Walking up the boardwalk to the Bluewater Grill on tony Lido Peninsula, a first-time visitor is likely to focus initially on the huge pleasure crafts moored outside. One evening, a brightly lit party boat could be seen pulling up to the dock, disgorging a load of women in furs and evening wear.
Don't let such trappings fool you. Bluewater Grill is not a fancy, big-deal restaurant; it's a wooden-table, paper-place-mat fish house with reasonable prices.
The restaurant, which recently replaced a steakhouse called Delaney's, has a motif that is reputed to pay homage to the Cape Cod seafood house. Only, instead of being dour and understated, this place has red leather booths and walls ornamented with plastic marlin and big photos of macho fisherman parading their record-type catches. At the moment, the ceiling is also resplendent with strings of Christmas lights.
Bluewater Grill features a full-fledged oyster bar where you can watch Hama Hama and Skookum Bay oysters (flown in fresh daily from Puget Sound) being shucked to order, or down a variety of seafood cocktails with tangy red sauces. From the menu, you can order oysters cooked in several ways, including Rockefeller-style (baked in the shells with spinach and hollandaise sauce) or dredged lightly in flour, then pan-fried in butter.
The best way to appreciate top-notch fresh oysters like these is to have them raw on the shell with a zesty mignonette dressing (shallot vinaigrette). They are wonderful.
The oyster bar section of the menu also lists smoked albacore, salmon and trout, which the restaurant smokes over alder and oak. The smooth, buttery albacore, cut into inch-thick slabs, is just about addictive. The smoked salmon flakes off your fork in salty, tangy pieces.
Bluewater Grill makes delicious Dungeness crab cakes, though you only get two tiny discs to an order, just enough to give your palate a tease. Fried golden brown, these cakes are just about 100% fresh flaked crab meat, and you really taste crab.
The steamer pot of delicately sweet Prince Edward Island mussels--in a rather French broth of white wine, butter and garlic--is a bargain. I counted more than two dozen of these black beauties in my order.
Needless to say, there's a New England clam chowder, but it's grossly over-thickened with flour, as clam chowder tends to be in California restaurants. Nonetheless, it is chock-full of flavorful minced clams and diced potatoes, and judiciously flavored with sherry.
I wouldn't bother with shrimp or crab Louie, despite the good homemade Louie dressing. They're exactly the kind you get at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco--that is, made with mealy tomatoes and tired, oxidized shellfish.
There are pastas here, all seafood-based. The sauce on the linguine with smoked salmon is an extremely rich Alfredo sauce with bits of alder-smoked salmon in it. The angel hair pasta with porcini mushrooms, shrimp and fresh poached scallops is nice too.
Entrees are mostly mesquite-broiled fish selections. The fish, delivered fresh daily, are iced down as soon as they arrive. Unless otherwise specified, they will be served broiled, with little metal cups of cilantro butter, lime butter or red pepper shallot butter.
The best fish I've had here is the halibut. It was unassailably fresh, flaky and beautifully blackened. What the menu calls fresh Chilean ice fish is really sea bass, and though it has a nice flavor, I was put off by a slightly rubbery texture. There are fine beer-battered fish and chips, made with ling cod; the coating might be a touch too thick for some tastes.
Monkfish is a fish you can find in most of our French restaurants, where it is often called lotte. The waitress told us it would taste like lobster, which is the cliche about monkfish, but I would say it tastes more like cod. (Of course, that's a New England specialty too.)
The fish come with a choice of side dishes: decent red-skinned potatoes, a not-too-sweet but aggressively mulched cole slaw, monster heads of steamed broccoli, an insipid dill rice pilaf.
Everyone I brought here was a bit surprised by the menu's shortage of desserts. Besides mud pie (an outsized wedge of coffee ice cream with a chocolate cookie crust), the only other choices are Ben & Jerry's ice cream (chocolate or vanilla) or strawberries and cream. Pass on the latter; the out-of-season berries were unripe and the cream wasn't even whipped.
Have a glass of Robert Mondavi Malvasia Blanca ($4.50) for dessert instead, and think about how lucky we are to be here in Newport Beach during the holiday season, instead of shivering somewhere out on Cape Cod.
Bluewater Grill is moderately priced. Oyster bar items are $6.75 to $13.95. Soups and salads are $2.95 to $11.95. Entrees are $9.45 to $29.95.
* BLUEWATER GRILL
* 630 Lido Park Drive, Newport Beach.
* (714) 675-3265.
* Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
* All major cards.