By LAURIE SAMMETH
The seemingly modest LouCás has made an outsized splash in northern Middlesex County.
Folded away in a compact mini-mall at the corner of Rte. 27 (Lincoln Highway) and Parsonage Road, just above Metuchen, this restaurant has developed a thriving multiple personality.
Its Greek owners, shrewdly sizing up the New Jersey market, have chosen to emphasize an ever-popular Italian culinary lineup in their glossy, impersonal setting.
Around this solid foundation they've woven a colorful tapestry of creative and sophisticated contemporary cookery, featuring strikingly fresh ingredients stylishly combined.
The Italian standbys are perfectly satisfying, but LouCás handcrafted specialties are even better. The more you ask of this restaurant, the more it delivers.
Word has gotten around, and in its 3 ½-year existence the medium-priced LouCás has developed an exuberant following.
On our midweek visit the main dining room and its undersized nonsmoking annex quickly filled up with boisterous, high-spirited diners.
The noisy, colorful dining room seemed especially hospitable to groups and families (there was a concise but creative children's menu).
Considering the crush of business, service was wonderfully swift and attentive.
The antipasto lineup included many dependable Italian favorites, including clams casino ($5.95), eggplant rollatine parmigiana ($5.75) and fresh mozzarella and tomato ($6.25).
Portions were family-sized, encouraging groups to share their several choices back and forth. Fried calamari rings served in a huge heap ($5.95) were golden and greaseless, if a bit overcooked. The spicy marinara sauce was particularly zesty.
More far-flung options included mesquite grilled shrimp ($7.50). One festive starter was a thicket of "shoestring" zucchini ($5.25), shredded, lightly deep-fried and sprinkled with fresh Romano cheese.
But the best and, most memorable appetizer was a meaty, vibrant, exquisitely, grilled portabella mushroom ($5,95), topped with chips of fresh garlic and brought to a brilliant gleam with a lemon/olive oil dressing.
Already somewhat glutted, we passed by the tempting salads and promising pastas.
The entree assortment encompassed an the usual Italian-American reliables, but each seemed to be graced with a special snap or flourish. This array was supplemented by creative specials and house showpieces. There was something exceptional for everyone.
One simple, sparkling entree was the fragrantly wood-grilled veal paillard ($15.25), marinated in olive oil, herbs and garlic to attain a rousing flavor and texture.
The veal was laid out. among lively green arugula and roasted red peppers, inadvertently creating a cheerful Christmas-y look. The whole was drizzled with a fine balsamic vinaigrette.
Even simpler, and even more impeccable, was a pristine. swordfish steak ($16.50), about as thick as the average dictionary, deftly grilled and served in a, golden pool of dijon mustard sauce.
Considering that most New Jersey restaurants overcook their fish, LouCás goes almost to the opposite extreme. Ordered medium rare, the fine swordfish was delicately seared on the outside and a cool, translucent pink at the core.
This excellent entree was accompanied by a side dish of standard-issue pasta.
The attractive specials included roast duckling with wild mushroom rice in a sauce of sundried tomatoes and port wine and grilled New Zealand lamb with vegetable confit.
Most of the desserts are not made on the premises. But we enjoyed a crisp canolli with a hearty homemade filling.
LouCás can't be categorized. Its partly a casual Italian trattoria and partly a creative American restaurant, partly a family stopover and partly a serious culinary attraction.
Fortunately, it fulfills each of these several roles so successfully that It, creates a category all its own. It's a restaurant suited to many moods and-needs.
The rating system for movie, recording and restaurant reviews:
*** Very Good