Rated PG: Pretty Good 

With some tasteful editing -- and redecorating -- Shelby's could start luring back the cinema crowd.

Did you know you can spy on the Orinda Theatre Square 24 hours a day? Thanks to the magic of the Internet and a well-placed security camera, whenever you're hankering for a sight of that neon arc, just type OrindaTheatreSquare.com (note fancy spelling of theater) into your Web browser. You can even zoom in on the folks lurching blurrily down the street.

In fact, had you discovered the Web cam a few weeks ago, you'd have spotted me skulking out the front door looking overfed and vaguely suspicious, and probably picking my teeth to boot. I wanted to check out the new guard at Shelby's Restaurant, in the core of the theater's shopping complex, and discovered a little bistro in the rough.

Technically speaking, the rough is anything but, since the restaurants and stores at Theatre Square are striving for a tone of high yupdom. It's a common feature on the east side of the magic portal we call the Caldecott Tunnel: Over here, setting aside downtown Walnut Creek, the restaurants don't gravitate to their patrons by locating along well-traveled streets or sidling up to food stores and boutiques to catch the attention of passersby. Instead, developers construct "beautiful mixed-use urban villages" (as the Square describes itself), invite a cluster of restaurants to settle in, and command the well-washed masses to drive hither! And hither they come.

That's the plan, at least. Right now Orinda's dining public seems to be crowding into the restaurants across the street from Theatre Square. Based on the empty dining room I encountered on my two visits, a nine-year-old restaurant like Shelby's seems to have slipped out of chic.

It's a shame, because Michael Schibler, the new chef, is filling a glaring hole in Orinda's culinary landscape: creative Californian. Working out of a two-person kitchenette that isn't much bigger than my pantry, Schibler assembles some lovely plates. He makes a few missteps here and there, but success comes frequently enough that locals should start taking a second look.

Pity about the decor, though. During the day, the Lamorinda lunch squad comes to Theatre Square, and Shelby's is really designed for them. Lunchers can line up at the counter in front, presided over by a crowded blackboard menu of sandwiches and salads, then stake out a table along the windowed walls. In the evening light, though, the function-over-form furnishings turn sterile, without warm lighting, carpets, curtains, or even tablecloths to enclose the room and bring it together. And the bathroom is hidden halfway across the complex -- by eight o'clock it's a desolate walk, enough to take the imagination into the realms of suburban gothic. (I returned to my seat unscathed.)

Yep, at Shelby's the character is all on the plate. Chef Schibler is new to the East Bay but he's made his bones, training in France and Switzerland and most recently holding positions as sous-chef at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley and as executive chef at Kuleto's in Burlingame.

Here he's gone Asian Fusion, but not off the deep end. You won't find Thai basil foam or ginger-wasabi dressing on the echt Californian heirloom tomato salad, for example. Instead a ring of B-movie heirloom tomatoes -- gorgeous, but lacking the va-va-voom -- were placed atop thick rounds of sweet mozzarella and red onion rings. The chef condensed the remaining elements of a traditional insalata caprese by pureeing basil leaves, olive oil, and champagne vinegar into a potent, creamy drizzle that almost made up for the flaws of the tomatoes. You could taste the almost invisible flavor of the squash in a delicate, lovely zucchini-thyme cream soup. And Shelby's velvety, not-too-salty house-made gravlax (unsmoked salmon cured in a mixture of salt, sugar, and herbs) was allowed to shine, laid across three toasted baguette slices smeared with goat cheese and lined with ripe tomato.

But the plate that set us alight was a "ginger plum duck," a salad of thinly sliced Japanese cucumbers (the skinny, sharp-edged kind) topped with greens and a mass of shredded duck held together with a sweetly pungent ginger-plum sauce. Spoonfuls of melon salsa scattered around the plate could have sent the salad off to Candyland, but a sharp vinaigrette on the vegetables and the duck's natural meatiness kept it firmly grounded.

The entrées floundered more frequently, though each time I found something to like. With the jumbo white quail, thankfully, it was the quail, splayed across a plate cobbled with roasted fingerling potatoes. I sucked the sweet pink meat off the leg bones, dipping bits here and there into a meaty veal-stock reduction sauce. With the grilled prawns, I zeroed in on the warm corn salad, crunchy fresh corn tossed with baby spinach, onions, and tomatoes in a balsamic vinaigrette; the prawns, cooked in their shells to keep them juicy on the grill, would have fit in with the salad nicely had they been a day younger.

Baby back ribs had a crackling, complex soy-sesame glaze with just enough sugar to caramelize around the meat. Almost every rib was picked clean by the end of the meal. My friends and I left a tasteless cabbage-pepper slaw next to it untouched. There were a couple of duds: Though the lamb burger was cooked just as I like it -- that is to say, perfectly -- I would have liked it better had the ovine funkiness been checked by a little beef in the mix. (By the way, pay an extra buck for the mammoth, lacily battered onion rings instead of Shelby's standard-issue steak fries.) And we all felt cheated by the miserly amount of lobster in the $19 lobster club salad sandwich. It wasn't a bad club sandwich. Slap a little smoked turkey on there, and I'd have been happy to spend eight bucks on it.

We liked our servers, but they suffered from dead-night boredom -- a condition that has led many a pro to watch the clock more than the customers. On both visits, the entrées swooped in before we had cleaned up our appetizer plates, and by dessert time we had the distinct feeling they wanted us to go home.

After one taste of the bread pudding, we didn't care. As light as a souffle but twice as rich, the pudding was made by soaking chunks of brioche with a custard that inflated in the oven, then saturating them with an unctuous bourbon-butter sauce. The decidedly noncrispy raspberry crisp we could have done without, however.

For the past two days, I've gotten a little obsessed with watching people on the Theatre Square Web cam. If you decide to go to Shelby's, stop in front of the gyros place out front and wave across the street. No, look up and to the right. Hey, white Land Rover! You left your lights on!

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