LAGUNA BEACH — Aegean Cafe may be the prettiest Greek restaurant you have ever seen. On the whitewashed walls are Greek island scenes by a local Greek American watercolorist, on the tables, orchids and tablecloths in white and pale blue, the colors of the Greek flag.
It is also the liveliest, and possibly loudest, restaurant in this never-dull beach city. As we entered one night, we found two waiters busily doing a balancing act in the middle of the parquet dance floor while Alex Galas, the resident bouzouki virtuoso, was performing a furious rendition of a Mikis Theodorakis tune.
Galas is no doubt a big draw here. But the boisterousness and spontaneous energy of a well-managed Greek restaurant also suits a beach town perfectly. New owners Penny and Jim Marutsos are following beautifully in the footsteps of the previous owner, a larger-than-life character named Tasos Lilis.
The kitchen is the province of a talented chef trained by the owners. His food doesn't miss a beat, from the delicious selection of appetizers called mezedakia, to an impressive array of fish, broiled meats and heavy, taverna-style casseroles generally ordered as main courses.
First to arrive is a basket of warm pita bread, buttered and grilled, which the restaurant buys directly from Kronos Bakery in Chicago. The bread is followed by a dish of tzatziki, a dip of yogurt with cucumbers, garlic and fresh dill dressed with Kalamata olive oil. This is easily the best tzatziki I have ever tasted.
The complimentary serving is small. If you want more, it's on the list of mezedakia. Another good meze is horta: a sweet-and-sour dish of cooked pickled endives and boiled dandelion greens dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. The cooking mitigates the mild bitterness of raw endive. Skordalia is a dip of mashed potatoes thoroughly saturated with garlic. (It packs a wallop unless you cut it heavily with bread. Consider yourself warned.)
The hot appetizers can be equally tempting, but they're filling, and you're looking at trencherman-sized entrees. The newest offering is kolokithokeftedes (don't bother pronouncing it; point to it on the menu). Think of these puffy, eggy spheroids as zucchini fritters pepped up with dill and green onions. They're cousins to the Italian frittata and the Turkish dish mucver. Aegean Cafe sends out four to an order; two would be plenty.
Regular keftedes are bite-sized meatballs flavored with cinnamon and allspice, and Aegean Cafe stews them rather than fries them. They have nice flavor but are not especially juicy. I prefer the more usual fried version with its Jekyll and Hyde mint-and-garlic spice mixture.
Saganaki belongs in this lively, histrionic environment. It's cheese flamed at the table with a theatrical flourish. The restaurant uses kefalotiri, an oily, medium-hard sheep's-milk cheese that forms a golden crust when fried.
Avgolemono is the familiar egg-lemon soup: chicken broth thickened with egg yolk, lemon juice and rice. I'd also give high marks to the calamari, crisp, batter-fried baby squid drenched with fresh lemon juice.
Before addressing an entree, you might cleanse the palate with one of the summery salads. The best is village salad: tomatoes, salad greens, feta cheese, pungent Kalamata olives and purple onions in an oily vinaigrette. (Leave out the lettuce and add some oregano and, opa! You've got something called totally Greek salad.)
Heading the entree list are the lamb dishes. Arni psito is thick slices of roasted leg of lamb slowly baked with oregano, garlic, Dijon mustard and lemon juice. Arni kokinisto is a rustic dish of lamb shanks simmered in wine, tomatoes, cinnamon and clove. Best is the wonderfully tender souvlaki: marinated lamb loin broiled on the skewer with onions and red bell peppers. Meats come with roasted potatoes, rice pilaf and stewed string beans.
You can also get classic taverna dishes such as spinach pie, moussaka, pastitsio and dolmades individually or on the Greek combo. The moussaka and pastitsio (eggplant and macaroni casseroles, respectively) are sweet, meaty and filling, cut into squares and topped with creamy bechamel sauce. The good dolmades are finger-sized meat-stuffed grape leaves topped with a rich egg-lemon sauce. I also like the spinach pie (spanakopita), triangles of filo filled with spinach and feta cheese.
If there is room for dessert, try karitopita, a Greek version of spice cake drizzled with a light honey syrup. Kataifi, also good, is as light on its feet as a Greek waiter. Think of it as a ball of shredded wheat rolled around a thin layer of crushed walnuts.
If the flesh doesn't match the spirit, a demitasse of Greek coffee (ask for it metrio: with sugar but not too sweet) or glasses of the sweet, Port-like wine Mavrodaphne are available. And no one, but no one, needs an excuse to get up and dance at a Greek restaurant, even after the musicians have packed up for the evening.
Aegean Cafe is expensive. Appetizers are $4.95 to $8.50. Main dishes are $12.95 to $22.95.
* Aegean Cafe, 540 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (714) 494-5001. Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Sunday; dinner 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4-midnight Friday-Sunday. All major cards.