Chardonnay in the Park Terrace

1515 Rhode Island Ave. NW. 232-7000. Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V, DC. No separate smoking section. Prices: Lunch appetizers $3.50 to $14.50, entrees $8.50 to $13.50; dinner appetizers $6.75 to $11.50, entrees $14.50 to 27.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 a person.

I AM STARTING TO EAT MY WORDS about hotel restaurants. You can no longer count on finding just ho-hum dreary predictable overpriced menus in hotels -- nowadays you are likely to be surprised.

So it was with Chardonnay. The first surprise, however, was that telephone information didn't list it independently of the Park Terrace Hotel. The second was more promising: Behind a cozy little bar, Chardonnay opens to a large and spectacular room, with tall arched windows overlooking a courtyard and a magnificent ornate stone fireplace in the rear. Tables are spaced to allow private conversation, but it is a wide-open room in the grand hotel style.

It looks the kind of place that once would have served a "Continental" menu. Today's version of a Continental menu, though, is New American cooking. And the fashion is not just glamorous showoff food but an emphasis on fresh ingredients, luxurious and exotic but delicious as well as impressive. There is attention to careful cooking and quality rather than to dazzling techniques such as flaming or wrapping things in pastry.

The menu at Chardonnay is not long -- eight appetizers and 10 main dishes, plus specials at dinner -- but it is wide- ranging and original. Want something new? There is rare squab with pumpkin corn fritters and pecan bourbon sauce; or squab and lobster with roast shallots, golden tree mushrooms and cabernet sauce; or red-cooked whole fish with shao mai dumplings. Not so adventurous? There is a grilled New York sirloin, but with homemade tarragon mustard and grilled red onions; and a rack of lamb, but served with baked goat cheese. Lunch covers the usual -- crab cakes, fried oysters, barbecued swordfish; and it offers such originals as Maryland fried chicken stuffed with foie gras, and fried spoon bread with mussels, smoked duck and saffron.

You can't help being struck by the visual emphasis, both on the tables (pink crystal and silver) and on the plates, where bright colors and careful arrangements make pretty still lifes. Soup might be ladled into a pastry bowl and set on a napkin flower. Dessert sauces are etched with contrasting ones, and at dinner a pear tart was presented under a caramel cage.

I would plan my meal with desserts in mind, for they can be spectacular. The pear version of tarte tatin is outstanding both on the tongue and on the plate. Three creme brulees in tiny Chinese bowls are flavored with ginger, orange and chocolate mint, each one delectable. Persimmon pudding is the best I have tasted, having tried a year's worth of persimmon pudding contest winners in Indiana. There are homemade ice creams -- cappuccino and butterscotch, for instance -- in homemade cones, and warm custardy gratins of fruit.

If convention prevails, you will start with appetizers. But this is one of the rare restaurants where main dishes tend to be better than appetizers. I have tried a lovely pale green oyster bisque and a homey and delicious thick goose soup with chunks of rich meat and vegetables including sweet potato. And grilled quail with ginger butter sauce and enoki mushrooms was garlic-scented and gamey, a fine dish. But otherwise the appetizers have been an array of failures: Lobster sausage devoid of taste and even salt, but with an unpleasant fishy aftertaste. Monterey Bay Prawn Salad tasted even older and mushy, and overwhelmed with vinegar. Terrine of root vegetables at lunch tasted more like chicken than vegetables but had a watered-down flavor. While grilled foie gras was good to eat -- it is hard to go wrong with foie gras if you don't overcook it -- the full flavor had not been developed in this kitchen. And grilled smoked salmon was pleasant and lightly cooked but it was ineptly matched with a tomato sauce that might have done fine on pasta but that eclipsed the fish.

I would have written off Chardonnay's seafoods on the basis of the appetizers and a rubbery, tasteless grilled scallop salad, but on the same night that I had dreadful old, flat- tasting shrimps for an appetizer, I tried superb ones for a main course. They were huge and flavorful, wrapped in pancetta and cooked just right, though overburdened by a sauce too close to ketchup and barbecue sauce. And the same evening the red-cooked fish was utterly fresh, not overcooked, and seasoned with a zesty but not overwhelming soy braising liquid. With it were charming shrimp-stuffed Chinese fried dumplings. The seafoods in Grilled Seafood and Vegetable Stew at lunch have been impeccable, and mussels teamed with julienned smoked duck, fried spoon bread and multihued peppers were acceptable, though the weak link in a wonderful, complex dish.

Poultry and game have been routinely excellent, the squab supple and rare, teamed with quite sweet but delicious light and crusty pumpkin corn fritters. A luncheon salad of grilled stuffed chicken breast looked pretty with its heart of red stuffing and tasted smoky and juicy. The fried chicken stuffed with foie gras was flawlessly done -- the nearly boneless meat bursting with juices and the batter light and crisp Abut it was an inordinately rich dish, only for the staunchest eaters. Venison, a special one night, came out dry but it tasted richly of game and had an interesting bit of stuffing plus plenty of wild rice and not just baby vegetables but baby vegetables stuffed with even babier vegetables.

Lots of details are attended to here. The bread is excellent. The service is watchful -- in fact, too attentive in the early underpopulated days. And the wine list is as satisfying as one would hope from a restaurant named Chardonnay. It is a catalogue of the California greats, a long list of vintages with prices that are reasonable enough to encourage you to drink a finer wine than you might in most Washington restaurants.

This a restaurant with beginners' awkwardness but clear talent and a drive to be special. And it is has cleverly priced its lunch menu low enough to draw people looking for elegance and comfort without having to pay extravagant prices. Appetizers are $3 to $4.50 and nearly half the main dishes are under $10, none more than $12.50. Dinner is double that, though. Appetizers are largely more than $6, and most main dishes are near or above $20. In other words, lunch is priced to draw the curious, while dinner is what we would expect to pay at a top restaurant that had already proven itself.

Chardonnay has not yet proven itself; it is new, and it displays some consistent flaws. It is, however, a restaurant with innate elegance and exciting possibilities.