Open for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m., dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: two-course lunches $6 to $9.50, dinners $7 to $11. A la carte appetizers $1.75 to $3.50. Full dinner with beer or sake, tax and tip about $15 a person.

A prominent local surgeon was watching the sushi

chef at Nara. "The things he does with a knife I could n't do," he observed wistfully.

That's not the only reason that Bethesda's newest

Japanese restaurant (on the site of Takane, Bethesda's formerly newest Japanese restaurant) has become a sushi bar popular with Japanese and Americans. The chef stocks a wide assortment of seafoods for sushi--tuna, salmon, rockfish, octopus, salmon roe, sea urchins, herring, shrimp, flounder, crab, clams--and handles them with a decorative flair. The fish are about as fresh as you can expect in Washington: acceptable, but with the slight softness and beginning of fishiness that distinguishes them from their Pacific relatives. It is their variation at the hands of the chef that makes them so appealing. You can order sushi in a standard assortment for $7 at lunch, $11.50 at dinner (like all Nara's main dishes, preceded by miso soup and bean sprout salad). Or you can choose them a la carte. You can have the fish as sashimi, or rolled in seaweed-- futomaki, tekkamaki or kappamaki. But most beautifully, you can have your fish densely and artfully arranged in a lacquer box on a bed of sushi rice. It is called chirashi, and it is a sight to behold: spears of golden omelet and pink-edged crab, fish in four shades, pink shrimp against coral salmon roe, a weaving of seaweed, a fan of green cucumber slices, a bouquet of shaved lemon and tiny splotches of tan ginger, pink sugar shreds and pickled vegetables. One feels ashamed to undo the arrangement in order to eat it.

Each visit, it seems, the sushi assortment is slightly different; it might include a clam tied with a strand of seaweed or soft coral salmon as well as the familiar tuna, shrimp and such. And only here have I seen futomaki, a wonderful fat roll of sushi rice with pickled vegetables and egg, studded with string beans, that is a beautiful multicolored mosaic.

Clearly raw rish and its variations are this restaurant's focus. Even a simple sunomono, usually a tiny bit seafood salad with perhaps a single sliced shrimp, is here a luscious little sea garden with clam cut into a fringe, spears of king crab, shrimp, crunchy seaweed on a bed of paper-thin cucumbers in a thinned and sweetened vinegar. It costs $3.50 as an appetizer, and would be worth more as an art work.

But not all is fish. Nara borrows from the Thais (or vice versa, who knows?) for fried chicken wings Japanese-style, lightly floured and fried to a juicy crunch, a delicious appetizer that two could share. Don't miss the marinated string beans as an appetizer; they are cold and crisp, marinated in sweetened soy sauce and sesame seeds. The adventurous might try hijiki seaweed, crackly near-black strands, tossed with meaty slices of fried bean curd. Bean curd is served hot or cold as an appetizer, or you can start with the more familiar yakitori--skewered chicken with scallions in sweetened soy--or tempura.

Appetizers and raw fish are Nara's most interesting possibilities, but main courses include creditable tempura--plentiful shrimp in a light, respectably crisp batter with various fried vegetables--or the usual: teriyaki (the beef teriyaki is an overcooked and chewy steak dinner with two veg), noodles with tempura or sukiyaki (lots of good beef in too sugary a sauce). One dish stands out: negimaki is thinly sliced beef rolled around scallions, marinated and grilled, sauced with sweetened soy. It is tender, savory and pretty. The negimaki is slightly oversweetened, a frequent flaw in Nara's cooking, but the result is less bothersome than in the sukiyaki and yakitori. And if the sugariness is a deficit, at least Nara makes a point of not adding MSG to its food.

Dessert is rarely a highlight of a Japanese meal, and here the choices are 'home-made jello cake,' which is bowl of jelled agar- agar flavored and studded with pineapple, refreshing but innocuous, or sweet bean jelly or fresh fruit, certainly the best choice (and lately honeydew, attractively carved). Beverages, as one would expect, are limited to beer--including the excellent Japanese Kirin--sake, sweet plum wine, indifferent house wine, juices or soft drinks. And green tea, of course.

In all, Nara is a pleasant restaurant, with the clean-edged beauty of Japanese woodwork. Its decorations consist primarily of tables handsomely finished with butterfly hinges and set with pink napkins, a marvelous collection of lacquer trays and ceramics, and the sushi chefs toying with their array of fish. Service is swift and unobtrusive, with Japanese gentleness soothing any hitches such as early diners lingering at the table you have reserved. Authenticity-seekers can reserve the Japanese corner, where they can dine kneeling at low tables. For the full show: the sushi bar. For more privacy: the booths constructed of lovely smooth, pale wood. For a bargain: lunch. For a meal of modest proportion and price in the refreshingly simple Japanese style: Nara.