Years ago, when I first went to Antoine's in New Orleans, I concluded it was a great restaurant with terrible food. The next day, after dining on thick, gluey trout marguery at Galatoire's, I began to think the city's restaurants were overrated. No, I was just underinformed. When I returned in subsequent years, better educated about the city's food scene, I limited my order at Antoine's to oysters rockefeller, pompano en papillote and pommes souffle'es. It was a great meal. And at Galatoire's I tasted one of the most memorable dishes ever -- trout meuniere rather than marguery.

Knowing where to dine is not always enough. You have to know the kitchen's strengths (and weaknesses). To order grilled fish at i Ricchi is, in my opinion, to miss the best of a restaurant that celebrates hearty Tuscan cooking. And to pass up the aushak at an Afghan restaurant such as Bamiyan or the dossas at an Indian vegetarian restaurant such as Siddhartha is like driving through Niagara and missing the falls.

When someone hates a restaurant you love or loves a restaurant you'd never choose again, it may be less a difference in taste than a matter of who's ordered what. Some restaurants show their best efforts in the appetizers; at others, you might as well head right for the main dishes. And with dessert being such a dietary luxury in this age of health-conscious eating, there is not much point in ordering one unless you know it is going to be good.

Some restaurants make it clear what their specialties are. Thus you probably would, all on your own, focus on the feijoada at Dona Flor or the mole at Enriqueta's. But without an in- sider tip, it probably wouldn't occur to you to order grilled salmon at an Indian restaurant, and at the Bombay Club you'd be missing something special. Likewise, after being bored over the years by doughy, bland won tons usually served in soup, you probably wouldn't zero in on House Special Wonton among the long listings at the House of Chinese Chicken. You might never learn how scintillating won tons can be. And while many restaurants serve tarte tatin, unless you see a huge golden puff being served at the next table at La Brasserie and ask what it is, you wouldn't know that a tarte tatin could look so stunning. At many restaurants, simple labels hide lush surprises -- steamed shrimp in lotus leaf at Mr. Yung's, "an Antipasto" at Mrs. Simpson's. It's like hunting for wild morels: Having an experienced guide makes the difference between finding a feast and going home empty-handed.

This dining guide is designed to help you choose not just where to eat but what to eat. And in some cases, what not to eat.

This is not a list of the 50 best dishes in Washington. That would be presumptuous. And if a restaurant or dish you admire was left out of this guide, it is no reflection on your taste (or mine) -- it is a tribute to the volume of great food in this city. I aimed to include a sampling of types, locations, price ranges and courses. There are dishes to eat with chopsticks, forks, spoons, straws, toothpicks or your hands. Some spicy, some mild, some rich and some lean. There could never be enough to satisfy everybody, but certainly enough to tempt. (continued from Page 18)


It is unreasonable to try to highlight one great dish at Jean-Louis. This creative fixed-price menu changes every day, and from season to season there might be nothing you've encountered before. So the best I can do is evoke the nature of this kitchen through the favorite of my most recent visit.

Nage of crayfish is typical of Jean-Louis' vision. It looks uncomplicated, bright and compelling, a bowl of crayfish in a creamy sauce colored tropical orange. The crayfish are, of course, fresh and tender and juicy, silky on the tongue. They are perfect. But that's what you expect when dinner and drinks run to well over $100.

The sauce is said to be simple -- just consomme, butter and lobster coral. But that's like saying the sunset is made of red, blue and yellow. This sauce tastes bold and strong, definitely briny, yet mellow. And as you eat it, it grows on you as a great wine grows in the glass. Other tastes and textures punctuate it, for hidden among the crayfish are also sliced fresh morels, and nearly crunchy green fava beans, with slivers of salsify that serve as perhaps the potato might in a clam chowder. It seems so easy, it tastes so intriguing, it fits so snugly in your memory, ready for you to recall it so happily.

And that is typical of Jean-Louis. Something so familiar as fried squid is somehow more tender, more juicy, more airily battered than any you have known. Cream of corn soup is afloat with tiny clouds of quenelles and slices of glorious lobster. A saute of wild mushrooms with snails and sweetbreads is punctuated with crunchy diced pancetta and whole cloves of garlic as soft as boiled potatoes and nearly as mild. Jean-Louis doesn't just sauce his duck with olive paste; he pipes the paste into house-made macaroni. He wraps his salmon in a crust of shredded potato, he stuffs zucchini flowers with lobster mousse, then studs the mousse with tiny zucchini. Then he slices them to look like lobster flowers, poises them on stems of baby leeks and perfumes it all with truffle butter. This is complicated cooking, yet nothing is too cute. Jean-Louis has not only talent but taste.

2650 Virginia Ave. NW. 298-4488. Open: Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: five-course fixed-price menu $85, six-course fixed-price menu $95, pre-theater three-course dinner available Monday through Saturday $38. THE JOCKEY CLUB

Despite attempts to modernize its menu, the Jockey Club remains a bastion of bastionness. Lamb chops well done, crab cakes, caesar salad, crepes suzettes -- these are the mainstays of this expensively cozy Old Guard hangout. And this kitchen might be seen as protecting some endangered species, foremost among them pommes souffle'es (nowadays called "Souffle Potato" on the formerly French menu). These might be considered the world's most luxurious potato chips, but at $5 they are a bargain, as well as culinary magic. Potatoes must be sliced thinly, just so. Then they must be deep-fried, just so. And finally they must be deep-fried again at a higher temperature, just so, until they puff into thin crisp pillows filled with nothing but air. They are about as much fun as any vegetable could be.

If you are drawn to the more modern parts of the menu, you could do no better than the Jockey Club's roasted duck breast with chopped morels and port sauce. The duck breast slices are tender and pink, and the plate is filled with a wonderment of garnishes: slices of crisp white turnips and soft, sweet white pears; two-tone shiitake mushrooms and "white" truffles; bright green fava beans and shards of zucchini. The interplay is grand. Less so is the inventive lobster teamed with white truffles, but that is because the lobster itself was dry and rubbery. Generally the food here is correct, sometimes it is adventurous, and always it is served with great old-fashioned flair.

The Ritz-Carlton, 2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 659-8000. Open: for lunch daily noon to 2:30 p.m., for dinner daily 6 to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $8.50 to $13.50, entrees $12.50 to $22; dinner appetizers $7.75 to $13.50, entrees $21 to $32.50. LA BRASSERIE

While each year La Brasserie's dining rooms look more chic, the restaurant never loses its warm Gallic charm. Much of the credit goes to La Brasserie's waitresses, who transmit such culinary intelligence and enthusiasm that dinner becomes a special event. And on a balmy day, La Brasserie's open-air dining is a magnet for Capitol Hill.

