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A Bonny Change for Delaney's

July 18, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who regularly reviews restaurants for The Times Orange County Edition.

There are several Delaney's restaurants in and around Orange County, but the best known must be the Lido Peninsula branch in Newport Beach, for years a dark, smoky hangout for local night owls.

Now the restaurant has a new image, thanks to a face lift that has transformed it into an upbeat restaurant for the '90s.

AC Global, the company that owns the chain, has redone the dining room in mauve and other pastels, substituting linens for paper napkins and infusing it all with a nautical flair. Translucent disks like those on a luxury liner light the low ceiling. Mirrors and modern-looking prints open up the space nicely, putting an end to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the old Delaney's.

The menu got an overhaul as well. Seafood is still the basic theme, but a good number of deep-fried dishes have been dropped in favor of more healthful offerings. There are more sauteed and broiled seafoods now--and also a lot of trendy items, ranging from soft-shell crab to fresh ahi.

But despite all the good intentions, Delaney's remains a problematic place for anyone with a discriminating palate. Corporate chef Nobu Kuwasaka is a native of Japan who once worked for Wolfgang Puck, so one has to believe he knows his way around a kitchen. And head restaurant chef Alex Couly has worked in several prestigious kitchens in his native France, so I'm baffled as to why things aren't better here.

But let's look at a few more of the good points first: Delaney's is obviously a delightful place to sit or it would not have been full to overflowing on each of my three weekend visits. The restaurant offers one of the county's coziest places to take in a view that overlooks the lazy Lido Harbor and a gaggle of privately moored sailing sloops. There's a pleasant outdoor patio as well, a wooden gangway with picnic tables under umbrellas advertising names of European beers. In short, it's exactly the kind of place where people let culinary glitches pass because the salt air puts them in a tolerant mood.

And there's the service. Except for a harried bartender who was trying to set a world's record for fast and rude serving, the service at this restaurant is uncommonly solicitous. The waiters have a charming tableside manner, and they appear personally affected if you are not absolutely delighted with what you are eating. The minute I expressed displeasure with a dish, it was whisked away in favor of something else. When a couple of us walked in for a Sunday brunch, the managers remembered us and immediately offered to buy us a round of drinks. These people are trying hard to make friends.

They are going to have a hard time doing it with much of this food, though. A good many of the dishes here come drenched in unappealing sauces--such as the sourish lime beurre blanc that besmirches an appetizer called shrimp cakes, and the murky, cloying teriyaki sauce that victimizes a perfectly innocent piece of ahi.

Dishes are often misrepresented on the menu. One such is steak a la provencale, on the Sunday brunch list. The steak is reported to have olive oil, anchovies and black olives in its sauce, a glace de viande in which none of those flavors are in the least detectable. Further, the accompanying "poached" eggs turned out to be deep-fat fried (they had a bubbly golden brown bottom such as you get from bacon grease). "Sometimes the cooks cut corners when they're getting slammed," our waiter explained.

That said, there are a few good things to eat here. There's a terrific salad, called fresh chopped boutique vegetables, that consists of string beans, white corn, diced tomato, celery, avocado, carrot, red cabbage and other things tossed in walnut-oil dressing. The vegetables are fresh and snappy, and the combinations are inspired. I only wish that dressing had not been served on the side, allowing the oil to separate from the rest of the dressing. ("Don't bother mixing it up," advised our waiter. "It'll just separate again.")

The chowders aren't bad either, both Delaney's old chowder and their new model--clam chowder lite, as it were. The former is the thick, pasty kind, a tasty suspension full of potato chunks, clam bits and celery. The latter is more like a delicate broth containing an abundance of carrot and celery.

When it comes to some of the main dishes, though, any trace of delicacy vanishes. Gourmet shellfish dinner, commanding a hefty $19.95, is a near-total disaster--frozen lobster tail, crab legs with the taste and texture of straw, a few tired scallops that look lost on the plate, with a couple of reasonably tasty fried shrimp. Filet mignon with "potato puree" and a Cabernet butter sauce is a perfectly good piece of meat in a bland sauce, accompanied by two scoops of dry mashed potatoes.

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