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Cafe Zoolu, no ordinary cocktail bar

DINING OUT

This weekend marks the ninth anniversary of Cafe Zoolu , the

innovative creation of Michael and Tony Leech who launched their

exotic little hideaway on Aug. 5, 1993. The energetic pair are

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veteran restaurateurs whose prior ventures adjacent to Laguna Beach

have included The Quiet Woman in Corona del Mar and The Lagoon in

Dana Point.

The dining experience at this current success commences upon

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entering. A gigantic blue-finned sailfish hovers above the threshold

next to the central kitchen that is surrounded by a bar. This is no

ordinary cocktail bar. Rather it is a culinary adventure awaiting

nine guests who, once seated, dine and imbibe while being entertained

by chef Leech as he deftly hones his skills. These center primarily

on myriad preparations of fresh fish. For example, as recipient of

the prestigious Zagat Guide’s award for the “best swordfish on the

planet,” the menu aptly describes his imaginative preparations of

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this delectable denizen of the briny. Zoolu’s famous “double-edged”

sword(fish) comes skewered in savory chunks. The thick baseball cut

is char broiled with lemon and capers. Blackened swordfish is a

“burnin'-burnin'-hunk-a-

hunk-a Cajun spices, tomatillo sauce and corn salsa.” Equally

imaginative is Leech’s take on other fresh fish, 10 of which change

daily according to each morning’s delivery. Halibut from Alaska may

be topped with onion/mushroom/

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artichoke herb sauce sided with garlic mashed potatoes. From the

tepid waters of Hawaii, where the adventuresome couple operated a

second restaurant in 1999 and 2000, escolar is a frequent entree.

This, escorted with wasabi mashed potatoes, may come with a crown of

Asian crab salsa and daikon sprouts. Mahi-mahi is another Hawaiian

favorite offered with coconut sweet potatoes, Asian slaw, fried

wontons, daikon sprouts and Thai curry coconut sauce.

Ahi, the savory Hawaiian tuna filet, is coated with black and

white sesame seeds, seared rare and accompanied by tropical fruit

salsa and brown rice. Beyond these, Cafe Zoolu’s dedicated following

comes for Leech’s famed meatloaf, a huge old-fashioned hunk served

with mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables. The enormous variety of

other popular landlubber tastes include grilled pork chops, filet

mignon, shrimp, rack of lamb, a cowboy steak and such sundry variants

as seafood and veggie burritos, a quartet of pastas, Italian cioppino

and French bouillabaisse.

When it comes to appetizers, salads and wine, count on your

energetic hostess Toni Leech and her happy crew of servers to

expedite these from the rear service kitchen where variety again is

the key to an international selection. Asian style calamari, Chinese

chicken salad, ahi tartar, buffalo mozzarella & tomatoes, Lebanese

falafel, steamed New Zealand mussels are a few tempting treats priced

from $7 to $18. Entrees are $14 to $35; fresh fish mainly in the $26

to $29 range.

* GLORI FICKLING writes restaurant reviews for the Coastline

Pilot.


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