What's more, chef Gaby Auboin is talented and experienced, and his menu always stretches a little further than before. His bourride is a Hill classic by now, his house-smoked salmon is sumptuous, and his Saturday night bouillabaisse is one of the most elegant and zesty versions you'll find this far from the Mediterranean.

I don't find it all bathed in glory, however. Some of the food is merely good, and all of it is quite expensive: That bouillabaisse costs $27.50, the salmon is $12, and dinner for two can cost well over $100.

The most impressive dish of the season, though, is one of the least expensive on the menu. It's Auboin's inventive Tarte Tatin Brasserie, which is to apple pie what a souffle is to an omelet. The classic tarte tatin is a baked-to-order round of pastry topped with caramelized sliced apples. Auboin's is upside down, the apples and caramel topped with puff pastry that is prettily crimped around the edges and sealed to the baking dish. With the air trapped, the top bakes into a huge golden brown dome, an embarrassingly large portion you might feel obliged to share with the table. One poke of the fork deflates it to manageable proportions, though. And the crackling brown puff pastry stays absolutely crunchy in contrast to the hot, tender, fragrant, caramel-bathed apples. Auboin's tarte tatin just might be the best $5 show in town.

239 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 546-9154. Open: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $9.50, entrees $9 to $15; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $12.50, entrees $16 to $30. LA CANTINITA

Redevelopment is threatening this authentic little Cuban restaurant that has been one of Arlington's hidden gems for a decade. And while I have faith that such an endearing restaurant will find another congenial neighborhood, in the meantime I'm storing its puerco asado in my memory. This is a plate of marinated roast pork, pretty plain looking, with a few bits of diced onion on top. But it tastes so juicy and aromatic. It nearly melts at a touch, so tender you might think it was steamed if the edges weren't brown and crisp. And its mellow, slightly viscous garlic sauce has such a gentle acid tang. The secret is that the pork is poked with holes and infused with ground garlic, oregano, cumin, lemon and bitter-orange juice overnight before it is roasted. And more garlic, lemon and bitter orange are boiled with onions into a glossy translucent sauce. Then there are the rich, dark herbal black beans and white rice to accompany the pork.

Of course, the menu lists other Cuban standards from ropa vieja to bistec Cantinita, and the paella includes 10 different meats and seafood. It's not all garlic heaven here -- the tamales can be bland, the lomo salteado chewy -- but the tastes ring true, the service has a homey welcome, and the portions would be generous at half the size.

Many restaurants serve bouillabaisse. Amend that: Many restaurants serve what they call bouillabaisse. And what La Fourchette serves under that name might be questioned by purists, since it isn't made with Mediterranean fish. But it comes closer than any I recall locally, by virtue of its flavor. And it is a delicious bargain at $14.95. The seafood in this bouillabaisse are scallops, shrimp in the shell, clams, mussels and fillets of fish. They are cooked to the right juicy moment, and taste just fine. But the crucial quality is the broth, clear and coral-colored, with the sweet-acid taste of tomato but not too much, the distinctive undertones of saffron and fennel, and the earthy enrichment of a mirepoix of carrots, onions, perhaps celery and leeks. Intensifying the broth are croutons of toasted French bread thickly spread with soft, creamy garlic-infused rouille, a kind of mayonnaise-on-the-wild-side to stir into the broth. No, it is not Marseille, but at least this bouillabaisse evokes your memories of the Riviera.

La Fourchette recalls France with more than its bouillabaisse, of course. The murals on the old brick walls, the sidewalk tables, the atmosphere of a Left Bank bistro are a start. Then there is the menu: warm, rich garlic sausage and potatoes drenched in vinaigrette, house-made pa~te' or onion tart, puff-pastry lunch entrees filled with ham and cheese or zucchini, and a long list of daily specials. La Fourchette serves homey stews as well as refined mousses and sauces. Its food has a personal, handmade quality, right down to the desserts of ground-almond cake with chocolate ganache and liqueur-marinated orange wedges crowned with candied peel.

2429 18th St. NW. 332-3077. Open: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch and dinner appetizers $3.95 to $6.25, lunch entrees $6.50 to $8.95, dinner entrees $8.95 to $16.95. LA PLAZA

Since its sister restaurant, Lauriol Plaza, seemed to have slipped on my last couple of visits, La Plaza drew me for a fresh look. The results were mixed. La Plaza too is precooking its chicken and duck dishes so that they are soggy and stringy under their vivacious sauces and garnishes. But this long Spanish and Mexican menu still has some attractions. Foremost on my last visit was the ceviche. It is a subtly beautiful appetizer, served on a glass dish lined with Boston lettuce leaves. It is piled generously with chunks of fish -- very white, very fresh and very juicy with a tart but not overwhelming lemon marinade. And its whiteness as well as its flavor is heightened by the green of finely minced parsley, cilantro, hot and mild green peppers and celery. The white and green mixture is then strewn with red onions for a refreshing color and flavor accent. And the interplay of texture is as lovely as the colors.

La Plaza has a fresh, pretty dining room as well, but to enjoy it at its best, pick buoyant weather and sit outside, where a terrace is enclosed by a trellis dripping with roses to add another faint perfume to your dinner.

1847 Columbia Rd. NW. 667-1900. Open: daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.50 to $6.25, entrees $7.50 to $18.95; dinner appetizers $4.25 to $7, entrees $8 to $18.95. LE CAPRICE

You'll have to wait for winter to appreciate Le Caprice's most unusual specialty, an Alsatian variation of choucroute, for it is a weighty combination of smoked pork, four or five kinds of sausage, thick bacon, duck confit and fluffy liver dumplings. So far it sounds like any familiar German or French pork-and-sauerkraut casserole. But at Le Caprice the tart fermented vegetable is turnips, shredded and salted like sauerkraut but milder than most.

But if you don't want to wait that long, you might catch the last of the summer's tomatoes teamed with marinated goat cheese, fresh basil and two kinds of olives in a vinaigrette spiced with sausage, or a puff pastry porcupine filled with crab and oysters on a fresh artichoke bottom. Those are just starters. Among main dishes are salmon stuffed with minced clams with noodles in lime butter, or a whole salmon trout in champagne cream. Le Caprice's menu changes with the seasons but always includes a few old favorites -- beef fillet poached in bouillon -- and new dishes noted not only for their inventiveness but also for their three-star garnishes.

This is a small restaurant as personal and charming as you might find in a French city after being directed to a local favorite by a native who knows. Yet while the dining room and the outdoor terrace tables are supremely pleasant, food is given serious emphasis.

2348 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-3394. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6:30 to 10 p.m., Friday 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.95 to $9.75, entrees $13.50 to $19.


