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James Beard House

You won't find an ad in the dining out section of a newspaper or a listing under restaurants in the yellow pages for the James Beard Foundation. Nevertheless, the kitchen of this Federal-style townhouse in New York City's Greenwich Village is where the stars of American cooking preside almost every evening. You could eat at the former home of James Beard, dean of American gastronomy, night after night (usually midweek) and year after year, sampling a completely different menu each time. It began in 1985 when Wolfgang Puck prepared the first "Great American Chefs Dinner" as a fundraiser to turn the former residence into a center for foodies and food professionals. In the years that followed the best-known chefs in the States—Debra Ponzet, Jimmy Schmidt, Alice Waters, Jean-Louis Palladin, Lydia Shire and Daniel Boulard—beat a path to the brick building to work their magic.

If you join the James Beard Foundation ($125 yearly for New Yorkers and $60 for out-of-towners), you'll receive the monthly newsletter listing all the events, along with the complete menus, and packed full of information about books, personalities, restaurants, workshops and wine. You'll also get a $20 to $25 dinner discount and other benefits. A typical dinner for 60 guests begins about 7 p.m. with drinks and the visiting chef's signature hors d'oeuvres. Meals are priced from $55 to $125 including wine, tax and gratuity. You need not become a member to eat at The Beard House. For people who find themselves in New York City without a dining companion, there's no better way to enjoy a five-course meal in the company of interested and interesting people than to join a table at the Beard House.

For membership information, contact the James Beard Foundation, 167 W. 12th Street, New York, NY 10011. Tel. 212-675-4984. Reservations must be prepaid by credit card. Tel. 212-627-2308. www.jamesbeard.org

Fall 1994

San Domenico

On a weekend evening San Domenico is bubbling. Every handcrafted leather chair is taken and the hum and smiles in the restaurant indicate that this is a happy place. The contemporary dining room with fashionably modern lighting, beautifully framed artwork and earthenware pots crowded with bunches of wheat looks as though it was transplanted from Milan. The designer made a statement—strong and simple, a little showy, but not overbearing.

The chef, Theo Schoenegger, makes a statement, too. His Northern Italian cuisine is fantastic. Polenta was smooth and creamy with just enough Parmesan cheese to give it a perky flavor. Risotta was also well prepared with firm grains of rice and a light tomato and prawn sauce. If you can turn out stellar versions of these dishes, you can cook just about anything properly. This kitchen does.

Mussels and cannellini beans with chopped fresh tomatoes came in a warming parsley broth. Crisp lightly fried sweetbreads were delicate and well paired with baby greens. Beautifully grilled fresh salmon was perfectly seasoned and served with a delicious sliced and browned potato tart. Spinach was barely cooked, firm and dressed with a hint of olive oil. Ravioli stuffed with duck was an imaginative rendition of this dish. Polenta-breaded red snapper was another imaginatively conceived and nicely executed entree.

To refresh the palate after the main course, olive oil and a basket of crudities were offered. The caramelized coconut-orange custard was as good as the crème brulée on which some French restaurants have built their reputations. Service was attentive with carefully thought-out touches. Bottles of sparking water were kept chilled in a wine bucket. All the food was very rich and although the portions did not appear to be too big, they were. To match the appetites of the 90s, less might be better.

San Domenico, 240 Central Park South, New York, NY 10019. Tel. 212-265-5959. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday and for dinner seven days a week. Expensive. www.restaurant.com/microsite.asp?rid=300090

Fall 1994