NEITHER SNOW nor sleet nor a blown fuse daunts a determined restaurateur once he makes up his mind, and he does that pretty quickly. That was the clearest lesson from "A Taste of America," the restaurant and winery showcase organized by the Inaugural Committee at Union Station last weekend.

The 37 restaurants with booths at the four-day snackathon arrived in Washington with days of frantic work already behind them. Maxim's de Paris (of Chicago) has trucked in 4,000 cream puffs to assemble into tree-high croquembouches on-site; the cream puffs alone had been a big job, as big as Hyatt Regency's 4,500 spring rolls. The Forge of Miami Beach had packed up 20 boxes just of "decor" -- copper chafing dishes and statuary for their booth -- not to mention 500 Blacksmith Pies. Park Schenley of Pittsburgh had already cleaned and carved "quite a few thousand" artichokes into neat little bottoms to stuff with crabmeat. An estimated $1,400 worth of salmon (not to mention "about $3,000 in taxi fares") had only begun Scandia of Los Angeles' expenditures of time and money. The three chefs of Giovanni's of St. Louis were accompanied by 30,000 tortellini. And seafood by the ton had been shipped up and down the coast: from Boston -- 500 pounds of scrod by Legal Seafood for chowder, 65 bushels of clams and oysters to be served raw and stuffed by Anthony's Pier 4, 28 bushels of mussels to be garlic-buttered by Charley's Crab of Detroit (about to open a branch in Washington). From Florida came 125 pounds of lobster plus 400 pounds of shells and heads for the bisque of La Vieille Maison in Boca Raton. Casa Grisante in Louisvile had brought 125 pounds of Caribbean conch (which was ten times the amount the committee had recommended to the restaurants), and had to send for 50 pounds more after two days.

Some of the restaurants had been invited only five days ahead of opening day, which meant that they had to plan and prepare at least 4,000 hors d'oeuvres, design a booth, leave their restaurants behind and ship everything to Washington in as few as 72 hours. They had to commit themselves to spending maybe $10,000 for an event that might or might not get off the ground. And be ready to work nearly around the clock for four days. The 17 wineries that participated with booths pouring free samples had it easier; they were notified earlier that some of the restaurants -- 10 days ahead -- and had only to arrange the availability of a couple hundred cases of wine through their local distributors. In fact, they even had time to wonder at the choice of wineries -- only three outside California -- made by organizer Bill Anton and his committee. The restaurants were similarly chosen by anton's group, and some of the most famous refused; the original plan had been for 60 restaurants.

Joe Patti of La Famiglia in Beverly Hills (six of the restaurants were from California, exceeded in number only by Washington's 10), arrived at Dulles airport at 6 a.m. last Thursday to a snowy city. A committee member was there to meet him, having awakened at 3:30 a.m. to do so. He was touched. "My mother wouldn't do it."

By Friday morning, the chefs were at crisis pitch, 11 of the restaurants (and later 20) cooking in a single GSI cafeteria kitchen at the Department of Energy, six at the D.C. Courthouse. Food deliveries from local suppliers were late, and the cafeteria was simultaneously serving 5,500 meals to government employees. When finally the supplies arrived, the trouble just began. The shrimp had not been peeled, so Patti and his staff had to do them -- 2,000 a day. The GSI staff pitched in to help. "If I knew what the situation would be, I would have had the food shipped in," Patti complained. Not only were the shrimp a problem, but a dozen or more staffs in one kitchen put a strain on the equipment supply. "I feel so bad for the dishwasher today," Patti said at the end of the cookathon. "The guy washed the same pot about 150 times because we all needed the same pot."

Giovanni Gabriele of Giovanni' had a different point of view as he emerged from the kitchen ready to greet the Union Station public in black tie with a white lace handkerchief in his pocket: "You got better ingredients here than in St. Louis . . . beautiful mushrooms, white, like meat."

The kitchen, besides being frantic, was a friendly scene, for the chefs all had acquaintances in common. They watched what one another were doing, were curious and maybe competitive, but certainly cooperative. They helped load each other's food and equipment into trucks, one medium-size woman catching a very large-size load as it nearly overturned. On the bus to Union Station, the conversation was non-stop, largely in Italian.

"The rest of the weekend will be more coordinated," one optimist promised.

