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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

The Wave

December 05, 1996|NANCY ROMMELMANN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For some people, the main attraction at Gower Gulch, a Hollywood strip mall tricked up as a frontier town, used to be the parking lot, which was convenient to the now-defunct Columbia Bar & Grill. In its heyday, the Columbia was one of the prime power-lunch spots in town, with a heavy studio and celebrity clientele; now it's the home of the equally tony Pinot Hollywood.

One vestige of the Columbia has just resurfaced. Juan Mercado, formerly a chef at Columbia, recently opened his own modest fish restaurant in the Gulch, Tidal Wave Seafood.

At first sight, the Tidal Wave doesn't look like much--kind of like a generic hamburger joint, complete with serve-yourself soda machine, sticky tables, fluorescent lighting and an aroma of grilled fish and industrial floor cleaner. The fact that you rarely see anyone eating there at dinner doesn't bode well either.

But the first time I went, the waiter set out two very respectable crab-and-salmon cakes. These little golden hockey pucks, accompanied by a spunky red chile tartar sauce studded with capers, were delicately crisp on the outside, creamy and moist on the inside.

Then came a marvelous Caribbean salad: a massive mound of greens tossed with strips of chicken marked from the grill, toasted pecans, ripe mangoes and red flame grapes, all in a honey-mustard dressing that was not the least bit cloying. There also was a blackened tuna salad, with strips of grilled tuna, baby asparagus tips and chunks of avocado almost collapsing a mound of greens drizzled with sesame-garlic vinaigrette.

The next dish was the clincher, though: grilled Chilean sea bass brushed with ginger-sesame sauce. Not only did the fillet, perched on a bed of perfectly cooked orzo, bear more than a passing resemblance to a Gourmet magazine cover, it was also the best piece of sea bass I'd eaten all year, and the competition included much pricier L.A. restaurants.

On the other hand, a nicely grilled swordfish steak was oddly paired with a bland butternut squash sauce that had a porridge-like texture. And the paella Valenciana was just soggy tomato rice strewn with shellfish and bits of chicken. Where was the saffron?

Undaunted (and clinging to the memory of that sea bass), we went back for lunch, which is when Tidal Wave really gets rolling. For instance, there's a deliciously messy roast pork torta--slices of moist pork and roasted sweet peppers slathered with a lively red chile mayonnaise oozing from between a fresh bolillo, which overlaps a plate already piled high with cilantro-infused black beans and rice. The vegetarian burrito is also massive, filled with crisp snow peas, chunks of eggplant and al dente carrots and broccoli, with a slightly picante tomato coulis splashed on top.

The ahi tuna burger--a generous fillet of grilled tuna garnished with caramelized onions and tangy cilantro mayonnaise--is terrific, though the thick fries on the side were undercooked. Two of us managed to devour a small ceviche tostada, piled with lime-drenched scallops and doused in a sprightly tomatillo and guajillo chile salsa, but we had no such compulsion to finish an octopus version, which is long on chew, short on flavor.

And we passed on dessert, too: just flan or the forlorn-looking chocolate cake sitting in a corner of the counter, beside two framed diplomas attesting to chef-owner Mercado's tenure at the Columbia.

Tidal Wave may not attract the luminaries that the Columbia once did, and there probably won't be much power lunching at the outside cafe tables, but never mind. Mercado's skilled seafood cooking makes Tidal Wave a real catch.

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Where to Go

Tidal Wave Seafood, 6122 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (213) 466-9917. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. No alcohol. All major credit cards accepted. Take-out. Free delivery ($10 minimum). Lunch for two, $12; dinner for two, $24.

What to Get

Ceviche tostadas, roast pork torta, ahi tuna burger, vegetarian burrito, Caribbean salad, blackened tuna salad, grilled Chilean sea bass.

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