Desserts were likewise calamities: On every visit I tried the fruit tart ($3.95), and each time I got an old, soggy, refrigerator-tasting crust topped with a few fresh berries and a flat berry sauce. The bourbon pecan pie also tasted strongly of the refrigerator. There is simply no way to relax and enjoy the show with such a minefield of a dining experience.

On the other hand (Here, kitty, kitty! I make nice now!), I do have three compliments for Backstage. First let's all praise the bartenders, because they serve the most enormous cocktails, generously sent out like old-fashioned malts--not only do you get your drink, but you get to keep the pint-glass shaker with another entire serving in it. Let me re-emphasize this point for all the world's hooch aficionados--for $6 worth of manhattan, martini, cosmopolitan or any such cocktail served neat (no ice), you're really getting two, perhaps three drinks. I also had two tasty dishes on my very last visit; the mussels ($7.95), in a buttery sauce of bacon, garlic, and thinly sliced leeks, were tender and very good, and a Southwestern chicken cordon bleu ($17.95) was extraordinary, a tender half-bird in a rich blue-cheese sauce served with a hunk of cayenne-touched blue corn bread and a little julienned ham. I think of that bird as a phoenix, a bright star rising on the horizon, betokening a new future, a coming joy, an end to the present crisis.

TABLEHOPPING:

BEE'S KNEES: Been by the Buckingham Bee? It's a sweetheart of a Victorian tea room up in White Bear Lake (2179 Fourth St.) that first came to my attention when it participated in the Walker Art Center's 10th anniversary celebration of the Sculpture Garden, at which all the featured edibles were cherry-related (you know, Spoonbridge and...). The Bee's Kathleen Boehm Lindenberg, an avowed Anglophile, showcases her collection of antique ceramic transferware in the tea room, and serves traditional English tea and baked treats all week. But it's on Fridays and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. that Boehm Lindenberg really goes all out, with a formal three-course brass-bell tea. You'll start out with a course of finger sandwiches and fruit, ring your bell when you're ready for a course of scones, Devonshire cream, and preserves, and ring again for the pièce de résistance, a two-tiered server filled with an assortment of five sweets. Every so often Boehm Lindenberg also hosts full-fledged costume teas, like the Great Gatsby Roaring '20s Tea on September 27, and a Madeline French Tea on October 18. Both the Brass Bell tea ($12.95) and the theme teas ($15.95) require reservations; call 653-9533.

Buckingham Bee Tea Room's

Cherry Clementines

* 4 cups flour

* 1/2 cup sugar

* 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons baking powder

* 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar

* 1 heavy pinch salt

* 21/2 cups heavy whipping cream

* 2 large eggs

* cherry preserves

* pearl sugar

* milk

Blend dry ingredients well with a wire whisk. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs well, then blend in the heavy cream. Pour mixture into the dry ingredients and blend quickly with a wooden spoon. Place dough on a lightly floured surface. Knead gently to work in any loose flour, pat out dough, and then roll to a quarter-inch thick. Cut with a 4-inch circular biscuit cutter. Place rounds on a parchment-paper-covered baking sheet. Place a generous tablespoon of top-quality cherry preserves on one half of each round, fold the other half over the preserves and pinch edges together. Brush with milk and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake in a 350º oven for 15 to 17 minutes until golden.

Yield: 14 clementines. Can be assembled ahead and frozen; thaw one hour before baking.

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