"I hope so," several answered.

"How's your hand?" they asked after one chef, who'd had a bout with a small kitchen fire.

They traded recipes and names of restaurants in Washington, in case they had a moment off during the weekend. But with cooking each morning and serving an expected 40,000 people all afternoon, they doubted they would have any free time.

This was no shoestring production on the restaurants' part; they committed themselves to extravagance. At least 10 of them served lobster, shrimp and crab dishes; filet of beef or veal were served by three more, and snails by two. And the farther they came, the grander their production. Ernie's of San Francisco did pigeon en chartreuse (molds of pigeon and cabbage paved with carrot and turnip slices and a ring of artichokes) for three days and lobster boudins the fourth. The Sardine Factory of Monterey, Calif., served magnificent fresh Monterey Bay prawns in a white butter sauce. Turnberry Isle Yacht Club in Ft. Lauderdale made 800 lamb chops one day, veal chops another -- and had its own pastry chef fashioning marzipan roses.

Some of the least complicated or extravagant dishes were from Washington restaurants -- who, of course, didn't have to produce something worth the air fare. Mr. Smith's of Georgetown made strawberry daiquiris, Trudie Ball's Empress had sweet and sour spareribs one day, egg rolls another, Pier 7 had chowder, and Marriott's The View had zucchini curry soup -- though also snails in Pernod.

Soup was also served by Numbers; Bullfeathers has long loaves spread with steak tartare. American Cafe and Houlihan's presented their popular vegetarian standbys: sesame noodles and brocolli salad from the former (plus brownies), torte primavera (a crepe and vegetable cake) from the latter. Csiko's made its own spaetzle for its chicken paprikash. And the Hyatt Regency had an extravaganza of carpaccio, shrimp tempura and spring rolls, some of the best and most attractive of the foods in the tasting; they were, however, made by the Atlanta and Dearborn staffs of the hotel corporation.

At Union Station, 13 students and three chefs from Rhode Island's culinary college, Johnson and Wales, were available to help the chefs, but electricity was not -- at least until the blown fuse was replaced.

Lubricated by tastes of wine and Stroh's beer, which was particularly popular because its booth was showing boxing on television, the snack festival grew more and more festive. As word got around, it also grew more and more crowded. The second day, booths were reporting that half the food was gone in the first hour. A couple of times each day the exhibit was closed for an hour to restock booths and clear out the crowd so some from the long line at Union Station could be admitted. The exhibit was planned to entertain inaugural ticket holders while they waited in line to pick up their tickets, but there were far longer lines for the exhibit than for the ticket windows. People stayed longer and ate more than had been anticipated. Said one guard, "Some people have been here for three days."

"I'm going to the store. Do you want somethings?" one exhibitor asked around the hall, but it was a drop in the ocean of need.

Restaurateurs themselves were having a good time, feeling glad they had decided to spend the money, though with reservations. Gabriele called it "beautiful publicity," adding, "I don't mind to spend the $7,000, but I would mind if it kills my chef."

And the public repsonded even more positively. Between bites, John Brown, a high school teacher from Prince George's County, bragged, "We can say now we've eaten at Maxim's de Union Station." HYATT REGENCY CARPACCIO For the sauce: 1 cup mayonnaise 8-ounce jar digon mustard (they use Grey Poupon) 3/4 cup dry white wine (preferably chablis) Juice of 1/2 lemon 3 tablespoons horseradish, fresh if possible Dash of worcestershire Salt and cayenne pepper to taste Brandy, dill, or parsley (optional) For the beef: Beef tenderloin, trimmed of all fat and sliced paper-thin (plan about 2 ounces per person) For serving: Freshly grated parmesan Freshly cracked pepper French bread

To make the sause, mix all sauce ingredients and refrigerate until ready to use. Brandy, dill, parsley or other herbs may be added to taste.

