chicken, duck and cilantro a lot of West Side places are serving.

At lunch the sausage sandwich of the day might be flavored with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes, an oddly brilliant idea. At dinner you might just bow to the inevitable and order the sausage platter, which is whatever Maroni is supplying today. It might be a marvelously subtle chicken and duck sausage flavored with orange and cumin, served with sweet and sour red cabbage, a sort of fresh apple chutney and very nice thin-sliced potatoes and onions cooked by some process between frying and sauteing.

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Apart from the sausage stuff: Breakfast includes both conventional things like pancakes and less conventional ones like corn cakes, which are like thin corn breads with salsa on them. Lunch runs to salads, sandwiches and pastas. At dinner there’s an occasionally ditzy and delirious quality to appetizers such as marinated chicken breast sliced nouvelle style, topped with pine nuts and some raisins apparently plumped up in lime juice.

By comparison, some of the dinner entrees are positively massive. The rosemary chicken is a huge, meaty roaster, not the pathetic little fryer we usually see. There are largish lamb shanks stewed with tomatoes and carrots on tagliarini. Ravioli dolce latte are cheese and spinach ravioli in a very rich gorgonzola and walnut sauce. Next to the other pastas, gremalata is rather restrained, even muted: despite all the chicken, pine nuts and sundried tomatoes in it, the predominant flavor is still lemon juice and parsley. This is something like pasta turning into tabbouleh.

Desserts can be rather subtle. There might be a bread pudding flavored with apples and a strong vanilla custard sauce, a chocolate terrine, or (of course) a coffee-flavored flan. But there might also be one consisting of a couple of the hard Italian cookies called biscotti (made with hazelnuts in this case), accompanied by tiny sweet Champagne grapes and a sweet semillon wine.

I’m still looking for flaws. It’s making me nervous. How about this? The parking lot is cramped! And look at the spelling errors on the menu --"Gremalata” for “gremolata"-- ha! “Semmilon” for “semillon"--ha! “Baba ganoush” for “baba ghannouj"-- ha! I feel a little better.

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Caffe Latte, 6254 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. (213) 936-5213. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Beer and wine only. One hour validated lot parking daytime, free lot evening. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $50.


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