Bread remains the most romantic as well as the most basic of foods. This is true despite a transformation in recent times that threatened to reduce all the songs and poems about the "staff of life" to a monotonal echo. Theonly "bread" most Americans knew was a mass-produced, pasty-colored, sponge-textured pin-cushion made "nutritious" with a handful of vitamins and minerals.

Inevitably, or so it now seems, a reaction set in. Handcrafted bread has become a major symbol of the resurgence of interest in home cooking. The variety of breads available in supermarkets increased dramatically.Some of the achievement at the commercial level has had more to do with cosmetics than quality, however. It is easier to alter bread's shape and color than to improve its texture and taste.

One school of thought maintains that bread "tastes better" in Europe because ingredients there are of better quality. Another likes to think in terms of tradition: the bread is so good because it is baked in limited quantities by skilled craftsmen using old-fashioned mtethods. Some people cite both quality and tradition in arguing that great bread can't be produced here on a commercial scale.

A French emigre named Christian Doumergue didn't believe it. His confidence and perseverance have led to the Bread Oven, a testimonial to the baker's craft in a most unlikely location: 1220 19th St. NW, between M and N.

That's prime, high-rent office space. So opening a bakery there was a Doumergue puts it, "very risky." How could enough bread and pastries be turned out by a few craftsmen to justify the cost per square foot? Even though the concept was broadened to include food service, it's not an area in which anyone with money is likely to go hungry. The Palm is directly across the street and the Apple Tree is next door. Other restaurant's, numbering a score or more, are within a block's walk.

But three months after the Bread oven opened, it's clear the formula is working.

If bread is only 70 cents a loaf and pastries sell for $1.35 (95 cents to take out), you had better sell a lot of them. So the Bread Oven opens at 8 a.m. weekday mornings.Customers help themselves to superb croissants, brioche or other pastries and choose among 10 teas or nearly a dozen and a half coffee preparations. At lunch, vast quantities of French bread are consumed. From 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., pastries tea and coffee are on sale again. Dinner begins at 6 and is served until 10 p.m. (until 11 on Friday and Saturday evenings). Throughout this 14-hour day breads and pastries are sold for home consumption and made in wholesale lots for a limited number of restaurant customers. Saturday during the day they offer an urban picnic that competes with brunches elsewhere and formula French menu at night.

But the star attraction is the bread. Customers - about 100 at capacity - sit at tables or a counter with a view of the ovens. Occasionally one of the two bakers will emerge from a workroom and deliver an offering to the oven or reclaim it. Along with this floor show, loaves of various shapes and sizes are on display. There's a cutting board next to the cash register. Sometimes Domergue will pacify those waiting for tables at lunchtime by passing along the line distributing samples.

That's all it takes. A bite or two and the grumbling stops because the bread is exceptional, the best - in the French style at least - ever produced here and probably anywhere else in this country.

The recipe is not for sale. Doumergue and his master baker, Jean Jacques Guillemenot, both mumble something about a mixture of three different flour, but decline to be specific. Otherwise, there is no magic. They endorse the quality of American ingredients and claim there is no secret in the technology they use.

"The flour here is good," Doumergue said. "It is not the key problem. Labor is the most important thing. This will make people mad, but I believe you will never find an American baker who will be able without years of training to make a decent loaf of bread. Ninety percent of French bakers have been trained since they were 12 or 14. Many were born in a bakery. That has to be worth something."

Guillemenot not only made an early start in his trade, he learned baking science as an employe and teacher for a French company that manufactures baking equipment. Uncharacteristically blond and brawny, he wears Addidas sneakers and a white sailor's cap on the job, the latter a souvenir from a sojourn in Boston. To him the space and equipment at the Bread Oven are "very good." With a nod at Doumergue he adds, "He followed my instructions."

That means, in part, taking a step backwards to a traditional form of oven. They decided against using a newer design , a revolving oven, because, according to Dourmergue, the dough is more compact and the loaf that emerges has a thinner crust. He dreams of stepping even further into the past sometime, someplace and using a brick-lined, wood-fired oven; but not at the Bread Oven. Safety regulations made such an installation impossible there.

Doumergue feels the "freshness" of his bread gives it a gread advantage over that sold elsewhere. Most local French bread is baked during the night and transported to stores and restaurants in the morning. At the Bread Oven, "We bake from 8 a.m. until whenever we want. Sales are on the scene, so we can control production to sell everything we produce."

As master of this three-ring culinary circus. Doumergue is neither a cook nor a baker. At 38, he has been a manual laborer, a salesman and general manager of the enormously successful Vie de France bread company.

"The toughest thing." Doumergue recalled, "was that I didn't know anything about restaurants. The first day we opened our doors I was in a panic. I take an order from a lady and then think, 'What am I going to write it on?" We had forgotten to buy guest checks.

"I fixed that. But it is a tough business, probably the toughest. And for this the major problem is human beings. Is it possible to find someone who cares enough to do the job."

