Four Frenchmen, three of them chefs and one a maitre d', were sitting around a table in Washington sipping champagne and examining raw liver. Not the dark, ruddy and supple liver one usually expects from beef, calves or even chickens, but liver as pale as an eggshell, liver from ducks but as big as one might imagine from a much larger animal--say, a lamb or a calf.

The French call it foie gras, fat liver, and though it comes from a duck it is likely to weigh well over a pound, compared to about three ounces from a normal duck. It is the liver from a duck that has been fattened--traditionally, in France, force-fed through a funnel several times a day for about a month--until that organ is so infused with fat that the liver can nearly melt away in a hot pan. Foie gras, whether from duck or from goose, practically melts in the mouth, tastes almost like butter with the mildest meaty undertones. Foie gras is to normal liver what caviar is to tuna fish. And like caviar it is rare, expensive and consumed sparingly.

Unlike caviar, importing the raw product is illegal, though it is legal to import pre-cooked foie gras. Thus the raw foie gras slices that were about to be cooked came from two unexpected sources. One liver had been clandestinely imported raw from France, while the other was a new American product, fresh raw foie gras raised in New York's Catskill Mountains. The French version this particular evening was not the best of its genre--veiny and too pink for See FOIE GRAS, E16, Col. 1 FOIE GRAS, From E1 top quality--though the few illegal imports that these days make their way into America's restaurants are often superb.

The American foie gras thus compared favorably, but despite the variations found in such a natural product it typically is somewhat less than the best, being marginally more bland, less velvety and more variable in size and cooking quality than a Frenchman would seek. But it sure beat the alternatives--finding smuggled livers, which a few restaurateurs occasionally serve, or making do with precooked, USDA-approved imports.

Thus the fresh American foie gras, produced by Commonwealth Enterprises Ltd., under the label Canard de la Montagne, and distributed by De Choix Specialty Foods Inc., of New York, has the French restaurant community in happy anticipation. Even though the livers cost more than those in France, $35 a pound to restaurants (none are being sold retail yet), and despite their being, according to chef Yannick Cam of Le Pavillon, erratic enough in quality that often he has to relegate them to mousses, the chefs are buying them as fast as they can get them. Jean-Pierre restaurant has bought at least 15. Jean Louis Palladin is using 14 a week in his restaurant. They've appeared on the menus of Le Lion d'Or, La Miche, Les Ambassadeurs, the Jockey Club and the Old Angler's Inn. American foie gras is being saute'ed with pears, baked with baby leeks or pearl onions, stuffed into brioche, tossed with truffles and noodles, perfumed with armagnac or port. Or it is just being savored unsullied by anything but a two-minute grilling in a hot pan or a 12-minute roasting in a 400-degree oven with no more fussing than a single turn and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.

The livers are produced by crossing male muscovy and female pekin ducks, resulting in mullards, a sterile--and silent--crossbreed that must be artificially inseminated to produce the ducklings that are raised for their livers as well as for their breast meat. The ducklings are fed normally for the first seven to eight weeks, then put in cages, several ducks to a cage, and "manually fed" several times a day for three to four weeks, as Howard Josephs, owner of the New York farm, describes it. While the French generally raise ducks for foie gras only in the cooler months, Josephs raises his in controlled atmosphere year round. Josephs, a real estate entrepreneur, brought in Israeli foie gras experts as consultants to convert a former chicken farm to a foie gras operation, and plans eventually for the company also to process the livers into pa te's and semi-cooked vacuum-packed whole livers.

And that's about all that Josephs will tell. He has refused to let reporters visit the farm, insisting that the breeding operation, hatchery, feed and feeding methods are "trade secrets." When asked, Josephs stated that there is no force-feeding, and that the birds are fed a high-protein formula--corn with "some calcium and a bunch of other little stuff like that"--that makes them want to overeat.

Josephs grew angry when he talked about what he has had to put up with as a foie gras producer. "Fifty percent of the people in the U.S. think we are smugglers," he complained, saying that they assume he is secretly importing livers rather than growing them. He found the rounds of USDA inspections and inquiries a burden. (The livers have passed all the government's tests.)

Foie gras has traditionally been produced in other countries by force-feeding, and those people who have thought about foie gras at all have generally assumed it has not been produced in the United States largely because force-feeding is illegal here. Actually, it is not illegal in the United States, nor is overfeeding. New York's humane laws address only failure to feed, not overfeeding. Furthermore, according to Sienna LaRene, attorney for the Michigan Humane Society and author of a book on cruelty to animals, cruelty laws exempt justifiable behavior, and food products fall into that area. While farm animal legislation is an active front for humane societies, she added, "It is extremely difficult for anybody to try to promote cruelty legislation when it applies to farmers." Food, even liver pa te', is considered necessary. Now courts more sensitive to humane issues have begun to look at treatment of animals raised for food (other than foie gras) and to question justifiability of cruelty to them, according to LaRene.

Eleanor Molbegott, a lawyer with New York's ASPCA, said that it is not force-feeding that is the issue, but overfeeding--which creates undue stress on the body and has the same physiological repercussions whether or not it is force-feeding--and overcrowding of the animals. Josephs finds his ducks not to be suffering, rather, remarkably hearty and healthy--and affectionate. "The mullard is the nicest pet you'd ever want to have," he said. "He'll follow you around forever . . . It just so happens that mullards have very nice personalities . . . It's too bad you have to kill them."

In the meantime, Josephs is about to get some competition from Ohio, where Guy Michiels has brought 20 years of food-purveying experience and a feeding process developed by the University of Belgium to produce foie gras in New Albany, near Columbus. "For the moment we make experience," said Michiels, whose company is called Gastrofrance Inc., but by January he plans to be making foie gras. Michiels, whose mullards will be a cross between male muscovy and female orpington ducks, says his feed, too, is high-protein, though fed to the ducks in conjunction with lots of salted water, for a period of 18 days after they are 3 months old. The salted water plus the mullard being a "natural gourmand", as Michiels' staff describes the breed, preclude the necessity of force-feeding, according to Michiels. The Belgians have been working on this process for five years, he said, and it is also now being used in Bordeaux. His plan calls for 150,000 ducks a year, their livers to sell for about $25 a pound, closer to the price in France than Joseph's price. His first samples are expected to be available in March.

Washington's chefs are probably already laying in a supply of champagne for the next taste-off.