Do you want to know the truth? The best part of getting paid to eat--discovering a great restaurant--also tends to be the most conflicting part of the job. Because as soon as I finish writing about a restaurant I like, be it a source of good fish and chips or a temple of high food fashion, I feel compelled to shift gears and start looking for the next Place You Should Know About. Between exploring what's new and keeping tabs on what's been around awhile, there is little time for returning to a favorite restaurant just for fun.

This is not the way anyone but a food critic should eat. My advice to most of you is to collect a handful of restaurants you like, and to cultivate a relationship with them; when you get to know the menu, and the staff becomes familiar--when a place begins to feel like an extension of home--you can't help gaining more pleas-ure from the experience.

No wonder I look forward every year to reporting for this dining guide: It's a chance to flip through my food diary and revisit all the restaurants I've come to admire. Starting in the spring, I drew up a long list of places to check out and began the sometimes agonizing process of elimination as I dined all over the map. Despite a difficult year for

the industry--economically and emotionally--it was a thrill to see some chefs performing better than ever, and a disappointment to discover that a few old reliables aren't so reliable these days.

Restaurants come in all shapes and sizes. A storefront with bare tables and paper napkins can't possibly compete with a dining room that spends thousands of dollars a month just on fresh flowers. So I judge places based on what they promise and how well they deliver on that. If I'm spending $10 for dinner and the service is slow, well, I'm less likely to care than when I'm paying triple digits.

What follows is not a list of "bests," but a list of preferences--my preferences. For without having eaten in every single Thai, French or Ethiopian restaurant in the area, it would be difficult and perhaps unfair for me to proclaim a No. 1 Thai, French or Ethiopian restaurant. Instead, I share with you the names of places I tell my friends and family to go, or where I'd choose to spend my own money. To me, each one makes the Washington area a better place to eat.

Do I keep secrets? All the time. The famous chef who makes his own wine at home and pours it for special guests in his restaurant can relax; the health department won't get your name from me (although it tried). The "secret sauce" drizzled over the house specialty at a beloved neighborhood restaurant--a recipe revealed to me by its creator if I promised not to tell anyone--will remain a secret, too.

In good conscience, though, I cannot withhold a good dining tip. Here, then, are some suggestions to keep you busy until next fall. Consider them pages torn from my little black book.

Al Tiramisu

"These are my kids," announces the waiter, holding a silver platter of bright-eyed fish, giant prawns and wriggling crabs. Playful service is one of the many reasons I always anticipate a meal in this cozy neighborhood restaurant, which falls somewhere between a spaghetti house and a temple of haute Italian cooking. The room is narrow and cramped, though yellow paint, faux shutters and a small fireplace in the rear try to make you forget that, and the kitchen serves up the kind of unfussy cooking, based on quality ingredients, that distinguishes the Italian way. Fresh fish is only one avenue to pursue. The pastas (try spinach- and ricotta-stuffed ravioli with sage butter) also prove memorable, as do the meat dishes, which include thinly pounded veal decked out with Parma ham and fresh herbs and served with savory vegetables. Just remember to ask about the prices of the recited specials, which cost substantially more than the choices on the printed menu.

2014 P St. NW (near Hopkins Street). 202-467-4466. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $12.90 to $16.90, dinner $14.90 to $17.90.

Artie's

The revolving door at the entrance to this all-American outpost rarely stops turning, and I can think of plenty of reasons why. Artie's has all the efficiency of a big chain restaurant but the soul of a mom and pop (that is, if Mom and Pop had a couple million dollars for interior renovation). The service is engaging and smart, the menu has some-thing for everyone, and the main dining room is cozy with knotty pine walls, green booths and a small fleet of model boats to complement its lakefront mural. There are very good hamburgers tickled with hickory smoke, inviting salads, freshly made soups and a decadent nosh of fried potato chips with blue cheese and chopped tomatoes. New on the menu: halibut tiled in potato slices, and pork tenderloin, the roasted meat glazed with citrus and chipotle and served with cheesy julienned potatoes. Both entrees are winners. The generous portions rule out ordering dessert--until you see your neighbors ooh and aah over warm and nutty apple pie or whatever delectable ice cream was made that day. Of course you'll make room.

3260 Old Lee Hwy. (near Route 50), Fairfax. 703-273-7600. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; for dinner daily; for brunch Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $17, dinner $8 to $27.

Bistro Bis

For dress-up dining, this is my favorite place on the Hill. The convivial bar makes a great roost for people who care as much about a proper cocktail as about what bills are under consideration in Congress, while the dining room, all warm wood and honeyed lighting, buzzes with talk of politics, love lives and "What do you want to see tomorrow?" (those would be tourists from the adjoining hotel). Most of the dishes are French; not all are created equal. Onion soup was shockingly wan on my last visit, lamb with merguez sausage a snooze. But there remains much more to savor. The kitchen chops a robust steak tartare (served informally, with potato chips for scooping up) and rolls out a deeply flavorful roasted tomato tart, made from a buttery pastry disk and tomatoes dusted with fresh basil and shards of Parmesan cheese. Twice I've sampled the vegetable plate and twice I've been impressed by its seasonality, and it looks beautiful to boot. Deeper into the menu one can find moist rabbit with spaetzle, sauteed trout with capers, and specials like one night's meltingly tender veal ribs, framed in a Thanksgiving's worth of lovely roast vegetables. Don't look now, but Hillary just strolled in.

