Sleeper restaurants -- places that serve high-quality food at low levels of recognition -- deserve special attention. Here are a few.
EAST WIND -- 809 King Street in Alexandria. Call 836-1515. L daily except Saturday, Sunday, D daily. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested, required weekends. Full bar.
Here's a place to discover the unexpected and to understand the mystique of Vietnamese cooking, the subtle intricacy that captures the best of its French and Chinese inheritance. Start with grilled pork or beef on skewers, or shrimp on sugar cane; either is enough to share for an appetizer. Besides being marinated in a thick, sweetened Vietnamese counterpart to soy sauce, the juicy skewered meats are topped with chopped peanuts and crunchy bits of onion. The shrimp is pounded to a paste with garlic and Vietnamese fish sauce, then wrapped around sugar cane before grilling. The most popular Vietnamese appetizers, rice-paper-wrapped fried cha gio, are too bland; dipping them into peppered and sweetened fish sauce helps. Vietnamese soups show the contrast of sweet and tart with a fiery kick. They're long-simmered broths with soft noodles, crisp shreds of nearly raw vegetables and a last-minute addition of raw beef or fish. Whatever the main dish -- beef or chicken sauteed with vegetables, shrimp or stuffed squid -- the presentation is colorful, the portion large, the seasoning complex.
KALORAMA CAFE -- 2228 18th Street NW. 667-1022. Sunday brunch, L daily, D daily except Sunday. Closed Monday. No credit cards. Reservations accepted. Beer and wine only.
Like a Sixties coffeehouse, Kalorama Cafe wears a homespun lived-in and cared-for look. Assorted print tablecloths, brick walls and an open kitchen make this tiny restaurant look neighborly, and the blackboard outside the door, listing the daily specials, acts as a welcome mat. The short menu is close to vegetarian, with only fish and shrimp breaking the vegetable barrier. Tempura -- fish, shrimp or plain vegetable -- is available every day, and it's excellent, its batter light and wispy, the shrimp large and juicy, each vegetable fully cooked but still crisp. Broiled fish is fresh and soy-seasoned, cooked beautifully. Accompanying salads are dressed with an interesting combination of soy and lemon. Even the rice on the plates -- brown rice with soy sauce and scallions -- is admirable. Daily specials are an eclectic mix of lasagne, Indonesian vegetables, lentil pates and the like.
LEBANESE TAVERNA -- 5900 North Washington Boulevard, Arlington. 241-9301. L daily except Sunday, D daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Beer and wine only.
It looks as if pizza is the mainstay of this small restaurant, but behind the square white pizza boxes lies a Lebanese kitchen bent on excellence. In fact, this Lebanese food may be the cheapest and equal to the best in town. An eight-dish mezze can be concocted with two zesty sausages, kibbe baked and raw, hummus, baba ghanouj, grape leaves and a very crunchy tabulleh. The hummus and baba ghanouj are smooth and well-balanced, the kibbe very lean and subtly seasoned. In fact, everything but the grape leaves is outstanding. The two kebabs, lamb and chicken, are cleverly seasoned and juicy, and the molded and spiced brown rice with lamb -- called ouzi -- was teasingly good.
MON PARIS -- 1111 North 19th Street in Rosslyn. 522-4553. L daily ex Saturday, D daily. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
Amid the high-rises and salad bars of Rosslyn, a French restaurant is a surprise. And the spacious dining room of Mon Paris, flossy with red-flocked wall panels and chandeliers that look farther east than Paris, is a further surprise; this is a restaurant more ambitious than its strawberry daiquiri-and-margaritas neighbors. The menu is long and French, and the food can be good, though it isn't always and -- even at its best -- doesn't warrant the a la carte dinner prices. What makes Mon Paris worth braving the Rosslyn labyrinth is good value in the fixed-price lunches and dinners. Skip the expensive a la carte and order the bargains. The fish may taste overripe but its sauce is likely to be delicate; a sauteed chicken will be pleasantly drenched in tarragon sauce; homemade soup is well made; vegetables are fresh and the potatoes au gratin are wonderful. The menu covers all the ordinary bases, from tournedos to crepes, and the service is merely perfunctory.But here's decent food at -- if you choose carefully -- acceptable prices, with desserts making up for any other deficiencies.