It's not the most exclusive club in the world—in January this year it counted over a thousand members—but for ambitious chefs, serving a meal to members of the James Beard Foundation is a signal of arrival at a new career plateau. This week Philip Mihalski, owner-chef of Nell's Restaurant on the shores of Green Lake, is in the spotlight—and hot seat—in the late master's own Greenwich Village town house on West 12th Street. The honor of preparing a "Beard banquet" includes the honor of paying for transportation, supplying most of the kitchen staff, and procuring most of the ingredients (an expensive proposition for a West Coast chef). For Mihalski, the dinner is a kind of return to his roots. A reformed commercial real-estate salesman, the Cornell political philosophy grad got his restaurant start in New York, albeit at the top end, as pantryman at Jean-Michel's Diot's Park Bistro. He topped off a two-year tenure in the kitchen at David Burke's River Cafe with a six-month working tour of some of France's two- and three-star Michelin restaurants. Emigrating with his social-worker wife to Seattle, Mihalski spent two years as part of Tom Douglas' Dahlia team, then moved into full control of a kitchen during two busy years at Marco's Supper Club. He had long cherished vague dreams of owning "his own place"; the opportunity to do so arose upon the retirement of kitchen legend Saleh Joudeh. A month after Saleh al Lago closed its doors in fall of 1999, Nell's opened in the same space. Success came quickly. A rave in The Seattle Times in January was followed by three raves in a row in the same week from the P-I, Seattle Weekly, and Sidewalk. Mihalski's cuisine isn't showy, but its chaste concentration on perfectly matched seasonal fare makes it manna for diners weary of overfussy cooking with underwhelming ingredients. Mihalski's Beard menu (previewed to some lucky well-wishers on Aug. 28) is classic Nell's: a cup of fresh tomato soup with a swirl of tarragon cream; a dollop of fresh crab mingled with slivers of raw apple and radish; crispy wonton triangles topped with autumn-orange salmon roe in a nest of cr譥 fraiche; brown-seared scallops afloat in a velvety basil-tinged white-corn puree. An invitation to cook in Beard's kitchen doesn't guarantee a chef or restaurant a nomination for a Beard Award, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Mihalski's menu should place him well in the running. What do you have going on the side? E-mail email@example.com.