Yannick Cam seems to have a new spurt of creative energy and in the last year has revamped his menu, with new dishes reflecting, among other things, a fascination with Asian ingredients. He's also changed the format to allow a la carte orders at dinner. Portion sizes have increased, so main dishes are pretty hefty and there should be no more complaints about leaving hungry.

This is a dining room that may seem utterly and discreetly luxurious or sterile, depending on your taste. And the appetizers -- particularly the cold ones -- may seem exquisite to some, fussy to others. What's more, unless you order carefully, your tab can climb into the stratosphere. The reward is that when Cam's dishes hit, they ring bells.

Take his pannequet de crevettes au saveur de curry, which amounts to a French-Thai spring roll. The wrapper is that wonderful crunchy-chewy fried rice paper used for Vietnamese cha gio, the filling is the most pearly and sea-sweet shrimp with the gentlest, freshest salmon and tiny shards of zucchini. And the sauce is pure fireworks, an extraordinary, light, clear curry skeined with green, mostly coriander. But the chili heat does not mask a concert of flavors. This fieriness is a surprise in a French restaurant, but no Asian spring roll in town can match it. Most dishes are far tamer, my favorite among these being tiny potato-dough pancakes sandwiched with lump crab meat and bathed in butter. More familiarly French are the raw or smoked salmon salads, the foie gras on a bed of marinated, nearly pickled, eggplant strips, the fillet of fish on a bed of sliced Jerusalem artichokes, the thick and crusty beef fillet with a mild, creamy garlic sauce. Each has an interesting touch, from the lamb's fennel puree and black olive fumet to the veal's sweet potatoes and ginger fumet, to the turnips and salsify that garnish the fowl. But you expect no less at such prices. What exceed expectations are such subtle astonishments as a dessert of creme caramel -- simply the best you will ever taste -- in a ruby-colored pool of minted, sweet red wine sauce that tastes like Bordeaux made by angels. It even beats the Pavillon classic, a bittersweet chocolate terrine fenced in by tiny meringues and floated on walnut cream.

1050 Connecticut Ave. NW. 833-3846. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6:45 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: fixed-price lunch $24 and $30; fixed-price dinner $70 and $85 (a la carte prices for dinner: appetizers $8.50 to $18, entrees $22 to $29). LUCIE

Lucie is as romantic as a hotel dining room can get. And its dishes have such a romantic ring to them: paupiette of sole and salmon mousse with osetra caviar sauce; fillet of roasted turbot and ragout of baby corn with haricots vert and white truffle essence. This is elaborate cooking, presented like works of art (but not too tortured). And while the food is generally good, it is punctuated by particular highlights. The vegetable accompaniments are often the stars, such as a small, round golden-crusted gratin of turnips, a pair of light and creamy potato croquettes and a woodsy fricassee of smoked mushrooms and asparagus blanketing strips of perfectly grilled steak.

And then there is duck -- not just duck as good as everyone else's, but duck that takes advantage of every flavor and texture nuance that bird has to offer. Just the breast is served, but the skin is left on, so that each slice is supple and juicy but rimmed with a crunch of skin that has been rendered of all excess fat. The sauce is strong and sharp, a reduction of red wine that might be too intense for some meat but highlights the duck. And the accompaniments add to the dazzle, from the cloud of fried angel-hair potatoes that make shoestrings seem clumsy, to the creamy marrow flan and the tiny cubes of asparagus for crunch.

While the portions are ample at Lucie, you should try to save room for dessert, for the pastry chef is a wonder at light-as-air puff pastry for a glorious raspberry napoleon and the most fragile and flaky crust for tangy lemon tarts.

Embassy Row Hotel, 2015 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 939-4250. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4 to $9, entrees $9 to $14; dinner appetizers $6.25 to $13, entrees $17 to $23 (five-course fixed-price dinner $45). MADEO

We've grown wary and a little weary of modern American menu conceits with their elaborately technical descriptions and their interminglings of bizarre ingredients. So we look for some cultural grounding to these inventions. Thus, while Madeo slips into occasional silliness with its Italian-accented American menu, when chef Jamie Stachowski gets it right, he has reached into tradition to create a new tradition.

When he first took over the kitchen of this soaring and simply beautiful restaurant, I was enchanted by his appetizer of crumb-coated grilled shrimp with, of all things, sardines as a subtle addition. Lately, though, I've found an even better invention on his menu. It's veal scaloppine "en Andouille," as he calls it, meaning the veal is shaped like an andouille sausage. The veal is superb, delicate "free range" meat. And this scaloppine is not cut paper-thin, but just thick enough to leave some texture to bite into. It is wrapped around a bundle of asparagus and roasted so the veal is flavorfully browned but still slightly pink and juicy. Then it is sliced and fanned out on the plate with rose-wine butter and garnished with a swirl of whipped sweet potato. The meat is glorious, particularly in combination with the barely crisp asparagus.

It looks like Japanese negimaki and has all the delicious cleverness of that beef-scallion combination. There is good reason why that Japanese invention worked, and similar justification for Madeo's reinterpretation.

1113 23rd St. NW. 457-0057. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $5.95, entrees $8.95 to $14; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $5.95, entrees $10.95 to $17.95. MANILA

The exotic has become commonplace to us. We order Vietnamese cha gio without even needing a translation. Pad thai, Jamaican jerk chicken, Salvadoran pupusas are the stuff of everyday dinners. Yet the food of the Philippines remains a mystery. Manila is one of Georgetown's most unusual restaurants, yet it is still one of the area's most unknown.

Some of its food is not all that strange: fried squid, shrimp ceviche, tiny spring rolls and seafood stew, even paella. But some has a twist that puts a newcomer off balance, as with the bitter melon and anchovy in the saute'ed vegetables, a heavy dose of garlic in the fresh-corn soup. Oxtails in peanut sauce, goat stew and sugared, peppered bacon are not destined to find easy favor. But on a cold day when we crave hearty food, Manila should come into its own.

There is, after all, adobo, either chicken or pork, the meat stewed in a rich tomato sauce with plenty of garlic and a vinegar undertone. It tastes like a distant relation to barbecue, but the meat is soft and tender, and the sauce is mellow rather than peppery -- though it plays on the tongue as barbecue does, and begs for spooning over your rice. The menu cites adobo as "one of the world's great peasant dishes," and I have no quarrel with that.

Other meats may not suit everyone in these fat-conscious days but are unabashedly delicious as well as rich. Crisp pork knuckles are huge hunks of meat banded with their skin, deep fried so they are crisp not only on the surface but deep into the meat. Like the pork, thick hunks of crunchy beef ribs are seasoned with garlic and served with a soy-vinegar dip. Duck is more highly seasoned, also fried, yet not as greasy as many a roasted duck. Any of these imposing meats, with a bottle of San Miguel beer, served amid the wood carvings that decorate Manila, will provide a hearty antidote when you are tired of salad days.