In the Hotel George, 15 E St. NW (near North Capitol Street). 202-661-2700. Open: for breakfast and dinner daily; for lunch Monday through Friday; for brunch Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $13.25 to $23.50, dinner $18.75 to $29.50.

Bistrot Lepic

It's small and snug and seemingly always busy, a gathering spot for ladies who lunch, dashing retired diplomats and the stray tourist lucky enough to find himself in this sunny dining room in upper Georgetown. The menu is varied, the cooking sure, the plates attractive. Beets and goat cheese mingle in a lovely little tower served with a chic salad and toasted bread, while duck confit enriches a hearty lentil soup. Look for boudin blanc, a mousse-like sausage that is one of my favorite dishes here, paired with sauteed apples and silky potato puree. There is food for light appetites--shrimp with whatever vegetables are in vogue--and food for people who want something more robust, maybe a special of nicely cooked lamb atop a risotto thick with potatoes. A diner also can count on fruit desserts that, in the European fashion, aren't too sweet, and a loose French spirit to the service. Upstairs there's an intimate new lounge, where terra-cotta walls, cork tile flooring and low tables with custom-made chairs make a sexy backdrop to a brief menu of what chef-owner Bruno Fortin calls "international tapas": tuna tartare, vegetable terrine, cumin chicken.

1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near S Street). 202-333-0111. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $11.95 to $16.95, dinner $15.95 to $20.95.

Black's Bar and Kitchen

You walk across a wooden porch to get to the screen door that separates a lively bar from the dining room, but that's where the sense of rustic charm yields to urban refinement at one of Bethesda's most appealing places to eat. Soup here is wonderful, be it pea soup decorated with crab in spring or spicy corn soup garnished with crisp-fried oysters in late summer. Depending on the time of year, you can also reel in soft-shell crabs poised on a mound of jicama, red onion and citrus; seafood stew made from just about anything that ever swam (including duck sausage), in a tomatoey broth; a pair of shrimp tacos, the smoky shrimp sharing room with avocado, poblano chilies and a rousing lime-cilantro vinaigrette. This is all interesting, if sometimes busy, food, prepared by chef David Craig. Meat and dessert courses are not the reason to visit; gracious service and Gulf shrimp--brassy with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and garlic over linguine--definitely are.

7750 Woodmont Ave. (near Old Georgetown Road), Bethesda. 301-652-6278. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $13.95, dinner $18 to $28.

Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern

Man shall not live by steak alone. But that's almost all Tysons Corner offered in upscale restaurants before Bob Kinkead sent his No. 2 chef at Kinkead's seafood restaurant in Washington to Northern Virginia last fall. Like the place in the city, this one serves bountiful plates of spirited food that look to the world for inspiration; but unlike at Kinkead's downtown, the menu here holds more turf than surf. So there are a trio of pates (rabbit, foie gras and duck), squab with delicate potato gnocchi, and a Rolls Royce of a carving cart, under whose dome sits a handsome hunk of beef, pork, venison or rack of veal; accompanying the protein might be spiced apples, sweet carrots, verdant Swiss chard and glistening beets. You'll want to loosen your belt to accommodate dessert, but you'll be glad you did after exploring the luscious mango tart or a bavarian of coconut and lime curd. It's not just the cooking, under the direction of Jeff Gaetjen, that impresses me. I love walking in to see a fire warming the foyer lounge, a big marble bar at which to wait for friends, and the choice of four dining rooms, each with a regional theme. The Charleston, sophisticated in shades of gold and black, and the Shenandoah, cozy with a flagstone hearth, are my favorites; avoid, if you can, the bland Nantucket.

8045 Leesburg Pike (near International Drive), Tysons Corner. 703-356-9500. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $14 to $21, dinner $21 to $37.

Breadline

Bread is the star of the show, and customers waiting in line to order it in some form--as a pizza, a sandwich, an empanada--are the rule at this downtown bakery-cafe, situated an olive roll's toss from the World Bank. Open and airy, the Breadline combines an industrial look--concrete floors and naked light bulbs suspended from the ceiling--with the reassuring aromas of a kitchen that truly cares how you eat. So expect tomatoes only in season and forget Coke (the refrigerator case invites you to try instead fresh fruit and vegetable juices). Yes, the owner is a friend of mine, but I'd be remiss not to tell you about this place. Almost everything that can be made from scratch is, and the ingredients are all prime, which means the prosciutto hails from Parma and the Parmesan is Reggiano. The french fries are amazing, the seasonal soups comforting, the sandwiches all models of their kind (my latest passion is meatballs--soft, minty and shaped from ground Niman Ranch beef). The noise drowns out the classical music and the ordering process remains awkward, but then there's the bonus of an occasional celebrity sighting. Former Reagan aide Michael Deaver and (Tuesdays only) a cup of spicy peanut soup give you something to talk about at the water cooler.

