Open for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m., dinner daily 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday brunch noon to 3 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Prices: At dinner, appetizers $5.25 to $34, average about $12; main courses $18 to $23; desserts $4.75 to $7.50. At lunch, appetizers $4.25 to $8.50; main courses $8.75 to $15; desserts $4 to $5.50.

he quietest climb in local restaurant history has occurred at the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues, as La Fleur has turned from a mediocre-to-worse French restaurant to a French restaurant with exceptional cooking and a lovely, flowery terrace from which to enjoy it on balmy evenings.

Its prices have climbed even more astonishingly, but we will get to that later.

it is obvious that the chef has worked at Le Pavillon. That he was the pastry chef there once upon a time is equally unmistakable; you would be hard-pressed to distinguish between his bitter chocolate terrine with tiny meringues in hazelnut cream and Le Pavillon's.

But back to the beginning, the menu starts with a long list of daily specials--printed, thank goodness, not recited for you to remember--and continues to the standing dishes, which consist of three appetizers and three main courses at dinner; they are less expensive but no less satisfying than the specials. You immediately understand that this is no neighborhood restaurant; appetizers are mostly more than $10 at dinner, and no main course is less than $18. One night I was dismayed by the wine prices (a simple beaujolais for $18, one listing with no specified vintage for $120, nothing vaguely drinkable for under $14). Two nights later I returned to find that the wine prices had been raised, the sauternes from $100 to $150! You cannot expect to spend an evening at La Fleur for less than $50 to $70 a person or a lunch for less than $25 to $35 a person without considerable restraint.

That said, I will reiterate that the food is often exquisite, having become better with each of my subsequent visits.

This is a restaurant that boasts of having no freezer at all, buys not only fresh herbs, but those with tiny leaves. It flies in some of its fish, but don't let that turn your head, for those "fresh" European fish have often left their succulence on the other side of the Atlantic. Dishes are showcases for lobster, caviar, all manner of rich ingredients. But the promise of truffles should not sway your order, for they are tasteless canned ones at this time of year.

La Fleur at its best is a small bowl of diced salmon, barely cooked and so soft it nearly melts on its own, in a cream most delicately flavored with pimiento pur,ee and coriander. These strong flavorings are tamed most beautifully, and the cream has a haunting tang. Fish is tempting for a main course, too, either red snapper cut into thin strips with the skin intact, or a thin scallop of salmon grilled lightly and bedded on a cream sauce with the tart bite of sorrel. The best of the cream sauces are those with a sharp, tart or pungent flavoring, for this chef mutes and blends those beautifully; the less pungent cream sauces, with watercress, for instance, can be too elusive.

Meat dishes are beautiful and no less distinctive. Rabbit, pale pink slices of the filet, is in a light and unthickened sauce that is winey and sharpened with fresh tomato and baby leaves of basil. Duck is cooked rare, sliced and fanned on the plate, its sauce also tart and tangy, with a bit of crunch in it. But the best dish one evening was on the standing menu, filet of lamb so aromatic it might have been marinated, decorated with tiny homemade ravioli arranged like a flower on the plate. Even rack of lamb, routine as that may sound, was perfectly cooked, attractively arranged and enhanced by a sauce aromatic with the tiniest leaves of thyme.

Vegetables here are tiny garnish-size portions, but they can be so delectable you might have wished to trade a slice or two of meat for more. One day they were matchsticks of artichoke, eggplant, tomato and zucchini imbued with butter, crisscrossed into a tiny log cabin. Another time, though, the tiny fresh peas were undercooked, and paper-thin slices of another vegetable were so raw we couldn't tell whether they were potato or turnip. Salads are breathtaking in price, but sliced endive with hazelnuts in hazelnut oil was nevertheless endearing.

Some dishes you can skip: duck consomm,e with truffles and foie gras-stuffed ravioli, especially so long as the truffles are canned. A salad of slivered snow peas with tiny fresh shrimp had lots of promise but little taste other than pepper. But mostly disappointments have been with occasional cream sauces and with flown-in-from-Europe seafoods.

Desserts are exceptional, the tarts made of the thinnest, most buttery crust spread at the last minute with an airy custard and topped with berries; the sherbets intense and arranged with tiny batons of tropical fruit; the strawberries arranged like a flower on wine-sauced pear compote; the bitter chocolate terrine memorable.

Very fine food here, and in a pretty environment with modern stained glass, baby blue tablecloths, roses and stunning Scandinavian glass hurricane lamps. Service is intent on pleasing. But this is not an extravagant dining room (though the terrace is quite special). It is not an outlandishly expensive downtown location. Yet it is priced as high as the most expensive restaurant in Washington. What would you expect for a $70 dinner? Not just excellent food and service, but a one-of-a-kind experience. Is a derivative of Le Pavillon, no matter how good, worth the price of the original? Is a perfect copy of a Dior worth a Dior price? La Fleur is developing its own style, but, as good as it is, it is brash to introduce itself to Washington with such high prices.