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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