1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (near 18th Street). 202-822-8900. Open: for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $5.75 to $8.50.

Burma

The best restaurant in Chinatown these days isn't Chinese, but Burmese, and if you're not familiar with the cooking style, keep in mind that Burma shares borders with India, China and Thailand. Imagine a repertoire of pork and seafood, hot and sour, crisp and soft, dried fish and coconut milk, noodles and curries--in all, a seductive marriage of cultures. Spare ribs win raves for their size and their honey-basil glaze; "gold fingers" turn out to be delicious lengths of squash in a light batter, served with a tamarind sauce that unfolds in tangy waves on the tongue. Even better is smoky scored squid tossed with sauteed onions and choice bits of ham. If there's a single dish I'd seek out in this crowd, though, it's the refreshing young ginger salad, subtly hot and interesting with peanuts, cabbage, carrots, crisped shallots and lemon juice. The lure here is what's on the plate, not the environs; frills are limited to a few wall hangings and some straw mats on the glass-topped tables. But the food comes out quickly and the service is helpful.

Located on the second floor above a video shop, Burma acts like it wants to be kept a secret. Don't let it.

740 Sixth St. NW (near H Street). 202-638-1280. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $5.95 to $7.95.

Cashion's Eat Place

Such an odd name. Such sensuous cooking. One of Washington's best practitioners of modern American cooking--and one of the city's most conscientious cooks, period--Ann Cashion shops to precisely reflect the time of year, then turns what she finds into dishes of real personality. So spring finds diners scraping the bottom of their bowls to retrieve every drop of a vibrant pea soup whose flavor is broadened with rosemary oil. Unlike too many other chefs, Cashion is content to let good ingredients stand on their own. She knows that a simple wash of sauce best suits whatever fresh fish she is serving; that a zesty salsa can stand up to a crusty-edged pork shoulder; and that honest desserts--lemon chiffon cake, sugar cookies perfumed with lavender,

coffee-scented custard--create lasting impressions. Here's where you'll see serious food lovers mingling with the occasional boldface name and others who just want to catch up with pals or better get to know a date; the lighting is flattering, the wine list holds some treasures, the annoying quirks (given the prices, it seems miserly to charge 50 cents extra for olive oil instead of butter with bread) are few.

1819 Columbia Rd. NW (near Biltmore Street). 202-797-1819. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday; for brunch Sunday. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: dinner $18 to $26.

Caucus Room

Last year, I ate through more than 20 Washington-area restaurants in search of The Perfect Steakhouse. I spent a lot of money and a lot of time and felt as if I had left no filet mignon or sirloin unsliced in my quest for the best. It turned out there wasn't a single place that excels in all that I want from such a restaurant--great meat, great service, great wine, great sides--though some purveyors came closer to that ideal than others. The Caucus Room was one of the finalists. To start, I adore its chopped salad with blue cheese and bell peppers, or the big, creamy crab cakes, followed by a thick, juicy porterhouse or some fine lamb, always cooked just the way I ask. Invariably, I'll get a side of horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes, and I like to tap the waiter for good ideas from the extensive wine list. Always, I save room for the warm pecan pie; it's as thick as a phone book, with a high nuts-to-caramel ratio. Ask to sit in the main dining room, handsome in chocolate-colored booths and regal blue carpet.

401 Ninth St. NW (at D Street). 202-393-1300. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $9 to $25, dinner $24 to $36.

C.F. Folks

"Did you paint?" a customer asks the owner. "The entry looks brighter." Art Carlson scans his tiny domain--11 green stools lined up at a Formica counter--in mock seriousness before delivering the punch line: "No, we must have mopped the floor." While other restaurateurs bend over like contortionists to please their patrons, Carlson lets his audience know it's his way or the highway, bub. News-hounds (and there are plenty in this crowd of lawyers and journalists) have to settle for no TV; Carlson prefers opera and public radio. C.F. Folks is open only weekdays and only for lunch because that's how much the owner wants to work--period. The printed menu is mostly salads and sandwiches, and good as its almond chicken salad is, you'd miss the point of eating here if you didn't take your cue from the small blackboard on the wall. That's where you'll find the five or so specials each weekday. Monday showcases Louisiana in red beans and rice with pink chunks of andouille, Wednesday detours to Italy (and maybe a fine pasta Bolognese), and Friday it's "Something from the Middle East."

1225 19th St. NW (near N Street). 202-293-0162. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $5.75 to $10.95.