3280 M St. NW. 965-7877. Open: Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday through Sunday 5 to 11:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.85 to $6.75, entrees $7.95 to $13.50. McPHERSON GRILL

Once upon a time American food meant hamburgers and hot dogs. Now those all-American hamburgers are likely to be Cajun-blackened or salsa-topped, and the hot dogs might be barbecued duck sausages plumped on the grill. That's the signature appetizer at McPherson Grill, a modern American restaurant of cool chic, a clubby place where etched glass takes the place of mahogany but the hushed classiness of a traditional grill remains.

Defining this appetizer as duck sausage is only a start. This lean, smooth distant cousin of the hot dog comes sliced and fanned out on a sauce so dark and glossy it is nearly a glaze, with a hint of hot pepper and a faintly sweet finish. And sharing the plate are the crunchiest of corn chips and a tart, deeply fruity plum chutney that could make you wish Heinz had known it before ketchup.

But that is the strength of McPherson Grill: The garnishes are the stars of each plate. The crab cakes are dull, but their rough-cut, creamy looking charred tomato and onion relish deserves a plate of its own. In fact, when you are choosing your meal, keep in mind that it is the second line of each menu item that nudges each dish to shine -- the "ragout of plum tomato, smoked bacon and fava bean" with the chicken breast, the "fondue of tomato, essence of arugula and watercress" with the salmon trout, the red pepper sauce, the sesame cream. And don't ignore the a la carte potato-and-leek pancakes with sour cream. Then when the kitchen goes too far -- burdening pearly fresh soft-shell crabs with an overweight tempura batter -- the meal can still be a hit. At McPherson Grill the ingredients are excellent, the presentations show a flair for color, and such details as bread are raised above the ordinary, with house-made herbed biscuits as well as the usual French rolls.

950 15th St. NW. 638-0950. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5 to $7.25, entrees $14.95 to $19.95. MESKEREM

An Ethiopian dinner table looks like a palette. A tray is covered with spongy, sour linen-thin pancakes called injera, as pale as napkins. And your order is spooned over it -- a splotch of thick brown stew that turns out to be shrimp alitcha, a mound of saute'ed beef or lamb cubes called tibbs, a dollop of lentils, a couple of pieces of thickly sauced chicken with a hard-boiled egg. All the sauces are thick and dark, but one might be green from collards, another red from kitfo (peppery tartar steak, which is the star of the meal if you like fiery foods and enjoy raw meat). Alongside is a plate piled with folded napkins -- which turn out to be more injera, some of them gray from the authentic tef, the Ethiopian grain, others white from wheat flour. You eat with your hands, using pieces of injera to scoop up dabs of food. It is food that compels you to one more bite, leads you on to try another combination of a bit of this with a tad of that. Thus, one doesn't look for a great dish, but finds in the interplay of stews, vegetables, condiments and pancakes a great meal.

Meskerem's Ethiopian cooking is not necessarily the best of the dozen or more Ethiopian kitchens in town, but it has a particular authenticity since it uses tef for the injera, which makes a more tart and flavorful pancake. And its top-floor dining room is the most charming environment of any local Ethiopian restaurant.

2434 18th St. NW. 462-4100. Open: for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday through Sunday noon to 1 a.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2 to $3.75, entrees $6.25 to $9.75. MORTON'S OF CHICAGO

Who says we're eating light? More accurately, we're talking light. So every night at Morton's the tables fill with people talking low-cholesterol as they tuck into inches-thick steaks and three-pound lobsters. Morton's is as steakhouse as an American restaurant gets: Waiters show the menu in the flesh, giving a rap that equals a boardwalk Veg-O-Matic hawker's; giant portions of nothing-but-the-best meat and potatoes; and great booze.

All this is just to surround the raison d'etre for Morton's: steak. If you are looking for a great steak in Washington, it is Morton's porterhouse cooked black and blue. It's at least an inch thick, the meat well trimmed but marbled and aged so it really tastes like beef, the surface seared to a crust and the inside just beyond warm. Precede it with a monumental portion of smoked salmon or giant shrimp with powerful cocktail sauce, accompany it with an enormous baked Idaho potato or hash browns and perhaps some flawless asparagus (skip the supposedly beefsteak tomatoes), and follow it with a reasonably sophisticated apple-sour cream pie if you will. Occasionally substitute roast beef, delmonico or strip steak, double-thick lamb or veal chops or a broiled lobster. But if you miss the porterhouse, you haven't done Morton's justice. The only thing that outshines it is the double porterhouse, a massive three-pound hunk of meat that makes sharing worthwhile.

3251 Prospect St. NW. 342-6258. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $6.75 to $8.50, entrees $14.95 to $51.90. MOUNT AIRY PLANTATION

This historic mansion surrounded by gardens, majestic trees and even a duck pond is a hidden gem, still unknown by few beyond the boundaries of Prince George's County. And while it has some important flaws -- an unfinished-looking interior, amateurish service and frequent closings for private parties -- these are in the process of being changed. But even without the needed changes it is a showplace for the impressive cooking of chef Janet Terry. Terry honed her skills under Yannick Cam at Le Pavillon after the closing of her original restaurant, Samplings. Now she is on her own again, and better than ever.

Among her stellar appetizers you might find my favorite, wild mushrooms with crisp shards of asparagus, fennel and chives in a buttery nantaise sauce, or sea scallops stuffed with crab meat and pesto and topped with fried parsley. Main dishes are astonishing bargains, and more consistently excellent than the appetizers. Thick fillets of lamb are cooked crusty yet rare, bedded on lightly cooked spinach with flageolets and moistened with a pinot noir and rosemary sauce. They are accompanied by a velvety custard that gradually and subtly reveals its turnip base. This is lamb at its ideal, like most dishes here handsome without looking tortured or sacrificing quantity to art. The sauces are just undertones, accents, rather than dominant. So the menu continues, with roasted salmon topped with a cloud of hair-thin fried leek shreds and a red wine butter sauce, and breast of duck with a crunchy edge and a pink interior accompanied by fresh figs and wild mushrooms.

Mount Airy is working to upgrade its dining room, but its kitchen is ready for accolades.

