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CALA LILY CAFE

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I don't mind an incongruous locale if the food and service is worthy. In fact, it's rather like knowing a fabled secret. There's a little place I know &

The Cala Lily Café is in a shabby Route 8 shopping strip next to a hobby shop and the amusingly named Scrap Your Heart Out. (Peering madly in the dark for any street numbers along this cluttered commercial corridor, I started. "Did that store say 'Scrape Your Heart Out?'") You'll never see the numbers -- the restaurant is one mile north of the Turnpike, on the left just after the big Dodge dealership.

The restaurant interior is best described as unassuming. The blandness of the dropped ceiling and the flat walls has been only slightly mitigated by a few framed prints, some fabric swags and ornamental wrought iron chairs. However, the staff is inviting, the atmosphere jolly (apparently they do a healthy repeat business since there was easy familiarity between the staff and other diners), and I assure you, once the food arrives you'll not notice the flat decor again. The cuisine here is anything but dull.

The appetizer list ranges from the traditional (stuffed mushrooms and peppers) to the intriguingly tweaked (baked oysters with Pernod and toasted pistachio nuts). I chose the blackened duck breast carpaccio with Spanish cabernet vinaigrette. A dozen or so paper-thin slices of duck meat were fanned around a plate. In the center sat a small serving of tangy sweet salsa and roasted red and yellow peppers. I speared one sliver of duck on the tines of the tiny fork -- wonderful. Only the thinnest edge of the lean meat had been "blackened" so there was no overwhelming smokiness -- just a perfect hint -- and the sweetish sharpness of the wine dressing just made the meat more succulent. It sounds like too much, but when I tried the duck with the fruity, onion-heavy salsa, it was even more wonderful.

My companion had a tough choice among a half-dozen salads -- grilled asparagus, broccoli, pepper and mushrooms, or mixed greens with fresh berries? Ultimately, he chose the nearly all-white salad of marinated hearts of artichoke, hearts of palm, Belgium endive and radicchio in a light white balsamic and Champagne vinaigrette.

There are more than 20 entrees with something sure to please everyone except the strictest vegetarians (there is just one vegetarian dish, a saffron risotto with Mexican-style veggies) -- steaks of all stripes, fish, veal and pork chops, shellfish. My companion struggled again with his entrée selection between the listed tuna (crusted with pistachio nuts and served with Danish brie and garlic lemon butter) or that night's special, the peppered Ahi tuna with persimmon and raspberry sauces. "One's savory, the other sounds sweet," I offered. Our server recommended the Ahi: "It'll melt in your mouth."

Indeed it did. Cooked medium rare, the meat was silky soft, and with the sweet fruit sauces, it was nearly dessert-like. But, then there was the pepper to offset the sweetness. I wouldn't have guessed that tuna, pepper and raspberry would make a good combination, but it was one of the inventive surprises offered. The tuna was accompanied by a vegetable risotto comprised of different sorts of rice and lots of squash and broccoli.

I'd opted for the pumpkin tortellini. These were good-sized, thin-skinned tortellini, soft and not overly chewy, filled with pumpkin puree. They were served in marvelously light, yet still rich, alfredo sauce, boosted by roasted tomatoes and leeks. Portions of skinless chicken breast were also in the mix and, while tasty, I'm not sure the chicken necessarily added anything to the dish. There was also a side of young green beans that had been lightly dressed in garlic.

The dessert selection offered two items that were not only my favorite combination -- chocolate and raspberry -- but they were both enthusiastically pitched by the staff. One, a light chocolate and Chambord mousse, was a new concoction of the chef's and feedback was welcomed. Served in a martini glass, topped with whipped cream, raspberry sauce and a few fresh raspberries, it was a divinely airy mousse -- I could barely feel it resting on the spoon, and in my mouth it just melted obligingly.

The other selection was the café's signature dessert, the Lily. It was an extravaganza of chocolate and raspberry: A large scoop of chocolate and vanilla ice cream through which ran a ribbon of raspberry sauce had been dipped in dark chocolate (which formed a hard shell) and was topped with whipped cream and fresh raspberries. Not enough? That island of chocolate-raspberry-naughtiness was sitting in a sea of Chambord. Needless to say, this dish's resemblance to any lily found in nature was purely in name. It was decadent, could have been shared by two, and a trifle hard to eat -- but I slurped up every last bit of it. * * * 1/2

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