Charleston

We've barely been seated when our waiter launches into a lengthy spiel about the restaurant's chef, Cindy Wolf, that is so thorough, it sounds like an A&E "Biography" profile. "Her technique is French, but you'll notice a lot of local ingredients and a Southern flair," he says, pointing out such signature dishes as Wolf's "sandwich" of crisp fried green tomatoes, lobster and lump crab. "She recently visited Argentina, where she picked up some new ideas," he continues, plugging grilled sweetbreads splashed with lemony butter. Wolf directs the action in the open kitchen while her husband, Tony Foreman, watches over the the trio of dining rooms, one of which displays the restaurant's impressive inventory of wine, and another of which looks as if it had been airlifted in from South Carolina. From the Italian linens to the gleaming silver, every detail speaks of high standards. What to order? I'm partial to dishes that hail from the water, like pan-roasted grouper with lemon beurre blanc, poised over a hash of Vidalia onions. Nothing against the pepper-edged venison strip loin, but its lusty frame of crowder peas, lima beans and black-eyed peas upstages the meat. To wrap it up, there are nice ice creams, a distinguished chocolate cake and a cheese trolley, just like you might see in the fancy restaurants of New York or Washington but very much at home here in Baltimore.

1000 Lancaster St. (near Exeter Street), Baltimore. 410-332-7373. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $27 to $34.

Colorado Kitchen

It looks the part of the neighborhood joint, with a pressed-tin ceiling, a black-and-white tile floor and chrome chairs with cherry red seats. "The kitchen makes just about everything from scratch, and it's all fresh," the menu brags--and the cooking supports the claim. The light biscuit that shows up at brunch with an order of fried catfish, all crackling batter and snowy flesh, tastes like the effort of a Southern grandmother, while the herb gravy that comes with a dinner of roast chicken, mashed potatoes and summery green beans is so good you wish it were sold by the jar. Sharing space with the lineup of American comfort food might be jumbo lump crab cakes gussied up with mango chutney, and sirloin steak made jazzy with blue cheese crumbs. From her semi-open kitchen, chef Gillian Clark performs a one-woman show, spooning up soup and flipping first-rate hamburgers (available, fans know, only at Friday lunch and on Thursday and Sunday nights). Think of it as refined soul food, and be patient: The service in this storefront eatery can be slow and forgetful. A slice of pineapple upside-down cake, though, goes a long way toward making up for any lapses.

5515 Colorado Ave. NW (near 14th Street). 202-545-8280. Open: for breakfast Wednesday through Friday; for lunch Friday; for dinner Wednesday through Sunday; for brunch Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $4.50 to $9.25, dinner $9.95 to $17.50.

Corduroy

With its moss-colored carpet, beige chairs, saucer lights and generic art, Corduroy looks more like an airport lounge than a high-end dining room. And the service in this second-floor hotel restaurant, located off the beaten track downtown, tends to be on the shy side. Still, here is where I send people looking for peace and quiet--and good cooking--and inevitably, those are the qualities they end up praising, too. "Just right for my meeting," said one. "Really nice lunch," said another. Chef Tom Power once cooked at Michel Richard Citronelle, and that experience shows in his fetching presentations and food free of gimmicks. An elegant cauliflower soup bolstered with shavings of Parmesan swells with far more flavor than one might expect of such a lowly vegetable. Goat cheese is bound in spindly fried potato and set on a pool of roasted red pepper sauce. There might be crisp-skinned salmon paired with garlicky spinach, succulent chicken breast surrounded by a fine savoy cabbage slaw, and (oops) boring steak redeemed somewhat by a pile of terrific french fries. A decadent finish: warm chocolate tart sided by slices of caramelized banana topped with chocolate ice cream. With food like this, I don't need a lot of ambience.

In the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, 1201 K St. NW (near 12th Street). 202-589-0699. Open: for breakfast and dinner daily; for lunch Monday through Friday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $17, dinner $18 to $26.

Costa Verde

Less than five miles from downtown Washington, this Peruvian restaurant whisks its guests to another continent faster than you can say, "Make mine a pisco sour." (And you should: The cocktail is at once refreshing with whipped egg white and bracing with brandy, a nice companion to the crunchy corn nuts that show up as you're seated, along with a violent green dip.) Spanish is the language of choice, salsa music provides a festive backdrop, and potatoes--boiled, roasted, fried--show up in more guises than Mike Myers in an Austin Powers movie. Soft chunks of sweet potato round out a big platter of squid, octopus, shrimp, fish and mussels, garnished with lime and red onion, while fried white potatoes make an appearance with the mixed grill of pork, chicken and beef. No mere sidekicks, tubers star on their own in such appetizers as papa rellena--mashed potatoes stuffed with chopped meat and fried. The menu is half seafood, half meat, thoroughly homey and generous.

946 N. Jackson St. (near Wilson Boulevard), Arlington. 703-522-6976. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $8.95 to $15.95.