8714 Rosaryville Rd., Upper Marlboro. 856-1860. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 8:30 p.m., Sunday brunch noon to 3 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $8.95 to $14.95, entrees $10.50 to $16.50; dinner appetizers $9.95 to $11.95, entrees $16.25 to $22; three-course fixed-price brunch, $29.50 per person. MRS. SIMPSON'S

At a time when fashionable menus need three lines to describe each dish, the menu at Mrs. Simpson's is a refreshing understatement. "An Antipasto -- $5.95," it says, elaborating only enough to tell you it includes mozzarella, tomatoes, fried ravioli and grilled vegetables. There are ripe and full-flavored tomatoes layered with very moist and delicate mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with herbs. Large flat squares of red pepper are striped with grill marks, and scallions are also grilled to a mellow, smoky state. A couple of hot pickled peppers and a halved hard-cooked egg crisscrossed with bits of anchovy are surprise garnishes, and down the center are fried cheese-stuffed ravioli with a roquefort dip. It's enough for a light meal, and a colorful, zesty beginning for dinner.

The rest of the menu, also sounding restrained, is generally as satisfying as the antipasto: The French farm salad is a succulent mix of crunchy diced thick-cut bacon and roquefort in a warm dressing that drenches a plateful of curly greens. Chinese-style duck is tender skinless breast, lightly rubbed with oriental seasonings, to be wrapped with hoisin sauce and scallops in Chinese pancakes. Parchment-baked fish is as moist as fish can be, its flavor nuances captured in the cooking and enhanced by onions and mushrooms. Swordfish is imbued with grill smoke and accompanied by a powerful red pepper sauce.

The food tends to be light, highly seasoned but uncomplicated, and very attractive. So is the dining room -- particularly in the evening when the candlelight sparkles in the mirrors. The wine list is intelligent and reasonably priced, the service is solicitious and polished enough that it charms without intruding. Mrs. Simpson's offers great urbanity at a modest price. It is a very, very civilized restaurant.

2915 Connecticut Ave. NW. 332-8300. Open: Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $4.75 to $5.95, entrees $8.95 to $16.95. MR. YUNG'S

Now that Mr. Yung's serves dim sum every day, I could find a great new dish seven days a week. The choice is enormous, the quality is high, and the prices are very low for these little luncheon tidbits. Furthermore, the regular menu lists enough familiar and exotic Cantonese and Hong Kong dishes that there must be even more numerous treasures it would take me months to find. Still, I have a favorite to suggest: shrimp steamed in lotus leaf. The shrimp, with their heads and shells intact, are as pink as cherry blossoms, lined up on the shell-shaped dark green leaf, decorated with sprays of pale green coriander leaves. You peel the shrimp by hand and re-dip them in the pan juices, which consist of about a dozen cloves of minced garlic (not as powerful as you might fear) with a little ginger and scallion, a touch of sesame oil and a faint orange tinge that makes me think some shrimp roe must have been included. This is relaxing-and-nibbling food, and the garlic-infused remnants invite you to saturate your rice to soak up the last bits.

The shrimp might not be the most pearly fresh, but they still have more flavor than snails, which French restaurants imbue with garlic in a similar way. And they take on an interesting undertone from the lotus leaf.

When the platter is left with nothing but a bare leaf and a pile of translucent shells, you clean your fingers in a bowl of ice water aromatic with tea and lime. It is a refreshing and charming ritual. And Mr. Yung's is an unfailingly gracious restaurant, which is a crucial quality in a dining room that from time to time draws such crowds that they have to wait outside the door.

740 Sixth St. NW. 628-1098. Open: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.20 to $3.95, entrees $5.95 to $6.95; dinner appetizers $2.95 to $8.95, entrees $5.50 to $19.95.NORA

Eating healthfully is a treat at Nora, an all-Americana restaurant that calls itself organic and biodynamic, yet has all the high style (and prices) of our most chic restaurants. What sets Nora apart is the attention it pays to using herbs and produce grown organically, procuring meats raised without antibiotics and making breads and pastas with organic flours. Not that the food tastes medicinal -- this is food for pleasure, without a doubt. While the menu changes daily, it always includes a soup such as spinach and roquefort with a chicken stock base, plus home-cured gravlax with Vidalia onions; probably the best caesar salad in town; grilled fish with a variety of salsa, vinaigrettes or sauces; fettuccine with perhaps vivid bits of vegetables and a plentitude of lobster; and a curry. Each dish is specially garnished, with couscous salad, buckwheat fettuccine, turnip greens, polenta or sweet potato pancake, to name a few. And that's the hint for the happiest surprise on the menu. Nora offers an organic vegetarian plate that for once doesn't make vegetarians feel like wallflowers. This one changes with the seasons, but contains about half a dozen marvels such as buttery, fleshy grilled portabella mushrooms, golden saffron risotto, a sparklingly dressed lentil salad and such green vegetables as asparagus and turnip greens. It is priced right up there with the meat dishes -- $15.95 on my last visit -- but deserves to be so, for it is a star, not an afterthought.

2132 Florida Ave. NW. 462-5143. Open: Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Cash or personal check only. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5.50 to $7.25, entrees $15.95 to $19.95. OBELISK

Great dishes are evanescent at Obelisk, since the menu changes daily and there are only two or three choices for each course of this fixed-price menu anyway. You aren't likely to find the same wonderful dish as last time, but there is virtually always at least one star on the menu -- that is, if your idea of great includes the pure and simple.

For example, the stunner of a recent dinner was noodles with crab meat and chives, almost white-on-white with flecks of green. The crab meat was flawless, pearly fresh lumps, the noodles were so thin and supple as to nearly disappear on the tongue, and these mild, subtle partners were dressed with just butter and chives. But each course has its stars, such as the antipasti of goat cheese tart with fresh artichoke bottoms or rich, coarse-chopped and winy chicken livers on a slab of toasted house-made bread. Lamb is a favorite main dish with Obelisk's fans, particularly the thick, rare medallion stuffed with just a smear of chopped black olive and scented with rosemary, accompanied by highly perfumed sliced fresh fennel and bits of pancetta. Then there are such desserts as a puckery lemon tart with a nutty fragile crust and garnish of berries that taste straight from the woods. Even the breads are outstanding, including fragile bread sticks as long as the table. And the parmesan cheese is truly aged and craggy.

Obelisk might miss with a dull and overcooked tuna, or its pappa al pomodoro might be too refined for this peasanty bread stew. But this Italian kitchen's genius for fresh simplicity doesn't lapse often.

The Occidental's double-cut pork chop looks like steakhouse fare and tastes like Santa Fe cooking. It is a handsome hunk of meat on the bone, at least an inch thick. Glazed with honey, cumin and coriander, it is caramelized so the edges are nearly black and very crunchy. On top is a cool-looking green salsa that packs a fiery punch and a cilantro aroma, with slivers of scallion to balance the honey glaze. And pooled on the plate is a ruddy brown wash of chipotle chili sauce that speaks for the Southwest. The sum is a tangle of bold and complex flavors just made for pork, though the peppers and cilantro might not be to every pork-chop fan's taste.

