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A MATTER OF COURSE

My family was always known for its progressive thinking, but never more so than on New Year's Eve. Every year, instead of driving downtown and getting drunk, we stayed close to home and got drunk.

This happened during the annual progressive dinner, a tradition that originated in Britain but took on a few twists peculiar to the Pittsburgh suburb we lived in. In our neighborhood's version, each family was responsible for a portion of the meal--one would make the hors d'oeuvres, another the entree, another dessert and so on; since these were served at the homes of the respective cooks, we'd spend the evening walking from one place to the next, gorging ourselves on an overabundance of food and then bundling up to waddle to another warm spot for another course. By the end of the night, fifty or sixty giddy people would be wandering through the streets in the snow, singing Auld Lang Syne.

For children--especially me--the whole thing was magical. We could eat as much as we wanted of whatever we wanted; each family would make at least three offerings of their particular assignment. Of course, some cooks were better than others, so we encountered our fair share of Jell-O salads, as well as hot dogs floating in sauerkraut covered with dumplings.

But there were quite a few special treats that I recall even now: a superlative coq au vin and cassoulet from the French woman two doors away; a rich plum pudding dripping with melting hard sauce, a recipe I make to this day; and a whole roast suckling pig that a bachelor new to the area cooked in a pit dug in his backyard. That activity was suspicious enough to attract the local cops, who left, chagrined, with plates piled high with pork.

Since I'm new to my neighborhood and the houses are few and far between, the only progressive dinner I'll enjoy this year is in my mind. But the meals I've consumed over 1994 provide plenty of food for thought. Here's my dream menu, assembled from the best examples I've encountered in each category.

1. Aperitif
Tante Louise, 4900 East Colfax Avenue
A proper progressive dinner always begins with an appetite stimulant, and my favorite is wine. Tante Louise sommelier Bob (not Robert, mind you) Mandeau is as down-to-earth as a wine snob can be, and he's a wizard at matching people with grapes. (Tell him you like a dry red, preferably from Alsace, with lots of fruit, a chocolate finish and a leather aftertaste, and that's exactly what you'll get.) Besides, it's easy to get into the holiday spirit in Tante Louise's comfortably classy digs.

2. Hors d'Oeuvres
The Old Stone Church,
210 Third St, Castle Rock

It's important that this course be light--there's a lot of eating up ahead--yet able to pique the tummy's interest. That's why the Old Stone Church's duck-liver mousse is worth the drive. Airy and smooth, sweet and rich, this brandied, thyme-tinged spread is heavenly smeared across thin slices of toasted French bread and served alongside fresh fruit. And since this exquisite offering is served up in an old church, while you munch you can absolve yourself of 1994's sins and come clean for the new year.

3. Appetizer
Coos Bay Bistro, 2076 South University Boulevard
In a progressive dinner, this course is where people start to get more serious about eating than socializing. They're hungry enough to take on something more substantial than tidbits but still don't want to overdo it. Coos Bay's stuffed red pepper--a smallish roasted and peeled pepper filled to overflowing with chickeny risotto and finished off with a tomato puree studded with basil and parsley--hits just the right spot.

4. Bread
Carmine's on Penn, 92 South Pennsylvania Avenue
No matter how much food will follow, bread is more than a matter of course. And Carmine's delicious breadstuffs are worthy of your undivided attention--although the distractions of big globs of semi-melted real butter and the purest pressing of olive oil are acceptable. The oil comes with the garlic rolls, really balls of garlic with a little bread attached. They're slightly salty and fairly heavy, but who cares? You have all year to work them off.

5. Salad
The Fort, 19192 Highway 8, Morrison
In France, the salad arrives after the main course, presumably to aid the digestive system. In this country, the custom of serving the salad beforehand developed for two reasons: The costlier entree could be smaller if the diner had already consumed a salad, and besides, Americans are impatient (unlike their French counterparts, who sit down to a meal expecting it to take several hours). At the Fort, however, the house salad is no time- and bill-filler of iceberg lettuce and pale tomato wedge. Instead, it's another opportunity to try out a few unique ingredients--toasted pumpkin seeds, diced jicama and shreds of pickled ginger. The dressings also stray from the norm: One contains damiana, a little-known herb with a slightly bitter taste, and another is a killer creamy blue.

6. Soup
Zolo Grill, 2525 Arapahoe Road, Boulder
The trip to Boulder gives the palate time to clear before a real onslaught of tastes. Zolo's corn soup is fiery with jalapenos, and chunks of smoked chicken add chew to the balanced bowl of textures. There's also plenty of corn to help this massive meal progress through the pipes, if you know what I mean.

7. Pasta
Ristorante Catalano,
5970 South Holly Street

Torn between choosing a meat or a pasta course, I hit on Ristorante Catalano's fabulous prosciutto de pollo, a marvelous melding that fits both bills. Chicken so soft it disintegrates at the touch of a fork tops cream-swathed angel-hair pasta pungent with wild mushrooms and prosciutto; it's all baked into a salty, creamy, heart-clogging, marvelous mess.

8. Fish
The Normandy, 1515 Madison Street
This taste sensation comes with its own built-in side dish. The fish itself is tender and succulent, all of its juices trapped in two layers of grated potato that are cooked to a crisp on the outside and almost melt into the fish on the inside. The accompanying sauce, a light beurre blanc touched with basil and tiny bits of tomatoes, provides the necessary rich touch without injecting unnecessary butter. And that's a key factor if you're going to live to eat again in 1995.

9. Side Dish
Ethel's House of Soul, 2622 Welton Street
If I could have only one side dish again in my life, Ethel's yams would be it. Really sweet potatoes smothered in a sugary brown butter, these tubers make you lick your fingers and go searching for something to sop up every last drop of glaze. (With any luck, you remembered to drop some rolls in your purse at Carmine's.)

10. Dessert
Greens, 1469 South Pearl Street
Yes, almost everyone does tiramisu--but no one does it better than Greens. Not content to put out another tried-and-true ladyfinger-mascarpone-cheese-espresso standard, Greens stuffs a martini glass with ginger cake, caramel sauce, hazelnut cream, chocolate cake dipped in espresso and Kahlua, whipped cream, bits of hazelnut praline and--as though we need it at this point--a garnish of chocolate shavings. It's good to the last drop.

11. Coffee
Queen of Sheba, 7225 East Colfax Avenue
Not that anything is going to keep you awake after this gluttony, but somehow the meal isn't finished without a shot of caffeine. Few places take coffee as seriously--or pour it on with such ceremony--as Queen of Sheba. The restaurant follows the Ethiopian tradition of taking local beans in their original green form, roasting them over high heat and then, after lighting some incense to keep the senses reeling, steeping the beans in a beautiful pot. The result pours like syrup and carries the jolt of a cold shower--just the thing to sober you up and carry you into a brand-new year.

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