Cuban Corner

Is it a place to eat or a shrine? At first, it's hard to tell. One wall is tiled with a who's who of Cuban Americans and their achievements, another displays the namesake island outlined in colorful neon and surrounded by painted palm trees and travel posters. Salsa music--and more conversations in Spanish than English--underscore the community center feel. The aroma of garlic, beef and onions wafting from the tiny kitchen of this small storefront reveals the Cuban Corner's real mission: to deliver a taste of the old country to the masses. This is accomplished with thin braided empanadas lined with onion-laced ground beef, fried green plantains stuffed with shrimp, red snapper in tomatoey vinaigrette, and my favorite entree, morsels of pork sauteed with green olives and pimentos ("montuno cubano" on the menu). Add some oiled white rice, inky black beans and soft, sweet plantains and you've got a meal to remember. Service swings from momlike to matter-of-fact, but the details are welcome ones: Your beer, for example, is poured into a frosted mug. Ahhhh.

825 Hungerford Dr. (near Ivy League Lane), Rockville. 301-279-0310. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $6.60 to $14.

Equinox

A lot of chefs claim to buy locally and cook seasonally, but you wouldn't necessarily know that from some of the generic brown food I encountered around Washington this past summer, even as the farm markets were bursting with fresh inspiration. No wonder I wanted to order everything in sight at Equinox my last meal there. Dinner started with a treat from chef Todd Gray's kitchen: two tiny white spoons, one of crab and chervil, the other of diced tomato and watermelon, a few bright bites to whet each diner's appetite. Just about everything was of the moment; the hardest part was deciding what not to order. On the appetizer list, a fragile tomato-and-zucchini tart, crowned with greens and circled in a light pink roasted-tomato cream, competed against a red and yellow beet salad garnished with a miniature grilled goat cheese sandwich. When the entrees arrived, I felt lucky that we'd ordered the salmon, whose robust flavor reminded me of Seattle, gilded with sweet corn sauce, and the roast poussin, sprinkled with the fluffy salt known as fleur de sel and cushioned by meaty chanterelles and tender spinach. Happy to be eating this spare, thoughtful and delicious food, I barely noticed how plain my surroundings were (Equinox has always looked a little underdressed). But the staff is so smart and so caring, such true believers in what they're feeding you, that all I can do is look the other way--at the fine wine in my glass, a perfect side dish, or one of pastry chef Lisa Scruggs's quietly inspired desserts.

818 Connecticut Ave. NW (near I Street). 202-331-8118. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $16 to $24, dinner $22 to $31.

Gabriel

Even after eight years, Gabriel manages always to feel fresh and inviting--and that's not the potent cocktails or the fine wines talking. Gabriel's bouncy music and attractive dining room, appealing in butter-

yellow walls and booths with throw pillows, help diners forget that the place is tucked below ground in a hotel. And chef Greggory Hill's soulful, Latin American-inspired cooking continues to draw us back. His extravagant Sunday brunch brings together traditional American food and dishes from regions south of the border (the roast suckling pig alone is worth the price of admission). Weekdays, the bar plays host to an inviting happy hour, providing, among other treats, made-to-order quesadillas and sometimes paella. Evenings offer even more fireworks. Pizza takes on a Salvadoran accent with a corn tortilla crust set off with ground beef, lime and dry cheese, and crab cakes are teamed with jicama slaw and grilled polenta. Rack of lamb gets massaged with paprika and cumin and is better for its lusty lima beans. Grilled shrimp are rousing in their sauce of lime and smoked tomato. A number of kitchens dish out nuevo Latino food; this one not only sets the pace, it outcooks them all.

In the Radisson Barcelo Hotel, 2121 P St. NW (near 21st Street). 202-956-6690. Open: for breakfast daily; for dinner Tuesday through Saturday; for brunch Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $17.75 to $24.50.

Greenwood

Carole Greenwood is such a confident cook, she's not shy about telling you that if you order tuna, she's going to cook it "RARE," as the menu states--no ifs, ands or buts. Some customers find that presumptuous, but not arguing with her philosophy has its rewards. That tuna, for instance, is a fabulous piece of fish, gently cooked to retain its character and treated to ripe tomatoes and baby artichokes in summer. Her mussels are the best around, meaty, sweet bivalves served in deep bowls with whispers of garlic, rosemary and red wine. The chef also uses vegetables as if she actually cares about them; who knew that beets, basil, fresh mozzarella and, of all things, roasted peaches could make such a good marriage? The menu is small and pure and full of great ideas. The bonus: Behind the misleading facade (what's the deal with the pagoda entrance?), you'll find one of Washington's most alluring dining rooms; its dark red walls, blown-glass lights and outsize prints show the chef's artistic bent. And that mile-long table in the center of the room, graced with whatever fruit or vegetable is in season, is just the spot for a group of friends to gather for an evening of fellowship.

5031 Connecticut Ave. NW (near Nebraska Avenue). 202-364-4444. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: $18 to $32.