But that's the way of the Occidental Grill. It takes adventurous liberties with old favorites. Its fried mozzarella is layered with prosciutto between the mozzarella and bread, and smothered in well-browned pine nuts, capers and bits of tart sun-dried tomatoes. Its filleted salmon trout is etched with a coral sauce made from smoked red peppers, and its garnish is two mounds of fried shreds, one of leeks (delicious) and the other of jicama (not as good as the raw stuff). Its club sandwich is made with swordfish and layered on a brioche.

This sumptuous leather-and-glossy-wood clubby dining room is bustling and efficient, and its kitchen has found a happy meeting ground for new American invention and hearty, old-fashioned he-man food.

1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 783-1475. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5.95 to $7.50, entrees $13.95 to $17.95. OLD ANGLER'S INN

For decades Old Angler's faithfuls have returned to this restaurant-in-the-woods because of its setting rather than its food. Now the trip is worth it for the food as well. Chef Etienne Jaulin worked with Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate, and now combines that top-level training with a couple of years' experience in his own kitchen, and his style is coming into its own. It is not his complicated dishes that show Jaulin at his best. It is his simple and clever renditions of the exotic. His foie gras, for instance, is rubbed with Indian tandoori spices -- a brilliant idea, for their faint pepper and earthy tang contrast enticingly with the richness of the duck liver. It is accompanied by caramelized pineapple -- an irrelevant flourish -- and lightly dressed California greens, a better complement. This is a dish of great luxury, an appetizer that costs nearly as much as a main course. And perhaps only foie gras aficionados, who have often seen the usual fruit-sauced pan-seared foie gras, will see the originality of this. But in addition to its originality, it is a thrilling morsel, as fresh foie gras is generally likely to be.

Other dishes that show Jaulin's strengths are carpaccio of buffalo faintly flavored with fresh juniper berries and surrounded by exquisitely diced and lightly dressed sweet potatoes, and as an entree, slices of antelope, which is a meat of delectable flavor, served with a faint wash of apple-flavored sauce and home-fries made of tiny potatoes. Desserts are a letdown. And so is the low-ceilinged upstairs dining room. Sit out on the terrace if you can, or start out at one of the sofas in the cozy old downstairs lounge while you sip an aperitif and order your dinner, and return there for after-dinner relaxation.

10801 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. 365-2425. Open: Tuesday through Sunday for lunch noon to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $7.50, entrees $13.50 to $14.50; dinner appetizers $8.25 to $17.50, entrees $18.25 to $28. PAN-ASIAN NOODLES & GRILL

One of Washington's success stories in recent years has been Pan-Asian Noodles & Grill, which started out as one neon-decorated dining room and has spread to two restaurants. The secrets to its success have been an interesting variety of Asian dishes at modest prices with gracious service in a bright modern environment. The menu is small but encompasses meal-size bowls of noodle soups, entrees ranging from China's lo mein and chow foon to Thailand's pud thai. It also features a few grilled dishes from appetizer brochettes to the day's fish. And several nationalities' versions of spring rolls have been added, such as cha gio and egg rolls. But along with this restaurant's increasing popularity and expansion, the food has lately lost some of its character. Appetizers and main dishes were uniformly sweet on my last visit, and the pepper has been muted in the spicy dishes. Fried nuggets of chicken and crab in bean curd skin are the most reliable appetizers I've tried lately; the spring rolls, on the other hand, have been greasy and bland. Pud thai -- which already was a little sweet in the beginning -- is the most consistent of the main dishes at the moment. But I expect these flaws are temporary, and the P Street branch is reputed to have the more reliably good kitchen.

Even nowadays, though, Pan-Asian has one bright star, a dessert of coconut rice with mango. The rice -- the glossy, sticky, glutinous variety -- is infused with coconut and served warm, while the fresh mango is sliced and served cold alongside. The interplay of temperatures and the mingling of sweet and tart make an astonishingly good dessert. If you miss it this season, mark your calendar for mango season next spring and hope that Pan-Asian finds a substitute fruit in the coming winter months.

2020 P St. NW. 872-8889. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested for parties of four or more. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $5.95, entrees $5.95 to $7.95; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $5.95, entrees $6.95 to $8.95. (Other location: 1018 Vermont Ave. NW, 783-8899.)QUEEN BEE

It is hard to do more than scratch the surface of Queen Bee's long and varied Vietnamese menu. But that's partly because you don't want to skip the commonplace here. Queen Bee's cha gio -- spring rolls of ground pork, crab, noodles and vegetables in crisp rice-paper wrap -- are among the best in town. And while the Hanoi-style grilled pork is not so different from the skewered pork in nearly every Vietnamese restaurant, it is more delicious. The tender meat is marinated with honey and scallions, and charcoal-broiled so that its edges are crisp, its center is juicy, and its seasoning is just faintly sweet, with aromatic undertones of garlic and scallion. It is served with lettuce and fresh coriander or mint leaves, with a side dish of thin noodles to mince together on your plate or wrap into a lettuce roll.

For a sweeter and moderately peppery dish, chicken with lemon grass is pleasant to spoon over rice. Roasted duck, quail and pork are available with rice, or they can be ordered atop bowls of soup and noodles. Linking France and Vietnam is Vietnamese steak, the juicy chunks of steak marinated with wine and garlic, then saute'ed in butter. The long-cooked beef soup, pho, has a proper depth of flavor; the green papaya salad with beef jerky has the proper dry crunch to the meat; the creamy iced coffee has the proper deep color and flavor. In all, Queen Bee is a highly professional restaurant, comfortable and decorative, efficient and welcoming. And rarely is such consistent, high-quality cooking such a bargain. No wonder the weekend lines stretch endlessly.

It would be terrible to have to decide between the old and the new at the River Club. Should I treat myself to another chance to eat the Chinese-style smoked lobster or should I try the new saute'ed halibut coated in macadamia nuts with coconut lime butter sauce? Fortunately, such a decision is not necessary. I can have both. The River Club offers most of its main dishes as half-portions, so I can try it all.

It's a good thing, since the lobster is better than ever -- the cut-up lobster in the shell so sweetly fresh and tender, faintly smoky from its high-heat searing in a wok. And the halibut is even better than it sounds, the thick fillet snowy and juicy, the nut coating crunchy, the butter sauce aromatic without being cloying, just very lush and tropical.

Even so, there are painful decisions, because this menu is a dazzler. The swordfish isn't just grilled swordfish, it is perfectly grilled swordfish aswim in fragrant green dill pesto butter sauce, with delicious little Chinese shrimp and sesame dumplings alongside. Shrimp are not just shrimp, but huge stir-fried ones with a rich and mild Indonesian peanut sauce and a garnish of crunchy fried pasta and juicy papaya salad.

