For some cooks, there was no life before Sutton Place Gourmet. To a neighborhood that was growing in population and commercial development but at a standstill for food shopping, came this three-ring circus of a food shop, calling itself no less than "the nation's largest and finest 'one-stop' gourmet department store."

That's a monumental claim to live up to, and Sutton Place doesn't even come close. It does do a lot of things, however, and some of them very well. The variety is particularly useful; you could take your dinner list and find everyting it demands, from fresh pasta to fresh basil to dress it with. There is a large produce counter, its prices meant to compete with supermarkets. The cheese counter is outstanding, with some special things like a creamy German blue, the hard-to-find and super-rich Brillat-Savarin and brie as low as $4 a pound. The fresh meats look top quality. There is a fish counter with smoked fish that is sometimes excellent, a candy counter, a wine section (plus beers and freshly squeezed orange juice), a coffee and spice counter, a bakery counter. You can even find truffled rice, or arrange a catered party to include limousine service and hotel accommodations. The frozen food selection is especially intriguing, with the best available ice creams and sherbets as well as the fanciest of freezer appetizers and main dishes.

But the one-stop refers to checkout; at each counter you must wait for service, which can be slow at busy times. The culinary weakness at Sutton Place Gourmet is its salad and entree counter. Salad choices are exotic, from tarama to caponata, but they were pleasant at best. Chicken salad was watery and more salad than chicken; potato salads -- there were two -- were well seasoned, but the potatoes varied from mushy to undercooked. Each salad has its own flaw: too much vinegar in the tomato pasta, bitter aftertaste in the creamy pasta with green peppers. Among hot dishes, the ones we tried tasted like cafeteria food -- steamy and soggy, oversauced. The barbecued chicken was super-sweet and would have overwhelmed whatever meat tried to take it on. The best of our lot? Ms. Desserts cheese bread -- a yeasty dough with a core of swiss cheese -- and the diary products -- Sutton Place's special cottage cheese and the cream cheese that is sold at the cheese counter. sThe bakery offers a mixed bag: some competent and lovely home-style breads and largely indifferent pastries.

This is a good place to buy the ingredients for a picnic, particularly if you follow the special sales; but your picnic will probably benefit from your cooking it yourself rather than having Sutton Place's kitchen do your work. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mon. through Sat.; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sun. Moderate.