Guajillo

Tacos, fajitas, burritos--you can find all the usual Mexican restaurant standbys at this family-run storefront tucked into a small shopping strip. But concentrate on the daily list of specials for a taste of what's best at Guajillo. On any given day it might yield big, tender scallops invigorated with rosemary, wine and a touch of habanero pepper; pork marinated in garlic sauce and roasted in a banana leaf; or delectable crab cakes shaped with cilantro and served with chipotle cream sauce. Guajillo, which takes its name from a burgundy-colored chili pepper, is graciously free of cliches. Forget cheese-heavy dishes and mariachi music. Here patrons sink into deep chairs of cowhide and wood to drink fruity sangria and bracing mojitos and to dip into dusky salsas, soothing pinto beans and one of the spunkiest seviches around. Sound perfect? It's not. Guajillo's haunting mole of ground pumpkin seeds, plantains, nuts and chocolate is wasted on blank-tasting chicken, the service tends to be slow and hesitant, and the room gets noisy at prime time. So dine early if you want some peace with your carne asada.

1727 Wilson Blvd. (near N. Pierce Street), Arlington. 703-807-0840. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; for dinner daily; for brunch Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6 to $14, dinner $8 to $14.

Heritage India

Downtown Washington's Bombay Club has a lock on the best service among area Indian restaurants, but when it's a fiery lamb vindaloo or a refined vegetable curry I'm after, I make a beeline for Glover Park and Heritage India. The kitchen, under the direction of chef Sudhir Seth, rarely wavers. The stuffed breads are always hot and delicious; the tandoori prawns are consistently big, sweet and smoky; the black lentils appear to be a union of silk, earth and midnight; sauteed calamari with coconut teases the palate with jolts of lemon. Elsewhere, the fried pastries called samosas can be dull and heavy; here, they turn up light and

cardamom-scented. At Heritage India, even such a standard as pureed spinach tastes like a new dish, colorful with kernels of corn. Slips like overcooked lamb chops prove rare. The catch? The staff. Diners are just as likely to be rushed into placing an order, or over-ordering, as they are to be seduced by the host's detailed description of the menu. Excellent cooking helps smooth over some of those annoyances, as does a handsome backdrop of green-and-gold banquettes, romantic sepia-toned photographs and thin-lipped stemware, which is brought out even for beer.

2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Calvert Street). 202-333-3120. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $17.95, dinner $8 to $17.95. Other location: 4931 Cordell Ave. (near Old Georgetown Road), Bethesda, 301-656-3373.

Hollywood East Cafe

The first time you go to Hollywood East, you might feel overwhelmed by the dozens of colored strips of paper on the wall trumpeting parts of the extensive menu--in Chinese. Not to worry, though. The friendly servers at this storefront eatery are skilled at helping you navigate the epic menu, which embraces the familiar (General Tso's chicken, orange beef) along with the less so (sauteed duck blood, pig's skin with turnips). Beyond the entrance, with its live fish tank and display of lacquered roasted poultry, my eyes are always drawn to the neon blackboard listing the day's specials, or the house signature dishes on the first page of the printed menu. Honey walnut shrimp, fried-crab-and-shrimp balls, and crisp roasted pork are the beginnings of an adventure that you'll want to return to.

2312 Price Ave. (near Georgia Avenue), Wheaton. 301-942-8282. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $4.25 to $27.95.

Huong Que/Four Sisters Restaurant

As many times as I've been to this bustling Vietnamese dining room in the Eden Center, I always leave feeling as if I've just scratched the surface of its charms. That's what happens when a menu runs to more than 200 choices. Thank goodness the sisters in the restaurant's English name actually work here (along with two brothers). All of them serve as expert guides to the possibilities, one of them recently helping to orchestrate a meal for my friends and me that danced between hot and mild, sweet and salty. Inevitably, I order lightly fried squid invigorated with a dip of lime juice and seasoned salt, and bronzed roast quail, both heady addictions. This time around, I added to my list of favorites shrimp draped in black bean sauce; sea bass in a sweet-tart tamarind sauce; and, from the menu's "exotic" side, a hot pot of tender goat in a gentle curry enriched with coconut milk, cooked at the table with fresh greens and onions and eaten with thin, wiry noodles. The generous service and thoughtful cooking unfolds in a large room made attractive with fresh flowers, recessed lighting and the kind of aromas that support the translation of the restaurant's Vietnamese name: "taste of home."

6769 Wilson Blvd. (near Roosevelt Boulevard), Falls Church. 703-538-6717. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $5.25 to $24.95.