Chef Jeff Tunks grows ever more Asian and elaborate in his cooking. He takes those slick, glossy Chinese rice-noodle crepes from the dim sum repertoire and fills them with the juiciest, most flavorful strips of duck, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts, and tops them with a black-bean sauce raised to haute French elegance. That's for a starter. And as an ending, he ennobles banana cream pie with a carefully handled crust, a creamy depth, a macadamia crunch and a pool of irresistible bittersweet chocolate sauce. Creme brulee is blessed with strawberries and rhubarb.

These delicacies -- as well as an endearing wine list -- are served in an art deco set worthy of Hollywood, by a dining room crew that knows that serving such food is a privilege and an art. All this and dancing too.

3223 K St. NW. 333-8118. Open: Monday through Saturday 6 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $6.75 to $14; entrees $17 to $29. RT'S

Choosing one great dish at RT's is an unreasonable assignment. This is the kind of restaurant where you want to go with a tableful of friends and sample each other's food so you don't have to pass up the oysters three-way, the shrimp and lump crab meat with creamy Jack Daniel's sauce, the she-crab soup or the crunchy, peppery Southern-fried calamari with its powerful cajun remoulade. And that doesn't even take you to the main dishes, where true blackened fish vies with the richest, most mysteriously wonderful crawfish etouffee and the delicious complexity of spicy pecan-crusted chicken with crawfish and creole mustard sauce.

One dish is not to be missed, though (and fortunately it can be ordered as an appetizer as well as a main dish). It's Acadian peppered shrimp, and if you stop to give a moment's thought to the fat content, you will deservedly miss one of life's great flavor combinations.

RT's makes up the sauce once a week, and to give you an idea of its spice level, to 30 pounds of mixed butter and margerine the chef adds four pounds of black pepper. He also adds plenty of dried rosemary, Tabasco, worcestershire, chopped garlic and bay leaf. So far, it's a lot like the memorable barbecued shrimp sauce Pascal's Manale used to make in New Orleans years ago before that restaurant lost its soul. But then RT's adds unorthodox lemon slices, a lot of them, which practically melt into the butter so that all you find are very tender strips of peel. The sauce is cooked for half an hour, then used to quickly saute large shrimp. These must be shrimp with the heads and shells intact, to impart enough shrimp flavor to the sauce. The shrimp are served with plenty of buttery sauce, with bread for dipping and towels for wiping. But you might find it such a shame to miss the slightest morsel of flavor that you'd rather lick your fingers.

3804 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 684-6010. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $5.95, entrees $4.95 to $12.50; dinner appetizers $5 to $6.95, entrees $10.95 to $17.95. SALA THAI

While American and European restaurants are finally catching on to the fact that diners want more casual restaurants at moderate prices without sacrificing food quality or style, Thai restaurants have already gotten the message. Sala Thai is no fancier or more expensive than a cafe, but its color scheme is electric, its service is attentive, and its food is as brilliant as any full-dress restaurant.

The best of Sala Thai is its seafood, and the best time of year to dine here is in soft-shell crab season. If there are soft-shells, think green. They can be ordered lightly crisped with a creamy pale green curry sauce that is astonishing: Its flavor is of myriad spices and chilies, but it is delicate enough to allow the crab taste to emerge. This is a curry sauce tasted through a veil -- all the color, the aroma and the depth without the numbing intensity. Since most of the year is not soft-shell season, also think red -- the sunset-colored curry peanut sauce that dresses shrimp. The dish is a stunner, with pink shrimp against the red-gold sauce and dark green whole leaves of basil. Once again the flavors are dashing, but the firepower is only a background for the subtle shrimp.

There is plenty more to admire on this long menu, from lemony and incendiary cellophane noodles tossed with shrimp and pork as an appetizer as refreshing as a salad, to addictive juicy little skewers of pork satay, to shrimp in eggroll wrappers called Pinky in the Blanket. Even a neon-red sweet-and-sour seafood is of serious quality. Only steamed duck -- flabby and fatty -- has been disappointing.

2016 P St. NW. 872-1144. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: $4.25 to $6.95, entrees $5.50 to $6.95; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $6.95, entrees $6.50 to $12.95. SAM & HARRY'S

Because this is a steakhouse, much is predictable, from the top-quality beef to the immense portions to the loving attention that goes into the preparation of potatoes. But the sleeper on the menu is crab cakes. Served as an appetizer, they are little rounds of almost solid lump crab meat, barely bound but boldly seasoned and spiked with capers. The seasonings just heighten the sweet crab flavor, and the light saute'eing leaves the surface lacy and browned but doesn't add heaviness. A potent remoulade enlivens them if you like more punch.

If you're looking for heavy, though, you can do well with the porterhouse steak, Mom's Mashed Potatoes and a steakhouse salad. Anything fancy, complex or meant to be covered in a subtle sauce at Sam & Harry's is likely to remind you that a steakhouse is for simplicity. And the seafood can't come close to the quality of the meats. The surroundings look like corporate elegance, the service is experienced, and the prices are ambitious. If you're not diverted from the main business -- plain old meat and potatoes with a brief side trip for crab cakes -- you'll see what started Sam & Harry's off as a winner.

1200 19th St. NW. 296-4333. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $6.95 to $8.95, entrees $7.95 to $19.95; dinner appetizers $7.95 to $9.50, entrees $14.95 to $26.95. SANTA FE EAST

There's lots of good food on the menu at Santa Fe East, Alexandria's intersection of urban elegance and Southwestern casualness. But I tend to like the first courses best, because by the time the subsequent courses come, I am usually so irritated by the lackadaisical service that I'm more interested in leaving than eating. Santa Fe East has the spaciest service I know, which is at odds with the intricate and careful cooking.

These days the dish that most impresses me is the chevre chile relleno, a pale green fresh anaheim chili filled with a creamy and tangy mixture of goat cheese, cream cheese, garlic and herbs, then fried in a light, crunchy coating of blue cornmeal. On the plate this oozy and delicious little morsel is draped with green chili stew, thick with shreds of pork and fiery with green chilies. Shredded jicama, mounded on the side, cools the fire. Despite the cheeses and the frying, this is a light and refreshing appetizer.

Main courses include straightforward grilled steaks, chicken and venison with Southwestern seasonings, as well as complex and vibrant enchiladas with duck, smoked chicken or cheese and mushrooms, gloriously multi-hued nachos and even pleasant pastas with a Southwestern vividness. Only my formerly favorite dish -- blue-cornmeal calamari -- fell flat on my most recent visit. The problem at Santa Fe East is not talent; it is energy and coordination.

