Basking in the warm glow

Times Staff Writer

CAPO is nothing if not discreet. The little restaurant is housed in a modest one-story building with no visible sign, improbably tucked among the sleek high-rise hotels on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica.

As I wait out front one night for the friend who insists he can find any place, I watch him drive by, twice, as one luxurious ride after another pulls up in front. Now in its fourth year, Capo functions more or less as the clubhouse for an affluent Westside crowd. Some have been eating the food of chef/owner Bruce Marder's since the early '80s at the West Beach Cafe, the long gone Venice hot spot that was the first serious contemporary restaurant by the beach.

Capo, which can be translated as "chief" or "chef" in Italian, has only 16 tables. It is not open for lunch and serves dinner just five nights a week (which may have something to do with the breathtaking prices). But this chic boite fills a niche. It's unlike anything else in town, not so much Italian as California cooking with an Italian inflection.

As always, Marder creates an enticing art-directed atmosphere. Capo exudes a comfortable old money aesthetic that perfectly suits its arts and entertainment industry clientele. It looks as lived in as a fine old Florentine trattoria, as if the walls have accumulated their cache of good small paintings, an erotic Picasso or two, over a period of years.

In the tiny vestibule, one placard admonishes no cell phones please, and another is inscribed with a snail that indicates the restaurant is a member of Slow Food, the Italian organization dedicated to preserving traditional food ways. When you pull back the heavy red velvet curtain and enter the restaurant, it's like stepping into an elegant speakeasy. Immediately, the maitre d' or hostess is there, so vigilant you feel as if you're going to be asked for identity card any minute.

Vintage Italian and French tunes play on the music system. The lighting is subtle and flattering. Along the walls, votive candles flicker in the salt breeze every time someone comes in the door. Oil lamps light the tables, and vases of startling red roses flame in the shadows. In the far corner, a cook, often Marder himself, grills meats in the fireplace. The room is fragrant with wood smoke and suddenly you're incredibly hungry.

Fortunately, that's just when the oval blond basket of bread arrives. I find it hard to resist the crackling golden sheets of house-baked flatbread slicked with olive oil and perfumed rosemary. Skinny twists of grissini disappear quickly too.

The menu set in a beautiful, clear typeface is like a small chapbook with pages to turn. On the left, a page of specials of the day is tipped in. It's a bit confusing the way pastas are listed as either pasta fresca (fresh stuffed pasta) or pasta di Capo (made from imported durum wheat pasta). From the prices, too, it's hard to tell which are the appetizers, which are the main courses. But then you study the menu for a while and realize that the prices of the appetizers here are what main courses cost at most other places around town.

Strategic orders

You could order two appetizers as dinner, and I suspect many people do. And if you're having trouble deciding, Marder might suggest a half-order of two or more dishes.

It's a pleasure and a terror to troll through the terrific wine list. While the wine savvy can turn up a handful of well-priced bottles, most are obscenely overpriced. For that, at least you get good glassware and crisp, professional wine service from waiters who know how to pour. The devil is in the details: When we ask if the water is filtered, we're told the ice cubes are filtered too.

Lately, to start off things on a festive note, Marder has been offering a miniature poppyseed cone crowned with a dab of mascarpone and diced heirloom tomatoes. Borrowing an idea from the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, it's served from an acrylic slab with holes drilled into it. It's a cute trick, but by the third time around, it's getting boring. I wonder why he never varies it.

Antipasti run from classic Italian, such as a milky, tender burrata cheese and heirloom tomatoes, to a quite credible and delicious tuna tartare. Made with bluefin tuna tossed in a refreshing light dressing, it comes in a glass bowl, topped with caviar and snipped chives. Porcini mushroom soup tastes of these glorious mushrooms undiluted with cream. Garnished with limpid drops of olive oil and a few chunks of silky mushroom, the puree has complexity and depth. Eggplant "Rocca Reggiano" is a restrained version of the southern Italian dish, easy on the tomato sauce and using top-notch Parmigiano.