India Palace

It's the accumulation of details that sets this shopping center restaurant apart: friendly service, an enticing daily lunch buffet, a big room furnished with carved wooden chairs, scene-setting murals and transporting music. The familiar Indian introductions--lentil soup, vegetable fritters--are all gathered here, but my inclination is to jump ahead to the main dishes. The seasonings are right on the mark: Lamb vindaloo roughs up the palate, as it should, with its vinegar and red chili punch, while butter chicken envelops its main ingredient in a smooth cloak of tomato, cream and sweet herbs. A gentle but fragrant curry enhances a bowl of fresh-tasting vegetables, one of more than a dozen meatless options. Not everything succeeds, though. On a recent visit, I found the shrimp in the shrimp tandoori cooked to rigidity, and the coconut chutney served ice cold with my otherwise delicious masala dosa. But there's more to applaud than to argue with--just try not to fill up on the piping-hot stuffed breads, and keep an eye out for the occasional special menus celebrating regional Indian cooking.

19743 Frederick Rd. (near Middlebrook Road), Germantown. 301-540-3000. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, D, V. Entree prices: $5.95 to $16.95.

Inn at Easton

Upstairs, you can find 406-thread-count linens in the guest rooms of this Eastern Shore destination. Downstairs awaits another luxury: contemporary Australian cooking, translated here as fresh ingredients with nods to the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia. Like many talented chefs, Andrew Evans changes his menu frequently, so there's no way of predicting what might be offered at any time, but his is a personal style of cooking that rarely misses. The four-course dinner always begins with a savory snack from the kitchen--maybe crab bisque topped off with mushroom foam--before moving on to trembling vegetable souffles, enticing fish preparations, sometimes even kangaroo filet. There is warm bread, a refreshing salad to bridge first course and entree, charming service, and sweet reminders that Evans actually spent considerable time cooking down under (don't miss the scrumptious sticky fig and ginger pudding). The light-filled dining room of this 200-year-old property is at once spare and rich, a mere 35 seats surrounded by paintings that would look at home in a fine gallery. And a top-notch wine list showcases superb Australian labels at prices that encourage exploration.

28 South Harrison St. (near Dover Road), Easton, Md. 410-822-4910. Open: for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $22 to $30.

Inn at Little Washington

To get a fresh take on this destination restaurant, I invited friends who had never been there before and went undercover, in a disguise so unlike how I usually look, even my pals didn't recognize me at first. Everyone felt special from the moment we stepped out of the car: A smiling woman stood out front to greet us, as if we were VIPs. Inside, a silver tray of perfect hors d'oeuvres showed up almost as soon as we were seated. Next came grilled black figs with local ham and a bright lime sauce, and seared squab splashed with blackberry vinegar and paired with garlicky polenta. The food that followed was every bit as heady: veal tenderloin with woodsy mushrooms and infant brussels sprouts, pistachio-edged lamb chops lightened with a sauce of ginger and carrot, "filet mignon" of rare tuna with seared foie gras and a burgundy butter sauce. Chef and co-owner Patrick O'Connell once told me that people come to the inn having heard so much about it, and having such lofty expectations, that it is a constant high-wire act for him and his staff. Still, I was disappointed to receive so little help on the wine list; when we asked for "something under three digits," the waiter recommended a pinot noir that cost $95. (It would have been considerate to give us a less expensive choice or two.) And when one of my friends asked if she could have a copy of the night's menu as a memento, he snapped, "You can get one at the front desk." Had we been at CVS I could have rationalized his response, but not at $200 a person. There were other off moments, too, from the phone that wasn't picked up until the 22nd ring during business hours, to an underling being lectured just a few feet away from our table. Still, my friends adored the experience. The night was lovely, so we took a server's suggestion to have dessert on the terrace. Beneath a starry September sky, with crickets chirping, we reveled in butter pecan ice cream gilded with satiny caramel sauce, Valrhona chocolate cake with roasted banana ice cream and the showy "Seven Deadly Sins," a whimsical sampler of miniature sweets. Now that's the inn Washingtonians have known and loved for a quarter-century.

Middle Street (at Main Street), Washington, Va. 540-675-3800. Open: for dinner daily. MC, V. Prices: Fixed-price four-course dinner $108 to $148.

Jaleo

Small plates of appetizers continue to be what many of us like to eat in restaurants, which explains why the Spanish notion of tapas has spawned American, Middle Eastern and even Japanese imitators. Still, there's no place like Jaleo, which lives up to its spirited name with flamenco dancers on Wednesday nights and a menu of tapas as long as "Stairway to Heaven." Fried potatoes with aioli, eggplant flan in a red pepper sauce, grilled chorizo, vinegary mussels--the mouthwatering snacks come to the table in no particular order but almost always quickly. Just be careful; with the sangria flowing and everyone caught up in the fun, it's easy to rack up a big tab in no time. The convivial original location, near the Shakespeare Theatre and MCI Center in Washington, seems always to play to SRO crowds; the Bethesda branch, bigger and more beautiful, has after a year and a half become its gustatory equal.

480 Seventh St. NW (at E Street). 202-628-7949. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $12.95, dinner $12.95 to $15.50. Other location: 7271 Woodmont Ave. (at Elm Street), Bethesda, 301-913-0003.

