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The unassuming house in Greenwich Village is a shrine to the culinary arts, regarded by out-of-towners as the Carnegie Hall of cooking. And the five-course seafood dinner prepared there by four unsung New Brunswick chefs this week was a virtuoso performance.

If cooking at the James Beard House is tantamount to playing Carnegie Hall, then executive chef Stefan Mueller and his team orchestrated a rhapsody from the sea, a five-movement symphony that never let the major themes get lost in baroque stylings or excessive showmanship.

For the Maritime chefs, the Manhattan evening was an opportunity to perform for a highly discriminating audience. Beard House devotees are mostly amateur gastronomes who are looking for a variety of dining experiences, but fans also include the occasional New York food industry professional.

"It is the highlight of my career to have the honour of cooking here," said Mueller, who led the first New Brunswick team to appear at the renowned Beard House. "It's huge."

The German-born 38-year-old, currently executive chef at Moncton's Delta Beauséjour Hotel, has cooked for prime ministers and presidents, as well as the Queen. But he said none of those events compare with his visit to the former house of James Beard (one of North America's most renowned culinary artists until his death in 1985), now a gathering place for local food lovers and home to a foundation established in his honour.

Mueller had two main worries as he prepared for his New York debut: one, that the seafood and other ingredients would be stopped at the border by overzealous U.S. customs or agriculture inspectors (it wasn't), and two, that the four chefs wouldn't be able to perform their best in an unfamiliar kitchen under enormous pressure.

But two hours before Monday's dinner, as they tended to their preparations, the chefs all agreed that the space, while somewhat cramped, was expertly designed for maximum efficiency.

So they were feeling confident as 90 people (the Atlantic Seafood Festival Dinner, as the event was billed, had sold out the day tickets became available months ago) crowded into the century-old brownstone.

Guests were treated to a meal of fresh New Brunswick seafood prepared almost exclusively from ingredients flown in from Canada the weekend before. Each course, somewhat sparse in quantity, was complemented with a different white wine provided by British Columbia's Mission Hill Family Estate winery.

The appetizers included seafood sausage with New Brunswick blueberry chutney, buffalo tourtière and a poutine rapee, the specialty of team member Charles Cloutier, an Acadian chef who owns the Auberge Eymet in Bouctouche, N.B.

An elegant Bay of Fundy scallop ceviche was marinated in Glen Breton Whisky, the only single-malt Scotch produced in Canada.

Seaweed-spiced Jonah crab cake, served with a lentil and orange salad, squid ink and coconut vinaigrette, drew rave reviews.

But the highlight of the evening was the main course of halibut and lobster, accompanied by a fiddlehead and fava bean cassoulet. The delicate flavour of the halibut was coolly enhanced with a marinade of New Brunswick-brewed Cadian Cream Ale and vanilla bean.

The lobster was expertly wrought, tender and meaty. In a session with diners after the meal, one questioner asked Mueller how he managed to achieve a "perfect" texture for the lobster.

A quick kill, he answered. He kept the crustacean in the boiling pot just long enough to achieve its demise, then pan-seared it at extremely high heat.

What he didn't mention was that he and his collaborator, Troy Baglole, the 32-year-old executive chef at the Delta Fredericton, arrived at the strategy only after a dress rehearsal with 170 diners at the Beauséjour a few weeks before.

At that dinner, which doubled as a fundraiser to help defray the costs of the New York visit, the chefs allowed the lobsters to cool after the searing, then oven-flashed them. The result was a rubbery texture that persuaded the cooks they needed to serve the lobster immediately after the searing, despite the challenging logistics.

In fact, Mueller and Baglole, along with Cloutier and pastry chef Tony Holden, spent countless hours in the months leading up to their Beard House performance testing menu items, making adjustments and retesting.

It appears the effort paid off. One New York food editor, who asked not to be identified, said he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the New Brunswick offering. "I expected the food to perhaps be a little rough around the edges, but both in terms of technical execution and presentation, it was not only surprising, it was very good."

The New Brunswick visit was arranged by Brian Murphy, a former Moncton mayor, and Lisa Gautreau, executive director of Moncton's Atlantic Seafood Festival.

The two visited New York last fall to drum up interest in their annual August event. At the suggestion of a contact, the two visited Beard House program director Mildred Amico, who suggested that they line up a New Brunswick team to fill a hole in her busy schedule. (The Beard House averages 300 meals -- lunches and dinners -- each year. Amico said this week she is already booking 2005 events.)

Murphy agreed immediately, then invited Mueller to put together a team and a menu plan.

An invitation to the Beard House represents a true achievement for an out-of-town chef. On Canada Day, Vancouver chef Rob Feenie, a well-known author of cookbooks and host of his own show on Food Network Canada, will perform a rare double by preparing both lunch and dinner at the Beard House. The twist: He will use only Canadian products commercially available in New York.

Despite the Beard House's cachet with out-of-towners, New York's serious foodies tend to ignore it in favour of the city's countless top-end restaurants.

But for visiting chefs, the Beard House remains important. Explained Francine Maroukian, a food writer who appears regularly in Esquire and Town & Country magazines: "It's the whole New York, 'if you can make it here you can make it anywhere,' sort of thing."

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