As specials I've enjoyed a gratin of Maryland crab drowned in butter and a terrific miniature taco of golden fried sweetbread and pink tongue garnished with a thread of olive oil, salt and cilantro. One night suckling pig is offered as an appetizer, if you can believe it: thin slices of moist flavorful pig, persimmon and orange squash, but oversauced with a strong reduction.

They make a fuss over pasta here, even though it's not Capo's real strength. Ravioli quattro formaggi can be wonderful, though, hand-formed pockets oozing molten cheese, a little salty, sauced in butter and a few shavings of white truffle. One night Marder proposed an interesting pasta stuffed with suckling pig in pig jus that works. Farfalle comes with overcooked rapini and potato gnocchi with Turkish morels taste more like mashed potatoes than the traditional fluffy pillows.

Grilling is what shines here. Impeccably fresh Dover sole grilled over the wood fire emerges firm-fleshed and slightly smoky. At $80 for two, the 32-ounce steak "Fiorentina" had better be good, and it is -- charred and presented neatly sliced on either side of the massive bone. But at this price, you might as well fly to Florence. Prime New York steak at a whopping $44 is the most expensive steak in Los Angeles. Marder knows how to buy meat, though, and while it's an excellent steak, is it worth it? I'm not sure, though I do love the smoky edge the wood fire gives the beef.

Prime rib makes an impressive entrance on a rectangular white platter covered with rosy thinly sliced beef fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. And the horseradish cream that comes with it has the delightful crunch and heat of the fresh root.

Capo's menu can be treacherous, though. Now I admit nobody in their right mind would spend $40 for a chicken dish (unless it was larded with truffles), but when you notice Asian white silky chicken priced that high, the assumption is that it must be very special. And so you splurge. Don't. It's a big disappointment, dense and dry, with a flavor so discreet you can't find it.

Strength in simplicity

The best cooking at Capo is the simplest and most direct. What's billed as an Italian pot-au-feu is mostly tongue and some dainty pieces of beef with cabbage, carrot curls and vegetables and the merest splash of broth. It's a lot of money for what it is. Sashimi-cut albacore carpaccio marries figs, which makes sense, with sun-dried tomato, which does not, and kills off the delicate flavors of the fish.

Simplest is best at dessert too. A swatch of puff pastry covered with finely sliced apple and served with an oval scoop of softly whipped cream and an amazing caramel ice cream is a deserving finale to a meal at Capo. The crostata of the day, though, this one yellow peach "from the Asian lady at the farmers market" has a stale, stodgy crust. Four tender buttery crepes rolled up and sauced in orange liqueur are wonderful, however. And if you feel like something lighter, you can order a selection of fine house-made ice cream or sorbet for the table.

At Capo, the warmth and polish of the setting almost guarantee a lovely evening. If you order carefully around things grilled in the fireplace, you'll have a nice meal as well. It won't be a revelation, but you'll feel coddled and cared for, as you well should, at these prices.



Rating: ** 1/2

Location: 1810 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 394-5550.

Ambience: Bohemian chic by the beach. This 16-table boite has the feeling of a private club.

Service: Crisp and professional. Chef/owner Bruce Marder tends to shower diners with attention (too much, for some).

Price: Appetizers, $12 to $22; pasta, rice and polenta, $20 to $28; main courses, $34 to $48; desserts, $11 to $14.

Best dishes: Burrata, heirloom tomatoes, porcini mushroom soup, bluefin tuna tartare, ravioli quattro formaggi, grilled Dover sole, prime New York steak, prime rib, steak "fiorentina," hot apple tart, crepes in orange sauce, ice cream and sorbet.

Wine list: Deep, interesting list with high markups. Corkage, $25; if the same wine of any vintage is on the list, corkage is half the price listed.

Best table: One of the cozy tables for two along the walls.

Special features: A wood-burning fireplace in the corner of the dining room where Marder grills meats, poultry and seafood.

Details: Open Tuesday through Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $4.50.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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