Priced the way it is, run with such self-esteem and unforced polish, Payard recalls what an effortless, sophisticated, affordable pleasure dining without fuss can be. To insure this, Francois Payard has taken his place alongside Maguy Le Coze, Karen Waltuck, Sirio Maccioni, Zarela Mertinez, as one of the most charming restaurant owners in town.
     Alas, my most humiliating and insurmountable problem is that Payard's a desserts destroy any hope of rational appraisal. They am unbelievable, fabulous, gorgeous, luscious, amazing, fun, and worth skipping all the meat and potatoes for. How can one make the uninitiated understand that in something as small as a Mont-Saint-Michel is such an explosion of coconut dacquoise, mango-and-passionfruit mousse, and raspberries as to make grown humans squeal? That a pistachio dacquoise mixed with wild cherries in a Chinon produces involuntarily the bright-eyed radiance one sees on the faces of young women in a jewelry store. The blend of chocolate and caramel mousse in a Fontainebleau, the dense, tart chocoholic rapture in the barely sweet chocolate tart, the creamy bliss of a Saint-Honore, the moan that accompanies a forkful of a be-still-my-tongue raspberry napoleon, and the best-yes, the best--crème brûlée I know of. This is what many of us secretly hold as reasons for living.
     I give up. All that's left is to turn to someone more erudite, less impassioned, and at this point more same than me, who can explain succinctly how you should treat yourself as you deserve to be treated. To borrow from the great Mel Brooks, go to Payard, and "Let your tongue throw a party for your mouth." I, for one, may never stop celebrating.

Payard Patisserie & Bistro, 1032 Lexington Avenue (between 73rd and 74th Streets). Often Monday through Saturday. Bakary opens at 7 a.m. Lunch noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner, 6-10:30 p.m. (11 on Friday and Saturday). Appetizers, $8-$12, entreess $17-$24. All major credit cards.

Payard Patisserie & Bistro
1032 Lexington Avenue, near 74th Street
(717-5252).

These classic French canapes have an artistic temperament. A tray of 40 is arranged in a checkerboard-caviar with quail egg, smoked salmon topped with pearl onion, tapenade and olives, country French ham with cornichons, cream cheese and chives with a kiwi wedge, prosciutto, and butter. Also included: a small "pain surprise"--a loaf of country bread stuffed with 30 triangular finger sandwiches--Roquefort and walnut, smoked salmon with lemon butter, ham, pâté, and prosciutto. The whole she-bang is tied up with a large golden ribbon. You'll have to heat "l'assortiment de feuilletés," about 40 miniature buttery pastries, including pissaladière, quiche, pâté, pizza, olive and tapenade feuilleté. Price: $103, tax included. Order 24 hours in advance; no delivery. Store open Monday through Saturday, 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., Sunday 9 A.M. to 4 P.m.