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The Gossipping Gourmet: Big portions and taste in a small eatery

If you get the answering machine at Café Zoolu, mellow Mike, owner, executive chef, chef de cuisine and sous chef, will tell you that you have reached the home of the best swordfish on the planet. It may sound boastful but we heartily concur, as do Zagat and just about everybody else who’s tasted it.

This modest little neighborhood hangout, for those in the know, has been serving up this remarkable fish along with other tasty dishes for the past 16 years. Mike Leech is always at the grill cooking and his wife, Toni, is always in the front multi-tasking with a lovable brashness, keeping order amid chaos in this cramped, bustling, lively establishment.

The most significant element of the décor, aside from the Hawaiiana, is a gigantic stuffed sailfish flying above the archway, caught and donated by an intrepid fisherman-customer.

The Taste of Maui award-winning scallop salad can be served as a starter or an entrée. A bed of mixed greens tossed with tomato, bacon, egg, roasted red pepper, sunflower seeds and avocado is cloaked in a warm, pleasant honey mustard dressing, actually a bit too much of it for our taste. Perched on top are very large charbroiled scallops; a teeny bit undercooked (just the way we like them) rendering them very moist and flavorful.

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This appetizer portion is so large, four people could share it to begin a meal, but that’s no surprise because Mike must have a horror of anyone going away hungry.

The presentation of the ahi tartar was inventive with its cubes of raw sushi-grade tuna wrapped in smoked salmon topped with fried wontons and garnished with red caviar and daikon sprouts.

The over-abundant portion of tuna, which the two of us were unable to finish, was mixed with an underabundance of ginger, lemon zest, shallots, soy sauce and a Thai sesame vinaigrette. We longed for a little more seasoning and a bit of spiciness.

The famous chunk-o-swordfish is certainly no exception to Mike’s supersizing propensities. People call it a “baseball cut" and that certainly is not a misnomer. Mike butchers the whole fish himself, cutting it into fat, 3-inch thick hunks, which he then mesquite broils and serves with your choice of lemon caper butter or sweet macadamia nut butter. If your taste buds lean toward the hot and spicy, you can get it blackened with Cajun spices, topped with tomatillo sauce and corn salsa. Hate to choose? You can have a three-way with smaller portions of all of the above.

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Our favorite is the lemon-caper-butter because it complements the fish rather than overwhelms it. This is our preference because we really appreciate the unique taste of this excellent fish. If it weren’t so flavorful, a bolder sauce might be indicated. We asked for all vegetables instead of garlic mashed potatoes as our side and they were perfect. There was a mélange of veggies and each one was cooked exactly right, tender but still having a crisp bite. They were tossed with herbs and sprinkled with grated cheese. This meal was notable for another reason. This is the first time in history that Elle couldn’t finish her fish, but everybody who left seemed to be carrying a doggy bag.

“Yoko Ono" appears on the menu, not as John Lennon’s wife but as Hawaiian ono (a large white fish) with a soy ginger sauce, caramelized onions and banana salsa accompanied by the motto, “Give a piece a chance." Hawaii is also the source of their seared ahi. Alaskan halibut is featured with mushrooms in white wine shrimp sauce and Chilean sea bass is served in a red Thai curry sauce accompanied by coconut sweet potatoes.

Meat eaters rave about Zoolu’s Colorado corn-fed rack of lamb with sweet and sour mint sauce. There is also a big double veal chop with caramelized onions, or that old classic, veal Oscar with crab, asparagus and béarnaise sauce, a bit hard on the arteries perhaps but mighty tasty. Can’t make up your mind? Have the best of both worlds with the surf ‘n’ turf "” swordfish and filet mignon.

The menu is quite extensive. In fact there are two menus. One of them is the nightly entrée list, which seem to be the same all the time, and the other a full menu with starters, salads, pastas and more entrées, including a vegetarian burrito, roast chicken, meatloaf and more.

If you are taking home a good portion of your dinner for tomorrow, you might have room left for dessert. You can go light with fresh berries topped with coconut crème and crumbled chocolate or blackberry cabernet sorbet. For something a bit heavier try the house made chocolate cake with whipped cream and raspberries or jasmine rice pudding.

Our new favorite is Mike’s espresso crème brûlée. Terry gets testy when people start to mess with the purity of this dessert, but we both found the espresso flavoring an astoundingly good addition to a luscious satiny custard. One of the best crème brûlées we’ve ever tasted. We only wished that the burnt sugar topping had more crackle. It goes without saying that it easily serves two or even more.

This animated, convivial and unpretentious little spot continues to be a local favorite because Mike takes enormous pride in the food he serves and Toni keeps things running smoothly in their crowded little kingdom.

Café Zoolu

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Where: 860 Glenneyre St.

When: 5 p.m. to closing Tuesday through Sunday

Prices:

Appetizers: $8 to $18

Entrées: $16 to $45

Desserts: $8 to $12

Wine:

Bottles: $45 to $150

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By the glass: $9 to $13

Corkage Fee: $15

Information: (949) 494-6825


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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