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Rare Outpost of Truly Greek Cuisine in Orange County

November 06, 1986|BEVERLY BUSH SMITH | Smith is a free-lance restaurant reviewer in El Toro

Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, for years I've sought a restaurant in Orange County that was truly Greek--not simply "Middle Eastern." Well, I've found it, but it wasn't easy. You'd never see Mene's Terrace from the street tucked away as it is in a shopping center off El Toro Road in El Toro.

Inside, the little restaurant is spotless, with cool tile floors and checkered plastic tablecloths. Taped Greek music sets the mood and waiters wear Greek fishermen's caps.

My family likes Mene's so well that we've been back several times, so I can attest to the consistency of the service that is both good and cheerful.

We always begin with spanakopeta and/or tiropeta, and they are truly special here--baked to order, served piping hot, the filo wrapping exquisitely delicate and flaky. The first is filled with dill-accented spinach; the other with imported feta cheese. Excellent, too, are the keftedakia --appetizer meatballs of hand-ground lamb, redolent with mint.

I can't decide which of the souvlakia--hand-cut marinated meat, skewered and charbroiled (no vegetables)--I like best. Lemony breast of chicken, Angus beef marinated in red wine, and lamb, fresh from a garlic-wine marinade, are each uniquely seasoned with herbs. And the lemon-accented seafood souvlakia combines three large shrimp with scallops, cod and halibut--a best buy at $10.95.

The moussaka is so delicate, so light that it's quite possibly my all-time favorite. Over the layers of eggplant, zucchini and ground lamb (with just a touch of cinnamon) rests a creamy custard of bechamel.

All dinners are served with either soup (a nice avgolemono with chicken base and lemony tang) or salad (the traditional Greek, with feta, tomatoes and olives), pita bread plus rice pilaf. The vegetable was a long-simmered zucchini with tomato on each of our visits.

The back of Mene's menu lists 10 specials, from which chef-owners Melpo (who doubles as hostess) and son Albert Fisher select two or three dishes to serve each evening. I've never caught up with the pastitsio, a baked, lasagna-like dish of macaroni with lamb and bechamel sauce, but judging from the moussaka, it should be terrific. However, I can vouch for the arni psito, a splendid leg of lamb roasted with potatoes, and the shrimp Athena--succulent shrimp, seasoned with lemon and herbs, skewered and perfectly charbroiled.

Other specialties include charbroiled lamb chops with garlic and herbs; zucchini stuffed with ground lamb, baked with a tomato-herb sauce; rabbit stew with pearl onions, and tomato and scampi retsina.

Best of all, a just-right serving of Melpo's own, not-too-sweet baklava is complimentary at dinner. This and dinner prices of $7.95 to $11.95 (the lamb chops are $16.95) make for top value.

At lunch, the accent is on salads (small or large Greek salads or the no-lettuce horiatiki ) and sandwiches. The gyro sandwich--spicy beef and lamb, pressed, cooked on a rotisserie, thinly sliced and served in pita bread with yogurt sauce, is a best buy at $3.25.

Less substantial, but certainly ample, is the chicken sandwich (souvlakia with shredded lettuce in pita). There's also a Greek sausage ( loukanika ) sandwich. Souvlakia served with salad, rice and pita is priced from $4.95 to $6.95.

The restaurant's nicely chosen wine list makes several Greek wines available by the glass, including the pungent, resiny retsina.

Mene's Terrace, 23532 El Toro Road, Orange Tree Plaza, Suite 11, El Toro, (714) 830-3228. Lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m. Reservations for five or more. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Lot parking.

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