COOKING FOR two puts you at your most vulnerable. Cooking for one is like flossing your teeth: Everybody has to do it from time to time, but nobody is going to ask you how it went. And cooking for eight is relatively safe because your guests will be more worried about divvying up the artichoke hearts in the salad than about the nuances of your Bordelaise.

But cooking the perfect dinner for two -- whether you're entertaining a lover, spouse, co-worker or in-law -- exposes you and your creation to undivided scrutiny.

Pulling off the perfect dinner a deux does not require taking your grandmother's diamonds out of the vault or borrowing the neighbor's butler. It mear eliminating all the extraneous elements in advance -- buying new candles, arranging fresh flowers or washing the tablecloth -- so thatl you can forget the environment and concentrate on the company. It's a variation of Murphy's Law: the atmosphere expands to fill the dining room.

You are more important than the entree. Food should reflect your own personality and not Helen Gurley Brown's or Hugh Hefner's. If you don't like Pierre Cardin, go easy on the creme fraiche. If you find Gentleman's Quarterly stuffy, don't kipper herring. Don't represent yourself as fais gras if you are really chopped chicken liver.

Learn to gauge the mood of your food as well as of your diner. The dainty or inhibited eater may find it hard to abandon himself to the messy delights of whole lobster or corn on the cob and fried chicken. Certain ethnic cuisines will inevitably arouse various romantic impressions: Italian earthy, French amorous, Indian exotic, Japanese mysterious.

At the same time, what you serve says much about your own mood. Pounded-thin breast of chicken in a white wine sauce hints of ethereal passion, but rare rack of lamb is decadent and you might as well enjoy it.

Exploit the textures of food -- the slickness of sour cream, the muskiness of maroilles cheese, the briskness ofcitrus fruit. Don't design an all-soft or all-spicy menu; the palate delights in contrast.

And don't expect the perfect menu to replace Miss Lonelyhearts. If romance is in the air, the aroma of onions will not stifle it (slow it down, maybe); a 12-course banquet is as likely to cause heartburn as to warm a cold fancy. Nevertheless, for those who are teetering on the verge, and who wish to gauge the more blatant and more subtle options, here is a Column A-Column B approach to the culinary seduction.

Raw oysters and champagne are the classic erotic poly, whether or not, like Don Juan and Madame DuBarry and Casanova, you believe in its aphredisiac properties (the legend may well be suggestive enough). Black caviar and iced vodka is potent and uninhibited and exhiliarating; caviar with champagne slightly more delicate and sensuous.

Fresh shad roe has the same fertile associations as caviar, but avoids political argument and what some people react to as caviar's "swooning Chopin" connotations. Or hedge your bets by whipping red caviar with a little olive oil and offering it as taramosalata.Cost may be a factor: Do you want to put your heart and a month's allowance on the line, or just your heart?

Hors d'oeuvres may be served as a prelude to going to the table, but with the salad, the mood begins.

Salad should refresh the tongue, while invoking some emotion of its own. A truly ripe avocado reclines langorously on a bed of mixed greens.Fresh pale endive with sliced raw mushrooms and vinagrette seems aloof and slightly melancholy. Raw scallops marinated in rice wine and lime juice and ginger root give a hint of your adventuresome spirit. Or for a more outdoorsy mood, soften sliced mushrooms in vinagrette and toss with broken raw red cabbage.

The entree is the only portion of the meal which should lure you into the kitchen for more than a moment; if you need a minute alone, invent a basting routine, but don't prepare a dish that requires constant attention. If the weather's warm, keep your cool by serving vihysoisse or a voluptuous cold lobster bisque.

Choose a dish that will either simmer comfortably out of sight for a while -- blanquette de veau or a coq au vin, which offers that heady aroma as a fringe benefit -- or one that can be prepared in a flash: baby lamb chops (swiftly grilled) or scallopini (sauteed).

Don't start off by trying to play the wine label game. It's safer, and less nerve-wracking, to serve a dependable table wine in a plain carafe or decanter and leave the Rothschild for another night.

Adorn the dish with vegetables, don't load it down. Saute little fresh Brussels sprouts in a lot of butter until browned outside and crisp inside. Eating an artichoke -- espeically sharing one - turns into a real Tom Jones scene. Asparagus is Freudianly sensuous. Or in a simple, earthy moment, slice realy fine garden tomatoes and dress with basil and vinagrette.

Don't rush from the main course into dessert; you may want to linger over the wine. If you make a souffle, don't time it to come out 25 minutes after the entree is served.

There's nothing you can't say with dessert. Chocolate mousse is a seduction in itself. A chocolate fondue is just as glorious, but less of a personal experience and more of a duet. For a Cole Porter touch, combine Mandarin orange sections with broken fancy bittersweet chocolate; or for the most deliberate erotic display, set out fresh strawberries and bowls of sour cream and brown sugar and dip them for each other.

The after-dinner drink is your last chance to make a statement. Expensive cognac is old-leather aristocratic, Green Chartreuse over cracked ice is the height of decadence, and a tumbler of neat whiskey is extremely succinct. If you're going to serve coffee, use freshly-ground beans for maximum aroma, and flavor. "Cream" means cream, no substitutes.

A last reminder: while in quality, more is not enough, in quantity less is plenty. Too great consumption may cause the most promising meal to sink under its own weight. CAPTION: Picture, no caption