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Beacon

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The late, lamented Rainbow's Waldy Malouf, the chef who fell from the sky, must have landed headfirst in the earth. How else to explain his swift switch from oysters Rockefeller and lobster thermidor to the rustic open-fire cooking of Beacon? In kitchen talk, this is as revolutionary as a gender crossover. Like any new convert's, his enthusiasm runneth over, but that's fine with me. He's roasting salads, herbs, fruit, huge trencherman chunks of meat. "It's what I would cook for you in my backyard," he says. Now, this is pure Road Food Warrior fare. My mate is actually willing to miss the first twenty minutes of a crucial Knicks game for his share of the excellent T-bone, the luscious spit-roasted duck with its breast tender and whole, and the exquisitely crusty pork chop -- cured, hot-smoked, then grilled. (Dinner entrées, $18 to $29.) All four of us are out of control here, too -- no little sighs and murmurs, just groans because the house-baked breads are too good for prudent moderation. And we're dipping rashly in the powerful olive-flecked oil. Those among us normally disciplined to merely taste are crying for seconds. "I'll just leave a few extra olive rolls here," says our waitress, dropping another 5,000 calories into the silly bread basket -- I think it's a mattress coil in a hair net. It's one of a few too-clevernesses I notice in architect Morris Nathanson's handsome rehab of the old Seafare of the Aegean. I don't even mind being parked on the balcony -- it's serene, and I can still see the cooks pirouetting in the galley below.

Though friends tell me service at a recent lunch was positively slapstick, our liaison with the kitchen is a gem -- enthusiastic, informed, intimate but dignified. I actually forgive her for asking "Is everything all right?" four times, but why doesn't she sweep the crumbs from our table? "Just when you thought it was safe," she murmurs, delivering the family-style baking dish of earthy potatoes gratin and a collection of roasted vegetables on skewers. So maybe we should have shared starters. The basket of irresistible deep-fried vegetables with its smoky tomato sauce could have been a warm-up for the whole table all by itself. A fourth of the savory Camembert-and-bacon-stuffed quail with herb salad would have satisfied me. And just a few spoons of the wonderful tomato-and-cilantro soup, or a couple of stewed cherrystones and mussels in their hinged brass pot (cute, but awkward in practice) would have done it. But I'm sure we'd be equally wanton in Malouf's backyard. Even the wood-roasted oysters and the arugula with roasted fingerlings seem essential.

Serious flubs marked an earlier dinner -- flavorless baby lamb, rather listless Argentine rib eye, and a chewy lamb shank that returned to the kitchen barely dented. But the triumphs of the most recent tasting make me dare to hope the kitchen is finding its strength. We're actually able to greet dessert as if we were famished. Malouf's homage to the Rainbow must be his soufflés. Not my thing unless they're transcendent, and these are only halfway there. But I'm won by the honey-lemon custard with moscato-steeped blood orange. And the magic in mere vanilla ice cream (okay, homemade and organic) with caramel sauce and a couple of tuiles is astounding.

If pangs of conscience inspire you to reject the gift bag of bread or rolls at the exit, swallow the pangs. You won't regret it come breakfast.

Beacon, 25 West 56th Street (332-0500). Lunch, Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, till 11. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.


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