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The Star-Ledger Review

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LouCás is jam-packed for a reason
***1/2

By S.J. GINTZLER

We were packed in like sardines in the crowded, clamorous dining room of LouCás, but the din quickly receded into the background as we dug into our vibrantly flavored, visually exciting dinner. This strip mall Italian-American features a head-turning array of fresh, arresting fare. Even a standard seafood fra diavolo - an explosion of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and calamari in a spicy red sauce, heaped atop a bed of linguine - is an in-your-face attention-getter.

Ambience: Pleasant enough, with attractive window treatments, sponge-painted walls and purple banquettes framing the bustling main dining room. It's an appropriately muted backdrop for the colorful cuisine. A smaller anterior dining area is brightened by a Mediterranean mural, cyprus trees and all. Downstairs, additional quarters accommodate the weekend overflow.

The staff: Friendly, knowledgeable and valiantly trying hard to take care of business. A few MIA interludes were due, no doubt, to the packed-to-the-rafters house. Reiterations of some dozen specials also slowed down the action. Take pity on all and print 'em up.

The food: A cut above. Impeccably fresh, high-quality ingredients are cooked with respect and restraint, enhanced just so. Dishes are beautifully presented in King Kong-size portions, and reasonably priced to boot.

There's pasta (a special scallop-and-mozzarella stuffed ravioli in a creamy tomato sauce), poultry (grilled chicken breast layered with zucchini, roasted pepper and smoked mozzarella); meat (filet mignon wrapped in bacon, topped with herbed bread crumbs, in a brandy demi-glaze), and an ocean's-worth of seafood (some 20 choices on one occasion, including specials such as pan-seared monkfish dusted in porcini powder, in a brandy-lobster sauce).

Florida rock shrimp arrabbiata ($8.95, a special) was a winner of a beginner, a shimmering pile of tender baby prawns awash in zesty garlic sauce, perfect for dunking with wonderfully dense, oven-toasted bread. Equally lip-smacking: a dynamite due of moist and meaty jumbo lump crab cakes ($9.75), broiled until burnished and crisp outside, bobbing in a pleasant sea of creamy Dijon mustard sauce. A special potato and leek soup, hot and soothing, reeked with a mild, yet manifest leek flavor.

Firm-cooked rigatoni ($12.95) was easily split among four. The stalwart pasta was vigorously adorned in garlicky plum tomatoes, sliced sweet sausage, biting broccoli rabe and puddles of melted mozzarella.

Entrees were consistently terrific. A platter heaved with a special grilled veal tenderloin ($22.95), sliced into dozens of tasty, tender medallions, topped with a trio of chubby, charred jumbo Gulf shrimp. The surf and turf rested a blanket of chewy risotto speckled with wild mushrooms, the whole lavished in an earthy porcini mushroom sauce, sided by a slaw of multicolored julienned vegetables.

Not to be outdone was a special veal chop, an embarrassment of riches; a Flinstone-sized chop was grilled medium, crowned in roasted red peppers, meaty portobello mushrooms and slathered in smoked mozzarella, sided by appropriately garlicky mashed potatoes and veggies.

For a Gallic touch, try the bouillabaisse ($16.95), just the ticket on a cool autumn eve. An assortment of fish and shellfish (salmon, sea bass, jumbo shrimp, clams, scallops, mussels) and vegetables was soaked in a perfumed broth redolent of white wine, saffron and herbs, with a dash of licorice-y Pernod. It hit the spot despite the overcooked lobster tail.

A hefty hunk of flaky Chilean sea bass was pan-seared flaky and fall-apart tender, plopped in a glorious broth heady with leeks, roasted garlic, crunchy asparagus pieces, shiitake mushrooms, rosemary and rock shrimp.

A tempting array of brought-in confections, including a cloyingly sweet peanut butter-chocolate pie and pleasant pear tart, is bolstered by lovely kitchen-prepared desserts, including a deliciously creamy American cheesecake decked out like a Dalmatian with spots of chocolate sauce, and a respectably fresh but too heavily cocoa-ed tiramisu.

All told, we'd happily head back to LouCás for an emphatically above-average meal with an Italian accent.

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*** Very Good
** Good
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  • A Gift Certificate
    From LouCas
    makes the
    PERFECT PRESENT!
  • Let LouCas host your next event
    Our Garden Room Alcove accommodates up to 16 people
    Our new Dining Room accommodates up to 50 people
    Our Lower Level Garden Room accommodates up to 120 people
  • When in Milltown, visit Fresco Steak & Seafood Grill!
    Serving an exciting menu full of fresh sea fare, steak, veal and chicken with choices for every palate.
    The 160 person dining room is lavishly decorated providing the perfect atmosphere for a private party or an evening of relaxed and casual fine dining. We also have an extensive banquet menu.
  • When in Old Bridge, visit Ponte Vecchio Italian Seafood Grille!
    Ponte Vecchio is the latest collaboration from the LouCas family of restaurants. This Italian seafood grill specializes in serving the finest seafood, along with the best traditional Italian cuisine.