THE TURKISH-Hungarian war was not going exceptionally well for the people of Budapest in 1686. The Turks were slowly sneaking up on the city by digging underground passages while everyone was asleep. They would have succeeded if it wasn't for the bakers who worked during the night.

They heard the din made by the tunneling Turks, sounded the alarm and warned the city in time for a successful attack by the defense. To reward the heroic bakers the city fathers granted them the privilege of making a special pastry in memory of the Ottoman flag emblem - a half moon or crescent.

As it turned out, it wasn't much of a reward. Crescent rolls, or croissants, are a lot of work.

If you were to start making croissants, at 4 p.m. this afternoon and you set your alarm to ring every two hours through the night so you could fold and roll out the dough six times chilling in between; if you followed the recipe exactly and didn't fall over from heat prostration, you could serve a nice batch of flaky, buttery croissants for an 8 a.m. breakfast the next day.

To explain a 16-hour recipe in shorthand, croissants are a variation of puff pastry. A yeast dough is prepared and left to rise. Then the dough is slathered with butter and a subjected to a series of rollings, turns and foldings to create thin alternate layers of dough and butter. After five or six turns, risings and chillings, the dough is again rolled out and cut into triangles. Each triangle is rolled into a cylinder, ending at the pointed end. The ends are curved toward the middle and finally baked.

Despite the time it takes to make them, croissants are best eaten within an hour of baking. Day-old croissants can be refreshed by moistening with a sprinkle of water and reheating for 5 or 6 minutes in a preheated 400-degree oven.

The Food Section set out in search of the best croissant in Washington and visited those bakerys that make their own versions. They were all eaten cold (ideally, they should be served warm with butter or jam) and judged for the essential qualities: Buttery flavor, flaky golden outside and airy layers of soft pastry within, equal toasting from ends to middle and freshness.

The American Cafe's croissants were superior, up to all requirements.

American Cafe, 1211 Wisconsin Ave., NW (337-3600) and 227 Massachusetts Ave. NE (547-8200). Made especially for the cafe by Pastries Francais of Rockville, these croissants were lusciously plump (4 inches thick), evenly cooked, perfectly wrapped and glazed golden brown. A pound of butter is used in each dozen of the best croissants in Washington. 75 cents each.

Les Delicies, 4200 Wisconsin Ave., NW (244-1164). Golden crust evenly baked. Each thin layer of dough is light and airy. 60 cents each.

The Bread Oven, 1220 19th St., NW (466-4264). Also available at Kramer Afterwards Cafe. Freshly baked each morning, the croissants were flaky, but there was a greasy taste and they were unevenly baked. The inside was heavy and raw while the ends of the croissants were almost burnt. Ask for a lightly toasted batch and you may get better quality. 60 cents retail, 75 cents at the table. The pain au chocolate (chocolate-filled croissant) was superb.

Jerusalem Deli, 1013 D St., NW (638-0553). Nicely folded and nicely glazed, but tough, not buttery, not flaky. One tester said it left a "Wonder Bread aftertaste." 50 cents each.

Avignone Freres, 1777 Columbia Road, NW (265-0332). These flaky rolls are better suited for sandwiches than a breakfast roll. Heavily salted, dry, but evenly baked. 65 cents each.

Watergate Pastry Shop, 2650 Virginia Ave., NW (965-5250). Like their famous pastries, the croissants are strong on looks (egg-glazed golden brown) but weak on taste. Dry, tough and no noticeable butter taste. 50 cents each.

Via de France, available at local supermarkets and other locations. So carefully rolled it has a machine-made appearance. Not buttery. Bready, flat and chemical aftertaste. 65 cents each.

Seibert's Konditorei, Tysons Corner Center, McLean (893-2050). Stiff, not fluffy, not buttery, not light, but nicely wrapped. 45 cents each.

University Pastry Shop, 3234 Virginia Ave. NW (966-5218). Tiny rolls, stiff, not flaky with a tart, lemon taste. More like a dinner roll than a croissant. $2 a dozen.

De Luxe Bake Shop 11225 New Hampshire Ave., White Oaks Shopping Center, Silver Spring (593-6666). Long cylindrical shape, nicely browned, but a heavy taste like Parker House rolls. Certainly not the best, but the cheapest. $1.50 per dozen.

Pillsbury Crescent Rolls, Available at supermarkets. Made with beef fat, BHA, Xanthan gum and monoglycerides. May be poppin" fresh but hits the palate like hot air. 89 cents for 8.

The following bakeries have croissants available at limited times only:

Pentagon Pastry Shop, Main Pentagon Concourse, Arlington (697-3145). Available Fridays from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Hard, heavy and tough. $3 per dozen.

A&W Van Tolls, 2516 University Blvd. Wheaton (933-1517). Available Fri. Sat., Sun. The pound of butter per dozen is responsible for the rich, flaky $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)See CROISSANTS, K2, Col. 2> $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)CROISSANTS, From K1> taste. A little on the dry side, but a good price. 35 cents each.

Langley Bakery, 7637 New Hampshire Ave. Langley Park (434-9547). Available Fri., Sat., Sun. This roll was not crescent-shaped and looked and tasted like a log. Tasters also detected a "fast food aftertaste." Another termed it a "crude croissant." $3 a dozen.

La Brasserie Brettonne, 1305 Wisconsin Ave., NW (337-1723). Available at Sunday breakfast only. Baked on the premises. 50 cents for plain and 75 cents for chocolate filled.

Danny's Pastry Shoppe, 8313 Grub Road, Silver Spring (585-8585). Available weekends only. Four for 99 cents.

Clements Pastry Shop, 1338 G St., NW (628-4151). Available when they feel like making them or when you ask. Parker House dinner rolls disguised as a croissant. Not a flake to be found. 45 cents each.

Eclair Pastry Shop, 4019 28th St., Arlington (578-0209). After three futile attempts to purchase croissants we gave up. You have to get up with the chickens to get these. 39 cent each. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Richard Whitting for The Washington Post