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Aegean Cafe Offers Good Food in a Seeworthy Atmosphere

December 26, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

O inos efreini kardian , the Greeks say--"Wine stimulates the heart." There are graffiti like that, and a whole lot more to be stimulated by, at the new sun-splashed Aegean Cafe in Laguna Beach, probably the liveliest restaurant in town right now.

Greek restaurateurs such as the Aegean's Tasos Lilis have all the moves down pat. Lilis, an experienced, nattily attired charmer, greets everyone at the door with infectious enthusiasm. The second time I dined there he embraced me, greeting me like a lost brother.

But unlike a lot of Greek restaurants, the Aegean Cafe does not run out of charm as soon as you get past the door.

First off, this may be the prettiest Greek restaurant you have ever seen. It occupies a portion of the upper level at Laguna Collection, a shopping arcade perched directly above Coast Highway. The walls are sun-bleached white, painted with Greek island scenes by Despina, a local watercolorist. Tables are draped in light-blue linens, surrounded by high-backed wooden chairs with bright cushions, exactly like the kind you find in Greece. Behind the tables there is a small stage, where the dynamite bouzouki and guitar duo Spiros and Babis play an incessant medley of Greek folk tunes. Waiters and guests gyrate rhythmically between courses on a glossy parquet dance floor.

The real energy source here, though, is the kitchen. After seating you, the waiters--mostly bilingual young university graduates--bring out little dishes of homemade yogurt with cucumbers ( tzatziki ), garlic and dill, and taramosalata, the dip made of carp roe whipped up with potato puree, alongside a basket of fresh bread. One dip and you're hooked. The tzatziki is easily the best I have ever tasted--a thick, creamy paste drizzled with oil from Calamata olives. The taramosalata, sometimes called Greek caviar, is on the mild side, but nonetheless delicious.

Almost 20 appetizers grace this menu, one that departs often and intelligently from the tired core of dishes found in ordinary Greek restaurants. Two not to miss are horta and skordalia . Ordinarily you'd only find them served in Greek homes.

Horta is the real surprise, a bowlful of pickled endive and boiled dandelion greens mixed with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. The sweetness of the vegetables and the sourness of the lemon is an almost magical combination.

As for skordalia , it will scare a vampire faster than the sunrise. It's essentially mashed potatoes pureed--no, make that saturated --with fresh whole cloves of garlic. It pulls no punches, and it's flat-out wonderful with lightly buttered and grilled triangles of pita bread that the restaurant gets directly from Kronos Bakery in Chicago ($1.75 a basket).

More substantial appetizers taste good, but they are often more filling than stimulating. For the terrific calamari, pan-fried baby squid in a dry, crumbly coating are sprinkled with parsley and green onions. Aegean Cafe's keftedes are tiny meatballs, delicate and juicy, with a bite that comes from mint and garlic.

Saganaki , the appetizer of cheese flamed at the table with a theatrical flourish, is mostly for show. The restaurant uses kefalotiri, an oily medium-hard cheese that forms a golden crust when fried. As far as cheese goes, I much prefer the imported feta, served with a handful of pungent Calamata olives.

Soup and salad are a la carte. Avgolemono is the only soup, and you may well know it: chicken broth thickened with egg yolk, lemon juice and rice. This one is tasty, but some may be put off by its pudding-like consistency. On the other hand, Greek village salad is an unquestionable star. The tomatoes are ripe, the greens fresh, the feta and olives top-quality and the dressing lively. Red peppers, purple onions, radishes and capers round it out nicely. The other salad, called Mediterranean, is romaine loaded with artichoke.

Main entrees are huge, platters of meats and seafoods embellished with roasted potatoes, rice pilaf and vegetables such as peas or string beans. The standouts are the menu's "homeland specialties." Arni psito may come to you overcooked, but the flavors of this thick-sliced roasted leg of lamb are beyond reproach. It's made with oregano, garlic, Dijon mustard and lemon juice, cooked slowly at low heat and almost totally free of fat.

Arni kokinisto is a more rustic way to go. For this dish, lamb is simmered in wine, tomatoes and sweet spices such as cinnamon and clove. I had mine with a giant portion of stewed okra.

Sadly, the boldest-looking dish on the menu, vacalaos skordalia, just isn't selling, according to owner Lilis. This plate of pan-fried cod and garlic potato puree is real taverna fare, just the type of thing you get in the Aegean. A lot of people are eating the rack of lamb, at $29.95 the priciest thing on the menu. The codfish, at $12.95, is all but forgotten.

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