CHAMPS

To put it in perspective, Aux Beaux Champs is by and large the best of this city's hotel restaurants. To put it further in perspective, it veers from food of excellence to food that is clever but vapid, all at stellar prices. The kitchen can match the top handful in town; indeed, it does the best banquets you are likely to find. And its Alternative Menu selections are an imaginative effort to provide interesting and delicious food low in calories, cholesterol and sodium.

Why, then, does Aux Beaux Champs serve a smoked salmon terrine that overwhelms with its buttery creaminess without delivering much other taste? And its Alternative veal medallions have had an unpleasant steamy, bitter taste. There are those fashionable baby vegetables, and sometimes elaborate garnishes such as stuffed vegetables. And when the cooking is good -- such as navarin of lamb with roasted shallots and green peppercorns -- it is delightful, the flavors full and the contrasts tantalizing. For dessert the pastry cart has a beautiful selection of sophisticated, complex tortes and tarts, though the tarts are distinctly the lesser of the two; and there are house-made ice creams.

The staff here is utterly polished but sometimes utterly absent. Clearly they know how to serve impeccably, but don't seem driven to show their talent with any regularity.

In all, I would choose Aux Beaux Champs for brunch, when the level of elegance is far superior to most, and the prices are only high -- not astonishing. This is one of the most serene, spacious and luxurious dining rooms in town, but at its dinner prices the consistency ought to be more reliable. 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 342-0810. L $9.50-$17.25, D $15.25-$25. L daily ex Sat, Sun. D daily. Brunch Sat, Sun. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Res sugg. Full bar.