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Hearty Appetites : Restaurants That Satisfy Tastes From Cozy to Exotic

February 07, 1991|MAX JACOBSON

Let's face it, everybody has a different idea about romancing in a restaurant.

Some like it dark and cozy. Others look for bright and sensual. Some go for hot and exotic. Others just want to be comfortable.

A hapless Woody Allen takes a girl to a Chinese restaurant in the film "Bananas," where he ends up looking like a nerd trying to teach her how to eat with chopsticks.

Albert Finney and Joyce Redmond enact one of the most controversial scenes in film history in "Tom Jones," slurping oysters out of the shell in a roadside pub with overtones lewder than Henry Fielding's prose.

And Tommy Lasorda loves linguine.

So where does that leave us? Orange County has the gamut of romantic restaurants, places ideal for a first date, an occasion, a seduction or nothing more than a simple "I love you." Look for the ocean, the moonlight, a view or an unusual atmosphere. And remember that beauty, as mother said, is in the eye of the beholder.

CANO'S

If you were to draw up a list of restaurants considered to be romantic within Orange County, this Newport Beach institution would no doubt be among those at the top.

To get there, head south along the Coast Highway from its junction with Newport Boulevard, passing a string of places with nautical names like Ancient Mariner and Rusty Pelican. Then spot the iridescent blue marlin on the right that is the restaurant's trademark.

The restaurant itself looks like one of those tropical casinos you see in movies set in mythical Caribbean countries; a floodlighted, white plaster facade lined with palm fronds, policed by parking attendants ready to usher you into paradise.

Larry Cano, restaurateur extraordinaire, still owns the joint. Cano recently divested himself of the huge El Torito chain so he should have more time to oversee operations here. It wouldn't hurt.

Inside, the premises are ablaze with atmosphere. Decor falls in somewhere between New Orleans and Haiti: white plaster, high arched ceiling, lush tropical plants, languid overhead fans. Reserve a window table, one with a snow white tablecloth and an elegant, flickering candle. The yachts in Newport Harbor really do look magical in the moonlight from your perch.

As for the food, well, what's the difference? Nibble with gusto on the good, puffy bread sticks and red pepper mayonnaise you will get just after being seated. From there, things sort of run together.

I'd describe the cuisine as forgettable/continental, with swatches of nouvelle and glimpses of the original.

I've had excellent crab cakes here, in a delectable cilantro/whole grain mustard sauce, an unspeakable Caesar (with a dressing that tasted like it was a day old), and inconsistent entrees ranging from a good free-range chicken in sherry vinegar with caramelized apple to an uninspiring filet mignon with competent Bearnaise and Bordelaise sauces.

Service tends to be highly professional and lightning quick; sometimes dishes come up so fast you wonder if everything here isn't dispensed from a vending machine.

Desserts are the real disaster, including one of the gummiest cheesecakes anywhere.

Biggest boon to romance: the orchid vendor.

Biggest detriment: the noise level.

Cano's, 2241 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach. (714) 631-1381. Open for lunch Monday through Friday , 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. ; for dinner Sunday through Thursday , 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m., and for Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major cards.

THE CELLAR

Lovers more serious about continental cuisine will want to head north, to Fullerton, for dinner in this highly eccentric setting. The dining area is a mock cave, replete with soft lighting, wall-mounted casks, velvet chairs, marble lanterns and museum piece prints of such Renaissance paintings as Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." There is even an underground bird sanctuary.

The solemnity of the occasion is never in doubt when you dine here. Just snuggle up side by side in your cushy leather banquette and move in for the kill. Your companion would need a heart of limestone to resist.

I actually experienced one of my funnier moments in a restaurant here, at the expense of an indiscreet maitre d'.

It seems I dined here two nights in a row under the name Steinberg, both times in the company of an attractive lady. Apparently, this man forgot protocol, since the second of those ladies happened to be my wife.

"Mr. Steinberg," the maitre d' exclaimed in surprise, "but you were just here last night!"

"That was his girlfriend last night," deadpanned my better half, who luckily knew of my previous engagement. "I'm just his wife."

Food here is prepared by Ernest Zingg, a Swiss-trained chef with an extensive hotel background, so it's no surprise that his food is somewhat generic. But the man can cook. Just don't expect any terrific surprises.

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