The beef is most easily sliced if it is slightly frozen. Spread serving plate with a thin layer of sauce and arrange raw slices of beef on the plate. Sprinkle the beef with grated parmesan and pepper, and serve on thin slices of bread. THE SARDINE FACTORY'S MONTEREY BAY PRAWNS (4 to 6 servings) 2 pounds Monterey Bay prawns, medium size (large shrimp may be substituted) Salt, pepper, paprika to taste 1/2 cup olive oil 15 cloves, finely chopped 8 shallots, minced 1 cup white wine 1 cup white wine vinegar 1 cup heavy cream 1 pound butter, cubed Salt and white pepper to taste Parsley

Split prawns or shrimp, still in their shells, down the back. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika. Rub a baking sheet with enough of the olive oil to cover with a thin film, then with 1 teaspoon garlic. Set prawns on baking sheet and bake at 500 degrees for 4 minutes. To prepare sauce, saute shallots and garlic in remaining olive oil. Add wine and vinegar and bring to a boil; continue boiling until the liquid is nearly evaporated. Add cream and reduce by half to a thick consistency. Cut butter into cubes. Remove cream mixture from the fire and whisk in butter, cube by cube. If it gets too cold, you can heat the sauce slightly, but be careful not to boil it or it will liquefy. It should be just warm. Season with salt and white pepper. Pour over shrimp and sprinkle with parsley. THE SARDINE FACTORY'S MUSSELS IN BASIL SAUCE (An Ancient Roman Dish) (4 servings) 1 onion, finely minced 1 pinch saffron 1 cup olive oil 2 pounds mussels (about 20) 2 cups water 1 cup white wine 1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 1 bunch fresh basil Salt and white pepper to taste 2 tomatoes 1 clove garlic, chopped Olive oil for sauteing Parsley

Saute onion and saffron in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil. Remove from pot and set aside. In the same pot, put mussels, water and wine, adding more water if necessary to cover. Simmer a few minutes, just until the mussels open. Remove mussels from pot and strain the liquid. Return liquid to the pot and reduce by 2/3. Add onion mixture and basil. Season and simmer 5 minutes. Remove mussels from their shells and add to the sauce. Bring it to a boil and slowly whisk in the rest of the olive oil. Replace mussels with the sauce in halves of the shells and refrigerate. In the meantime, peel, seed and dice tomatoes. Saute in a little olive oil with 1 clove chopped garlic and a pinch of basil, for 4 minutes. Cool. Top each cold mussel with a little tomato mixture and sprinkle with parsley. ANTHONY'S PIER 4 BAKED CLAMS (4 to 6 servings) 2 dozen cherrystone or littleneck clams 1 cup clam juice reserved from the clams 1 stick butter 3 tablespoons flour 2 cloves garlic, chopped (about 1 teaspoon) 2 shallots, chopped (about 2 teaspoons) Parmeson cheese

Open clams, reserving juice, and chop them coarsley. Set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and stir in flour, cooking over moderate heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly and being careful not to let it brown. Gradually and 1 cup of clam juice, stirring constantly. (Add water to make 1 cup if there is not enough juice.) Bring to a boil, stirring, then let this sauce simmer over very low heat while you finish the preparation. Saute garlic, shallots and clams in 6 tablespoons butter for 2 minutes, or until clams begin to turn opaque. Add sauce to the clams and fill halves of clam shells with the mixture. Sprinkle lightly with parmesan cheese and bake at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until they just begin to bubble. ANTHONY'S PIER 4 CAPE SCALLOPS (6 servings) 1 stick butter 3 pounds fresh cape scallops 1 tablespoon fresh chives, minced 1 ounce dry sherry Pepper to taste

Melt butter and saute scallops with chives and sherry for 2 to 3 minutes, or just until the scallops turn opaque. Season with pepper. MUSSELS MUER FROM CHARLEY'S CRAB (4 to 6 servings) For the casino butter: 1 stick very soft butter 1/2 teaspoon minced parsley Dash of salt and white pepper 1/4 teaspoon minced pimiento 1/4 teaspoon minced green pepper 1/4 anchovy filet, minced 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon white wine For the mussels: 1/2 cup dry sherry 1/2 cup water 2 pounds mussels (about 20 to 25)

To make the casino butter, whip parsley, salt, pepper, pimiento, green pepper, anchovy and garlic into the butter. Then beat in the wine.

