8714 Rosaryville Rd., Upper Marlboro. 301-856-1860. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 9 p.m., for brunch Sunday 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 $8.95 to $12.95, entrees $16.25 to $22. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 to $60 per person.

Dear Santa:

We've tried to be good this year. We've cleaned house, we've tightened up our spending. So we hope you'll think us worthy of an exciting gift this Christmas.

What we have in mind is a really special restaurant, outside the city and the sprawl of suburbia. We know we have the Inn at Little Washington and L'Auberge Chez Francois, but we'd like another, one where we don't have to reserve dinner weeks ahead. And we'd like to explore the Maryland countryside for a change.

We dream of an old mansion, the kind with a circular driveway where a valet parks your car, an estate with gardens and a duck pond. A skylight over the dining room would be neat, and we'd like a few antique furnishings.

But even more important, we want the food to be worth a detour, as the French say. We realize we have to accept some awkward service in a groundbreaking restaurant well outside the Beltway, and we no longer expect to find rural prices within an easy ride of the city. But if we have to pay downtown prices, we'd like to have downtown quality. We want a place where we can go for an anniversary. We want a country inn worth a celebration. Happy Holidays, Washington's Diners Dear Washington:

You've got it. About 20 miles and a 35-minute drive from Dupont Circle, there's the Mount Airy Plantation, an 18th-century country inn -- white columns, duck pond, circular driveway and all -- that has a kitchen to compete with the best. Janet Terry, formerly of the West End Cafe and Samplings, lately of Le Pavillon, does the cooking, and the people who run the Morrison-Clark Inn have taken over the management.

Terry's menu is small, maybe five main dishes and twice as many appetizers; even so, the problem is choosing among dishes that sound irresistible. The appetizers are extraordinary and, at $8.95 to $12.95 each, are priced accordingly. Main dishes are a relative bargain at $16.25 to $22. That means you needn't spend a lot for such elegant cooking if you want just a main course.

But listen to these appetizers: ragout of wild mushrooms with asparagus, fennel and tarragon in sauce nantais; salad of breast of pigeon with tiny green beans and roasted shallot flan in an herbed walnut oil; pumpkin tortellini with shallot and green apple in a sage butter; roasted lobster with beet puree and Belgian endive in ginger butter sauce. And they taste even better. Those tortellini are made of glistening translucent pasta, filled with pumpkin puree so subtle you might not identify it, and the wash of butter sauce is so tart and light that the dish is as refreshing as a salad. The lobster is plump and silken, and while I generally find beet puree sweetly bland, the ginger sharpens it. And while the phyllo-wrapped duck "egg rolls" on the new winter menu aren't as sumptuous as the three-duck in phyllo was on the fall one, they are nevertheless charming. And there is the most elegant tomato soup imaginable, garlicky with a dollop of aioli and perfumed with an emerald green garlic flan.

Lamb at Mount Airy is a glory. Two thick cuts of loin are stripped of any hint of fat, seared and cooked pink. They are tender, juicy and gently meaty, teamed with crisp bits of bacon and chunks of fresh artichoke in a tangy black olive sauce. Chicken is combined with fennel and chard in roasted garlic butter. And if you've given up on chicken as bland and dry, try it here, where it tastes as if it were raised like Kobe beef. Duck is also so tender it might have been massaged, and the sliced breast meat is cooked just past rare, accompanied by black figs and wild mushrooms -- an inspired combination -- with a red wine-citrus glaze that has just the right tang to cut the richness. Roasted salmon is a thick fillet, crusty from its searing and barely cooked inside. It's topped with a cloud of hair-thin fried leek shreds that are like designer onion rings, and served on cooked nappa cabbage with a faint slick of red wine butter sauce. These sauces are accents, heighteners rather than show stealers.

Do I sound blinded to flaws? There are a few. I have found the veal medallions dull, gorgeous pale meat that's perfectly cooked but vapid, particularly in contrast with the other more vivid dishes. Occasionally Terry undercooks vegetables so that the spinach is barely wilted, the baby eggplants are chewy and bitter, and the flageolets are crunchy. And her vegetable flans, which are ambitious garnishes to appetizers and main dishes, sometimes haven't the fragile texture or intense flavor I'd expect.

The Sunday brunch menu is hardly different from dinner, and afternoons show the grounds to advantage. Classical music plays, the complimentary champagne flows. But there are no egg dishes or vaguely breakfast-like entrees. I'd like to see more contrast with dinner, and I've heard complaints about skimpy portions.

I didn't notice an insufficiency because I always fill up on Terry's sliced brioche, which competes with Jean-Louis Palladin's for the World Cup of brioche, as far as I'm concerned. At brunch Terry toasts it, which doesn't do it any good; I prefer it untoasted.

At Mount Airy one wants to leave room for dessert. A trio of sensational cre`me bru~le'es are flavored with ginger, hazelnut and orange. There's also an airy, nutty chocolate almond torte -- wonderful -- garnished with chestnut mousse and a tiny dollop of berries in coulis. Lovely cookies are accompanied by berries with two sauces. Then there is the sleeper among desserts, a ruby red mirabelle soup with an herb-infused flan. It's an intriguing, refreshing and absolutely delicious chilled fruit essence, modulated by the custard. If white chocolate mousse with ginger is available, remember that Terry learned it from the master, Yannick Cam, at Le Pavillon.

Mount Airy has a list of compelling, reasonably priced wines, particularly the '82 and '83 bordeaux. There are also good burgundies, interesting German and Italian wines, plenty of California choices and an array of dessert wines.

You won't always find urbane service at Mount Airy. It's still inconsistent and sometimes awkward. And you'd better get the directions precisely, because you can go far astray if you're unfamiliar with the neighborhood. But if you want a drive in the country to taste the fruits of well-honed talent, it's beyond those white columns at the Mount Airy Plantation. Love, Santa