Although the cuisine of Le Lion d'Or is much less exciting than some its competitors, returning to this restaurant of tradition reminds me of what is missing in some of the newer French arrivals. There is a much more energetic and convivial atmsophere in this old-guard dining room, and the food is served in larger portions than some of the newer rivals.

The regular menu is long and full of enticements such as trout souffle with champagne sauce, flan of crab meat, rockfish in crust, pigeon with foie gras sauce. It is a menu that focuses on the glamorous but still has room for simple chicken roasted with tarragon. This is a restaurant, though, where you should concentrate on the specials. It will be announced when there are fresh shrimp in the kitchen or when the wild mushrooms, soft-shell crabs or whatever are in. (But ask about the price of these specials.)

The best appetizers have included the pates, a scallop salad with coriander and an impeccable gravlax. As for main dishes, when in doubt opt for the simpler. Lamb with coarse mustard and lamb with tarragon have become hallmarks here. Rabbit is fine, typically served with mustard sauce, and the list of game is also tempting here. Seafood dishes are good choices, too: from a perfectly grilled plain shad or shad roe with anchovy sauce to a mixed grill of seafood served with three different sauces. Talent and flaws repeatedly seesaw at Le Lion D'Or. I've had a delectable and original crab cake, but it was too salty. And a thick fillet of Norwegian salmon showed again that this kitchen can prepare fish impeccably -- but its sauce had little character.

If you favor souffles, don't forget to order one for dessert when you place your dinner order, for nobody in town makes them lighter, more intensely flavored or better balanced between crustiness and moistness.

Le Lion d'Or remains a restaurant of excellence, of ambitiousness and quality. Flawed it is, but frequently enough it is a reminder of what has made French restaurants so long preeminent. 1150 Connecticut Avenue, NW. 296-7972. L $11-21, D $18-26. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Res req. Full bar.