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The Gossipping Gourmet: Tabu again at the top of Zagat

Kudos to Nancy Wilhelm and her team at Tabu Grill! Once again they have earned the much-coveted rating of 29 points in the 2010 Zagat restaurant guide, the highest score of any restaurant in Southern California. The other good news is that they have finally expanded into the space next door after years of being mired in red tape at the city.

The new room has the same warm, romantic candlelit ambience as the original adjoining space. Large, brightly colored Indonesian umbrellas cover the ceiling and soften the lighting. A stone wall along one side of the room is punctuated with niches containing flickering red candles. Most of the tables are tall with high chairs or banquettes and one of them is a large, beautiful wooden plank with tree trunk legs. There is also a low couch with comfortable pillows where you can eat and recline.

With the new enlarged interior space, the small outdoor patio has become a waiting area where you can watch the sun go down, at least in the summertime.

Chef Kevin Jerrold-Jones, at 27, presides over the kitchen with help of sous-chef Chrystian Zamora, preparing what might be called Pacific Rim fusion cuisine with a touch of steakhouse.

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The menu features seasonal variations on their classic offerings. For instance, winter brings cranberry French toast to partner with their foie gras and cranberry vinaigrette to dress their field green, Marcona almond and crusted Laura Chenel goat cheese salad.

We began with the delicious Japanese pumpkin ravioli in a pistachio brown butter sauce with upland cress (a micro green from the mustard family, listed on the menu as Upland Crest "” typo?). Whatever name it goes by, it’s tastier than the more familiar micro-greens and it has a peppery tang. The cress garnished the al dente pasta, which was filled with a textured mild pumpkin mash (rather than the usual baby food puree, seasoned like pumpkin pie). Much of the flavor of the dish came from the excellent, unusual, slightly sweet, buttery sauce accented with bits of pistachio.

A dish that has been on their menu for as long as we can remember is their starter of scallops on a potato puree surrounded by a tangerine beurre blanc. Why mess with success? The scallops were beautifully browned and tasty but not as plump as we remembered them. They rested on a generous dollop of spectacularly good mashed potatoes, but the high point is the fabulous sauce. The last time we ate the scallops, we loved the sauce but wanted more as it was just a drizzle. Now, they’re doing it differently so there is enough to moisten every bite. The chef has a deft hand with sauces, they’re not too thick or rich but loaded with flavor, in this case the citrus sings. Notes of tangerine provide zing and gentle sweetness, and the butter creates smoothness and balance while keeping the flavors lingering on your tongue.

The pièce de résistance of our meal was the very inventive seared ahi. As you know, a seared ahi dish is on almost every menu and each chef is trying to add his or her own particular twist. However, although chefs these days are doing a lot of creative things, they don’t always taste good. Jerrold-Jones has paired originality with delightful flavors to create an exquisitely nuanced preparation. A nice thick piece of fish is stuffed with a bit of crabmeat and avocado, then lightly seared. It is served with a dish of three frozen dipping “sauces," which are uniquely flavored sorbets: yuzu (a Japanese citrus), soy and wasabi yogurt. Each provides a completely different experience when combined with the ahi and all three mixed together make yet a fourth sensation. The yuzu is acidic, the soy is salty, the wasabi is hot and the yogurt is cool. The dish is rounded out with tasty stir-fried Asian vegetables and sticky rice.

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They have three steaks on the menu: a Kobe filet mignon with passion fruit Bearnaise and house-made Worcestershire sauce, a Kobe flatiron served with their special mac’n’cheese and the spectacular 16-ounce bone-in ribeye "” a meat lover’s dream that comes with black rice risotto and forest mushrooms. All the meat is the very best quality, and you can taste the difference.

The dessert menu is small, with only four selections, but all are house-made: panna cotta with passion fruit sabayon, Valrhona fallen chocolate cake, guava crème brulée and an ice cream duo.

Our terrific waitress, Gretchen, both beautiful and charming, brought us a dessert sampler.

We were most taken with the chocolate cake, another omnipresent menu standard that we usually pass up. We were surprised and delighted at how much better it was than the usual offering. The quality of the chocolate was superb and the cake was dense, not too sweet or soufflé-like, with intense chocolate flavor. We tasted all three of their ice creams, made from a single base and then flavored. The mildest is the coconut, creamy and light with flakes of coconut. The mango had tiny chunks of the fruit, and the vanilla had an intense flavor that went nicely with the chocolate cake. Our only disappointment was the guava crème brulée. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Please, put the fruit on top, next to or under but leave the custard alone. The acid of the guava completely masked the custard taste. However, the brulée layer was caramely and crisp.

This small charming restaurant has a lovely ambience, comfortable and not too formal, with an attentive and knowledgeable wait staff. Wilhelm and her chefs insist on only the very finest ingredients prepared with attention and invention. Altogether, it makes for a high end, memorable but unpretentious dining experience.

If You Go

What: Tabu Grill, (949) 494-7743 www.tabugrill.com

Where: 2892 S. Coast Highway

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When: nightly from 5:30 p.m.

Prices:

Appetizers: $11 to $19

Entrées: $34 to $48

Desserts: $10 Wine:

Bottles: $26 to $200

Half Bottles: $20 to $86

By the glass: $8 to $22

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Corkage Fee: $25


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


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