At this juncture the skeptics are convinced his gamble was a sound one. He and his former colleagues at Vie de France are friendly, he reports, although there was some legal table-pounding when he left the firm and he had to stay out of the bread business for a year.

"But we aren't really competitors," he added. "They are strictly wholesale. On the other hand, Vie de France is rumored to be going into the restaurant business soon itself and both the Bread Oven's bread bakers came there from the Rockville operation. "They knew me," Doumergue said with a shrug. "They want to work with French people. What else could I do."

The fascination with bread and bread technology is evident in the arrangement of the workspace at the Bread Oven. There is lots of room - almost too much - around the ovens and behind the counter. The space is smaller and less convenient in the domain of pastry chef Marcel Messenet and the kitchen across a longer corridor has the feel of an elongated closet, with all the incovenience that implies.

Chef de Cuisine Roland Bouyat, a respected professional who commanded the kitchen at Chez Camille for more than a dozen years, does juggling acts to meet a demand for meals that far exceeds original projections.

"We want to be relaxed, informal, with a touch of class," Christian Doumergue said. "We want to recreate that truth of authentic French bread, and make money of course. It is a business."

Like many French chefs, Bouyat enjoys presenting lightly dressed vegetables - some raw, some cooked - as part of an hors d'oeurves platter. Shredded carrots, beets, potato salad, cucumber, celery root and green beans often are prepared individually and mixed vegetables are tossed with mayonnaise to make salade russe . The platter may include one or two pate samples, or some cold, sliced sausage or salami. A hardcooked egg split lengthwise and garnished with crossed anchovy fillets is a traditional centerpiece.

Home cooks can create a similar presentation easily. They need only prepare several vegetables and add mayonnaise to some and vinaigrette dressing (oil and vinegar mixed in a 3:1 or 4:1 proportion) to others with a restrained hand several hours before serving. Variations on vinaigrette may be created by adding powdered or wet mustard, capers or various herbs such as tarragon or chives.

Mayonnaise may be flavored with curry powder or herbs. Chef Bouyat uses spinach, watercress and herbs such as parsley and tarragon to make a "natural" green mayonnaise called Sauce Vincent. At the Bread Oven it is served with cold, poached salmon. He also has provided a recipe for stuffed zucchini. From the pastry kitchen, Chef Messenet offers his meringues with whipped cream and raspberries. SAUCE VINCENT (Makes 1 cup) 1 cup of mayonnaise, preferabbly homemade 1 1/2 cups chopped mixed greens, including spinach, parsley, tarragon (fresh if possible) and, as available, watercress, sorrel (in place of tarragon), cheril 1 tablespoon finely chopped chives (optional) 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley (optional)

Prepare the mayonnaise and let it rest. Place the greens in a towel. Wrap tightly and twist over a bowl to extract all the juices.Pour this liquid into a saucepan and bring to the boiling point. Drain off the water and stir the green matter that remains into the mayonnaise along with the optional chives and parsley.

Another approach is to place the greens in boiling water for a few seconds, plunge them into cold water, then drain and puree them in a blender, food mill or food processor. According to Larousse Gastronomique, chopped egg yolk (and white) may be added as well. STUFFED ZUCCHINI (4 or 8 servings) 4 zucchini 5 tablespoon butter 3 shallots or scallions, minced 1 tablespoon minced parsley 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1 cup fresh white bread crumbs Milk Salt and pepper 1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

Wash the zucchini and cut them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the pulp with a spoon or melon baller and chop it. Place the shells in a single layer in a buttered baking dish.

Heat 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan. Add the shallots, parsley and tomatoes. Cook over low heat until the tomatoes are soft. Add the zucchini pulp, increase heat and cook for about 5 minutes.

Soak the fresh bread crumbs in milk and squeeze them dry. Add to the saucepan, mix well and season with salt and pepper. Stuff the zucchini shells with this mixture and sprinkle with dry bread crumbs. Use remaining butter to dot the tops of each one. Bake in a preheated, 375-degree oven for 15 minutes. MERINGUE SHELLS WITH WHIPPED CREAM AND RASPBERRIES (10 servings) 3 egg whites 2 cups granulated sugar 1 cup heavy cream 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract From 10 to 60 raspberries, depending on finances and willingness to shares.

Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with waxed paper. Heat oven to 250 degrees.

Beat whites in a mixer until they form soft peaks, then gradually incorporate 1 1/2 cups sugar. Transfer to a pastry tube with a No. 4 star tube and swirl a circle of 3 1/2-inches diameter on the baking sheet, then swirl a lip about 1 1/4 inches high around the circumference. Repeat to make 10 shells. Bake for 2 hours, lowering temperature and changing position of baking sheet if shells appear to be cooking too fast. They should remain white. This may be done in the morning or the day before serving. But keep meringues in an air-tight container.

Up to 3 hours before serving, whip cream very firm with a scant half-cup of sugar and vanilla. Pipe it through the same tube into the meringue shells, making a circular shape that rises to a crest 1 to 1 1/2 inches above the lip of the shell. Top or dot with raspeberries and refrigerate until just before serving.