Bring casino butter, sherry and water to a furious boil in a large pot. Add mussels, cover and steam a few minutes, just until the mussels open. Serve with broth poured over the mussels. MAGYAR'S HUSSARS' KISSES 1 1/2 cups flour l egg, separated Grated rind of 1 lemon 3/4 cup unsalted butter 1/2 cup sugar Additional egg white if necessary 1/2 cup blanched almonds, ground Strawberry or apricot preserves

Blend flour, egg yolk, lemon rind, butter and sugar. Roll into walnut-size balls. Roll in slightly beaten egg white. Then roll in ground almonds. Place 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Press thumbprint into each cookie. Bake at 350 to 375 degrees, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool. Fill depressions of cookies with preserves. LA VIEILLE MAISON'S FLORIDA LOBSTER BISQUE (About 12 servings) 2 2-pound lobsters 1 stick butter l carrot, finely chopped l onion, finely chopped 2 celery stalks, finely chopped 2 cups dry white wine 2 quarts fish stock Salt 1/2 teaspoon thyme 3 bay leaves 1/2 cup rice 12 peppercorns l cup tomato puree 2 cups heavy cream 1 cup brandy

Separate heads and tails of lobster. Cook tails in water for 10 minutes. Dice tail meat into 1/8-inch pieces and set aside. Pound lobster heads as small as possible. Melt 1/2 of the stick of butter on high heat. Add lobster heads, carrot, onion and celery and saute until lightly colored. Add white wine, fish stock, salt, thyme, bay leaves, rice, peppercorns and tomato puree. Cook for 45 minutes.

Strain bisque through a fine sieve. Bring to a second boil, adjust seasoning and add remaining butter, cream and brandy. Add diced lobster tails and serve. CASA GRISANTI'S LUMACHE DI MARE ALLA LIGURE (About 12 servings) 3 pounds lumache di mare (conch) or other seafood 1 1/2 cups olive oil 3/4 cup red wine vinegar 2 lemons, juiced 1/2 teaspoon basil 1/2 teaspoon oregano 2 teaspoons dijon mustard 6 drops worcestershire sauce 6 drops tabasco sauce Salt and pepper to taste 1 large onion, sliced 1/8 cup parsley, chopped 2 tablespoons capers

Cook conch until tender in boiling water. Clean and remove stomach and siffon. Slice conch into l/8-inch slices and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, vinegar, lemon, basil, oregano, mustard, worcestershire sauce and tabasco. Add sliced conch and sliced onions. Toss and marinate for 6 hours. Serve with chopped parsley and capers. Accompany with toast points or whole wheat crackers. MAXIM'S DE PARIS CROQUEMBOUCHE For the puffs: 1 cups milk or water l/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup butter l cup sifted flour 4 eggs For the custard filling: 3 cups milk 3 tablespoons cornstarch 1/4 teaspoon salt 10 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons butter 2 eggs 2 egg yolks 1 teaspoon vanilla, rum or sherry For the caramelized sugar: 2 cups sugar 2 tablespoons water 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar 1/2 cup hot water For the creme anglaise: 4 egg yolks 1/4 cup sugar 1/8 teaspoon salt 2 cups half-and-half Vanilla for flavor

To make cream puffs, heat 1 cup milk or water with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup butter to boiling. Add 1 cup sifted flour and stir until it forms a ball. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, beating each one in thoroughly. Put batter into a pastry bag, squeeze puffs onto greased cookie sheet, and bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour.Cool.

For custard filling, scald 3 cups milk. Stir into mixture of 3 tablespoons cornstarch, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 10 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons butter. Beat 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks and pour milk mixture over them, stirring. Cook in double boiler until thickened. Cool, then add 1 teaspoon vanilla, rum or sherry.

For caramelized sugar, heat 2 cups sugar with 2 tablespoons water and 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar, over very low heat for 8 to 10 minutes or until sugar is slightly colored. Add 1/2 cup very hot water slowly. Cool over ice.

To prepare creme anglaise, beat yolks with sugar and salt. Scald half-and-half and gradually stir into yolk mixture. Heat, stirring, in double boiler or over very low heat just until sauce coats the spoon. Do not boil.Add vanilla.

To begin assembly, punch hole in each cooled puff and fill with custard squeezed from a pastry bag. Spoon a little of the caramelized sugar over each puff.

Build the croquembouche on a greased cake pan by making a ring of puffs around the edge of the pan. To form cone, dip each puff in the caramelized sugar and mound 1 ring on top of another, slanting toward the center until cone is built. To serve, remove puffs and place on individual plates. Pour creme anglaise over each puff.