WINDOWS OF THE EAST

-- 4747 Elm St., Bethesda. 654-6444. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested on weekends. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $3.50, entrees $6.25 to $7.95; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $6.95, entrees $9.50 to $16.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 per person.

It has been a good year for hungry Bethesdans. In fact, so many restaurants have opened there that at least one wonderful new place has slipped in practically unnoticed.

Windows of the East even surpasses its parent restaurant, Alexandria's East Wind, which is one of the finest of the Washington area's many Vietnamese restaurants. This new branch was launched with all the graces -- a beautiful dining room, a hospitable staff and a talented kitchen. But it has yet to be fully discovered by its neighborhood.

Maybe that's because its entrance is forbidding. Instead of entering the dining room directly, diners go in a side door, past the carryout window and up an elevator. It's about as appealing as driving into Washington via New York Avenue. Maybe the restaurant will open those more inviting front doors come spring.

But enough nit-picking. The elevator ride is worth it. The main dining room is immense and gently decorated with blond wood, grass cloth and serenely pretty Vietnamese oil paintings. From the moment you enter, the staff works as a team to deliver VIP treatment to each diner. It is quite a show.

The busboys patrol the room ready to whisk away empty plates or light a cigarette the moment the need arises. The waiter explains the menu, suggests combinations of dishes to create a well-orchestrated meal and demonstrates how to eat the food when it is presented. And the maitre d' adds his welcome and instruction from time to time.

What they explain is how to personalize the dishes at the table. Each grilled meat or seafood is served with its own combination of raw vegetable garnishes and rice-dough wrapper, as well as its own dipping sauce. The waiter shows how to combine those grilled bits with fresh coriander or mint leaves, slices of carrot and cucumber, and rice noodles, wrap them into packets with semi-stiff rice paper, slick rice crepes or lettuce leaves, then dip them into fish sauce or bean paste studded with red chili pure'e and chopped peanuts. The combinations are revelations.

All Vietnamese restaurants serve cha gio, the delicate rice-paper-wrapped cousins of egg rolls. Windows of the East's cha gio, though, are among the best, with a mousse-light shrimp and pork filling highly seasoned with black pepper and fried to a grease-free crackle. What's more, they are accompanied by crunchy, fragrant garnishes to wrap with lettuce into cold-and-hot bundles of finger food. Most of the appetizers are shrimp based: mild shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane or crab claws, more garlicky shrimp paste spread on french bread slices and fried into shrimp cakes, or whole batter-fried shrimp.

If you can't justify ordering all the appetizers, stick to the cha gio and skewered grilled pork or beef (or both), for the latter are superlative variations of satays, the beef sesame-crusted and sweetly spicy, the pork flavored with honey and lemon grass before grilling.

Soups and salads also display a compelling interplay of flavors and textures. If you judge a Vietnamese restaurant by its pho (beef soup with noodles and the last-minute addition of raw beef, scallions and bean sprouts), you are bound to judge this one highly. But I wouldn't miss the cha gio or satays for it.

Main dishes take up four pages of the menu and delve into more varied forms and textures than most other Vietnamese restaurants. Beef, for example, might be rolled and simmered in cinnamon sauce, stuffed with raw onion and marinated in wine and honey before broiling on skewers, or saute'ed with wine sauce, mushrooms and snow peas or vegetables and pineapple. Bo dun, the skewered beef with onions, was sweet and spicy, smoky and crusty from the grill and crunchy from its onion filling. Wrapped with rice noodles and herbs in a lettuce leaf, it was such a delicious contrast of flavors, temperatures and textures that it would present a dilemma on a second visit: Stick with a winner or try another beef dish with an equally interesting description? Among the pork dishes, minced pork on a skewer was deftly seasoned and appealingly wrapped with vegetables and rice paper, but it was no match for the grilled pork slices marinated in garlic and lemon grass, accompanied by soft, slippery rice crepes instead of rice paper.

Chicken dishes are flavored with lemon grass, ginger, wine sauce or curry, to a remarkably varied effect. Lemon Grass Chicken, for instance, is tender pieces of boneless meat coated with a brick- colored sauce whose flavors meld so that no one stands out but all play sweet and hot on the tongue. Ginger Chicken plays the same games on the tongue, but its ginger adds more heat and its caramelized sauce is more sweet.

The seafood category includes whole fish fried or steamed, a couple of shrimp and mixed seafood dishes, saute'ed scallops with vegetables, and squid stuffed with a filling similar to the cha gio's and simmered in a pineapple-wine sauce. The seafood dishes I tried had fascinating sauces, but the seafood itself had little flavor and seemed overcooked. Meats were more reliable. If quail is among the specials of the day -- with star anise prominent in its marinade and dark brown sauce -- it is a glamorous choice. But the sleeper on the menu is Golden Fried Noodles. Ask for the crisp version, in which the hair-thin noodles are fried to fragility and buried under a huge portion of meat and seafood saute'ed with baby corn, straw mushrooms and other vegetables in a subtle sauce that is no less playful on the tongue for its delicacy.

This is food that looks pretty and tastes brilliant, each dish a distinct combination and every sauce so well blended that it is difficult to pick out a single component. The sauces are light, clear and thin, yet intense with flavors that come in waves, one emerging and another receding as you taste it. You can specify how hot you want your food, but even the hottest dish does not lose its nuances.

Although the menu lists a half-dozen imported beers that would go well with the food, the small wine list is so well chosen and modestly priced that you might pass up the beer for, say, an Alsace gewu rztraminer.

For dessert, Windows of the East offers ginger ice cream that is a dazzle of hot flavor against cold texture and extraordinary creaminess. Litchi and pinåa colada ice cream are also good but don't pack that refreshing spicy punch. Cre`me caramel is smoothly executed but unusually sweet. And if you want a more flamboyant dessert, the fried banana flamed with rum is an outstanding version, very light and crunchy outside, meltingly smooth inside, fragrant with sesame seeds and just barely sweet. Or end with espresso, very good espresso.

This is fine food served in a serene environment. Graciousness is a constant, and the dining room staff contributes as much to the satisfaction as the kitchen staff. Windows of the East is like its sauces -- each component subtly blends so that no one part stands out but all make for a lovely seamless evening. ::