IT IS VERY uncool in food circles these days to present fussed-over gourmet food. Even the word "gourmet" has become a culinary slur. Most of the prissy French preparations have gone down the tubes. So we have done a very uncool thing here -- searched for the best pate in Washington, a relic from the old school. Maybe, like winged rhinestone glasses, pate is so out it's in.

Just in case, here are some pointers. The pate phylum breaks down like this: Terrines are leftovers of game, rabbit or pork lined with fat, baked without a crust in a casserole, Galatines are boned birds or fish stuffed with pate and poached, and rillette is cooked, shredded pork mixed with lard and seasonings. A pate en croute is wrapped in puff pastry or crust. Most pates are really terrines.

But then pate is subdivided into two basic groups: maison -- smooth, finely minced liver and/or meat -- and de campagne (country) which is coarser than maison , more dramatic in taste, made from a combination of pork, liver, garlic and herbs. The very expensive pate de foie gras is a combination of bloated goose liver, brandy, fat and -- often -- truffles.

In the spirit of the new school, maybe it would be easier to think of pate as jumped-up meatloaf or punk chicken livers.

When we tasted and compared the various styles of pate we looked for, most importantly, freshness; the correct amount of fat in relation to meat (pates are often weighed to press out excess fat); and proper seasoning. Only the take-out pates were tasted, no specific restaurant pates.

Pate should be eaten with crusty French bread that those chubby men who never take off their berets in French movies usually spread with butter.The pate should be accompanied with tiny sour pickles (cornichons ).

Here are our results: Washington's Best

The Bread Oven, 1220 19th St. NW: Three types are available, but the outstanding one is the maison : a sweet, light pink, creamy puree with a buttery wine flavor. Fresh and homemade. Even the liver-haters loved it.

Wagshal's Deli, 4855 Massachusetts Ave. NW: This homemade shredded veal pate is well-seasoned and fresh, more akin to a rillete than a terrine. Excellent.

Francois's Pate, the Georgetown Market, 3206 Grace St. NW: The best of the chunky, homemade, peasant-style pate de campagne -- very fresh, evenly mixed with liver, meat and fat, spicy. Disappointments

Les Trois Petits Cochons is one of the most widely available brands of pate in Washington. It is unfortunate what has happened to this New York-based charcuterie's terrines. Four years ago they were written up in The New York Times, Forbes, New York Magazine, Cue, The New Yorker and Food & Wine, given excellent reviews and encouraged. Then The Three Little Pigs branched out.

At the beginning of this year they were given approval by the USDA to mass produce their no-chemical, no-preservative, no-additive pates to sell outside of New York. We were very disappointed. We tasted them three times to make sure there wasn't an off batch, but the results remained the same:

Poivre vert (with green pepper-corns) -- salty, gritty, rubbery pork and pork liver. Dull.

Canard a la Orange -- made from coarsely ground duck liver and meat, peppered with pistachio nuts; heavy anise, not orange, flavor. Tasters rated it "just okay."

de Campagne -- the best of The Three Little Pigs' brand available in Washington, but still mediocre. Made of pork liver and veal, seasoned with cognac and herbs.

Available at: The Cheese Shop of Springfield Mall, Springfield; Aspen Hill Wine & Cheese, Aspen Hill; Old World Market, Bethesda; The Cheese Shop, Laurel; Capital Hill Wine & Cheese, NW; Harry's Wine & Cheese, NW; Sir Cheese & Liquor, NW; The American Cafe on Capitol Hill, Bloomingdale's and Bradley Food & Beverage and other locations. Palatable Pate

Toni's Pate (337-7283) is the second most widely available pate in Washington and certainly a better choice. Six varieties are made (not all locations sell all six, however) -- campagne, maison, pork, terrine with pistachios, de fois and duck. Our tasters preferred the campagne, which was chunky, well-weighted and properly spiced with pepper and the fresh, coarse maison.

Availabe at: Cork & Board, McLean; Cheese & Bottle, Arlington; The Cheese Shop, Laurel; Calvert La Cheeserie, NW; Eagle Wine & Cheese, NW; Food Mart, NW; Larimers, NW; Bloomingdale's; Calvert Gourmet, Reston; Vie de France, NW; Georgetown Wine & Food and other locations.

The French Market, 1632 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (338-4828): The galatine and en croute fresh game pates -- rabbit and venison -- (call for availability) are the specialties here. They are excellent.

The maison is adequate, but not distinctive; the super creamy pate extra has a heavy liverwurst taste and the campagne was not properly weighted, making it too moist, fatty and crumbly.

La Chesserie of Alexandria, 419 Washington St., Alexandria, makes a very respectable pate de campagne -- chunky, well-weighted, slightly livery and seasoned with peppercorns. Passable Pates

Charcuterie Tour Eiffel, Laval Quebec, Canada: This company exports six variations to America -- cognac (biah, no cognac taste), de fois (more like bologna than liver), au poivre (coarse, salty and briny) and champagion which is a well-spiced smooth pate.

Available at Georgetown Wine and Cheese. A Belgian (liverwurst in a crock) brand pork pate is also sold in small, seven-ounce pottery bowls ($3.89).

Parival of New York: Bland pate de fois tht tastes like it came out of a can. Not recommended. Sold at Potomac Wine and Cheese, Potomac; Wine & Cheese Shop, NW; Gourmet International, College Park; and other locations.

Deli on the Strand, 211 The Strand, Old Town, Alexandria (548-7222): Very heavy on the liver flavor, briny, salty, unsubtle smell like blood sausage.

Ilija's International Gourmet Shoppe, 5441 Mac Arthur Blv. NW: One sort-of-pate is good, and perfectly seasoned except it is really chopped chicken liver. The other pork, veal and liver pate is extremely salty, peppery and gritty.

The Cheese Shop, Tysons Corner, McLean, Va. (893-5535): Ms. Littlefield bards her pate with white, sour-cream cheese . . . so, naturally, it tastes like liver-flavored cream cheese. Boo.