110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria. 548-6900. Open: for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95, entrees $4.95 to $5.95; dinner appetizers $3.95 to $7.75, entrees $9.95 to $25.50. SHOLL'S COLONIAL CAFETERIA

Whenever I get back to Sholl's cafeteria (which is none too often nowadays), I wish I had occasion to return at least once a week. It's a way of keeping in touch with the past, for the chicken a` la king has a grandmotherly style, the chopped steak tastes as meaty, lean and juicy as it did in my childhood, the mashed potatoes are from scratch (as are the puddings), and the fried fish has never been frozen or left to grow soggy. The choices include such nostalgic offerings as spoon bread and pineapple upside-down cake, and when crab cakes are on the menu, they may be creamier than you'd like, but they are made with lump crab and cost an astonishing $3.15.

If you measured the allotments of display space, though, you'd come to the appropriate conclusion that the pies are the enduring glory of Sholl's. The array itself is impressive -- apple, cherry, chocolate, lemon meringue, several other kinds of cream pies and custard pies, the seasonal fruits such as blueberry, rhubarb and peach. I always feel stuck among at least five irresistible choices. And not only are their flavors varied and their fillings made of fresh ingredients, but they have those almost extinct crusts that are thin, light, flaky and well browned. Few home cooks still make such crusts.

Sholl's is a bargain -- rarely does a meal reach $5. It is cozy and clean, its dining room is comfortable, and the service is efficient. But most important, it is a protector of plain fresh American cooking and a living museum to the all-American pie.

1990 K St. NW. 296-3065. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 4 to 8 p.m. Closed Sunday. Cash only. No reservations. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: entrees $1.10 to $4.50, desserts $.45 to $.85. SIDDHARTHA

With time and patience you could learn a lot about Indian food by making your way through Siddhartha's menu, even though it is all vegetarian. There might be a dozen vegetable curries available, as well as three kinds of dossas -- crisp, paper-thin rolled pancakes about two feet in diameter, usually filled with onions and potatoes. Other doughy options are thick, soft steamed rice cakes -- idli -- and lentil-based savory doughnuts called medu wada. There is the usual range of breads such as poori, pakora and papad and an astonishing variety of fried appetizers, including samosas, bhajiya and more. There are cold dishes and side dishes, fragrant drinks of mango with yogurt and almond-pistachio milk with cardamom seeds. The desserts number almost a dozen and a half. Furthermore, you can fill up for well under $10, even if all your choices don't turn out to your taste.

I would not recommend all of Siddhartha's menu. Fried foods are heavy, desserts are intensely sweet, and vegetable curries can be cooked to a pulp. But a dossa -- either the mild masala dossa or the spicier mysore masala -- is a joy of a $4 meal, the crunchy pancake very light, the spiced potatoes plentiful and homey, the side dishes of lentil soup and mild chutney pleasant fillips. What's more, this earthy food is served in a pristine new second-floor dining room whose interior is filled with families, mostly Indian, who bring Silver Spring life right into Siddhartha.

The service is cafeteria style, the utensils are disposable. And so popular is this place that you ought to take time to absorb the menu before you step up to the counter. It's not a setting that welcomes indecision. But if you are in doubt, a masala dossa and a glass of masala milk is likely to be about as good a decision as you will have made all day.

8241 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 585-0550. Open: Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday. Cash only. No reservations. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $1.75 to $2.25, entrees $4 to $9. (Other location: 1379 K St. NW. 682-9090.) TWENTY-ONE FEDERAL

Who would have thought a decade ago that business lunchers in three-piece suits would be ordering roasted poblano chilies with pork, orange and cilantro or spit-roasted pork Caribbean style? Expense-account tastes have changed from the safety of French haute cuisine to the adventure of Southwestern, Asian and all kinds of flavors blended into elegant new American dishes. Twenty-One Federal has been a leader and a model in this exploration. Its ingredients are outstanding, and the instincts of chef Bob Kinkead are both bold and tasteful -- he knows just how far originality should go. The results are exciting.

The Southwestern steak tartar, for example, is world-class and then some. The impeccably lean raw beef is hand-chopped and seasoned with earthy Southwestern spices, but not so much that the beef flavor is lost. It is mounded on a pool of two colorful sauces, but even the red-pepper sauce is gentle enough to highlight rather than upstage the meat.

But raw meat is not to everyone's taste. No loss. There are still such suave inventions as salmon fillet smothered with sweetly cooked shredded onions and endive, and topped with grated potatoes browned to a buttery crackle. Surrounding this luscious construction is a lightly creamy mushroom sauce with a backbone of tartness. It's a salmon dish worthy of the swim upstream.

The menu goes on to well-seasoned and rotisserie-roasted meats and poultry -- lamb, beef, pork and chicken -- and plenty of other complex fish entrees. Breads, in beautiful array, are house-made. And while the desserts don't reach their former glory (nor does the lobster-and-crab cake, incidentally), they are still better than most. The dining room is soaring and sedately handsome, the service is professional, the wine list is well-bred. Twenty-One Federal adds up to an all-American class act.

1736 L St. NW. 331-9771. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $6.50 to $8, entrees $13.50 to $18.50; dinner appetizers $8 to $12, entrees $18 to $25.WILLARD ROOM

It hardly matters what they serve in the Willard's grand dining room, since it is as beautiful as a dining room gets. The faux marble columns, the luscious woodwork, the ornate -- and very high -- beamed ceiling add up to a setting where a glass of water could taste like wine (which is a good thing, since a glass of wine costs as much as a main course would in most restaurants).

The cooking is new American, which means an inventive twist to everything: rosemary walnut jus with the lamb, raspberry sauce and white trumpet mushrooms with the dover sole. Much of it is good -- the sole is really from Dover and bouncing with freshness, the rockfish is perfectly cooked and gently moistened with lime-peppercorn beurre blanc. But the standouts are the desserts. And the Oscar winner of these is a warm macadamia tart, which is a cross between pecan pie and Derby pie but with only half the sweetness. The crust is stunning, so light, flaky and fragile that it shatters under the fork and melts on the tongue. The filling is a bit of translucent caramel-colored custard but not too sugary, skeined with chocolate, which has melted in the warming, all cementing crunchy whole macadamias glistening with a caramel glaze. A scoop of fine vanilla ice cream mellows it all.

The menu has odd missteps: Marinated scallops have tasted blank, tiger prawns have reeked of iodine, and sauces sometimes have more color than flavor. So I would order lightly, enjoy the architectural glory and save myself for dessert.

Willard Intercontinental, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 637-7440. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner daily 6 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch entrees $16 to $20.50 (three-course fixed-price lunch $28); dinner appetizers $12.50 to $15; entrees $22 to $28.50 (three-course fixed-price dinner $42).