Johnny's Half Shell

Eating out for work a dozen times a week doesn't leave much time for play, but when I want to kick back from the routine, chances are here's where you'll find me. The cool marble counter with its pretty aquarium is a great place for a glass of wine and a shrimp po' boy at lunch, though I'm also drawn to the wooden booths in the rear. The remaining tables, on the other hand, are parked so close together that you have no choice but to listen in on your neighbors' office gossip or romantic woes. The low ceiling and tile floors only exaggerate the noise problem. But the cooking makes up for a lot of that. If it's a first-class crab cake or a distinguished piece of fish you want to catch, here's where to find them. Rich with tomatoes, potatoes and tender clams, the Manhattan chowder here beats anything I've tried in New York, while a plate of sweet shrimp, fresh peas and feathery fettuccine rivals the work of Washington's best Italian kitchens. Don't leave without ordering dessert: A slice of buttermilk pie served with a crisp ginger cookie or chocolate angel food cake with caramel sauce does what a shrink can do for a whole lot less.

2002 P St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-296-2021. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $21.95, dinner $16.75 to $22.95.

Laboratorio del Galileo

Given the choice between business class and first, wouldn't most of us leap at the chance to upgrade? As good as the Italian-flavored Galileo can be, the intimate dining room behind it, the Laboratorio del Galileo, is the premium destination. Just 24 seats in a handsome yellow package, it sports serious art, precise service and an exhibition kitchen where chef Roberto Donna and his talented minions coax a parade of a dozen lovely Italian dishes from their seasonal larder. The tables up front are so close to the action, diners there can actually engage the chef as he cooks a one-of-a-kind meal. The fun begins with a flute of prosecco and more breads than you might see in some bakeries. Then it might move on to duck prosciutto with figs, roasted duck liver with summery peaches and corn shoots, a terrific eggplant soup poured around a custardy tomato timbale and bits of buffalo mozzarella--all this before the three small pasta courses, including postage stamp-size, rosemary-flecked raviolini with rabbit and a turban of tagliatelle with sea urchin, reminiscent of a clean sea breeze. I could have done without the overpoached scorpion fish with too much orange oil, but not the roseate squab with stuffed zucchini blossoms that followed. "Basta!" I wanted to cry a couple of hours in, until an amazing cheese cart rolled my way. A scoop of refreshing champagne sorbet helped revive my appetite, and I'm glad it did; the "baby baba" au rhum, a light cake in a wreath of fresh fruits, was like eating a cordial. Lovely wines by the glass for each course are an option, and I'd order that way if only to hear the sommelier's little stories about each pour. There can be a long wait in the bar before you're seated, and too few vegetables for my taste, but by meal's end, I feel as if I've traveled to Donna's native Italy and back.

1110 21st St. NW (near M Street). 202-331-0880. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday, depending on chef's schedule. All major credit cards. Fixed-price 12-course dinner $98 to $110.

Layalina

For not much money, visitors to this family-owned Middle Eastern oasis are transported from the workaday to the faraway. Behind the plain storefront awaits a dining room that looks like something out of The Arabian Nights, with colorful cushioned benches, semi-tented ceilings, an ornate brass chandelier overhead, and a wooden cart of desserts parked in the foyer. Two pages of starters whet the appetite and offer something to satisfy every taste, from garlicky chicken wings and homemade beef sausage in a zesty tomato sauce, to vegetables in wispy triangular shells of cracked wheat (kibbe) and "Middle Eastern cole slaw": shredded cabbage tossed with lemon juice and mint. A savory mezze of six different tastes costs just under $30 and is easily a snack for four. Actually, it would be tempting to order nothing but first courses, but try to restrain yourself--the lamb fatteh is an entree that shouldn't go unexplored. A signature of this kitchen, it gathers sliced lamb on a bed of white rice and crisp little squares of pita, dolloped with tangy yogurt and dusted with sweet-tart sumac. Nearly as good is chicken shawarma, slivers of marinated broiled chicken enlivened with garlic paste and accompanied by fluffy white rice. Dark coffee and baklava are the sweetest way to close a meal.

5216 Wilson Blvd. (near N. Florida Street), Arlington. 703-525-1170. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $16.95, dinner $9.95 to $16.95.

Little Fountain Cafe

Tuesday night and you don't feel like cooking? The Little Fountain Cafe comes to the rescue with neighborly service and a nice roast chicken (and no one bats an eye if a book is your dining companion). Saturday night with a date in tow? Low beamed ceilings, gentle lighting and some soft jazz provide just the right backdrop for getting better acquainted with the face across the table. Thanks in part to its underground location, shoehorned between competitors in Adams Morgan, this intimate space always has felt like something of a secret. But there are plenty of explanations for its having been around 16 years now. While it roams the world for ideas, the menu aims to comfort rather than shock. There are fetching salads, steamed mussels and the occasional chicken taquita special to start, and steak au poivre, grilled salmon and bowtie pasta with shrimp to move on to. The accessories--tropical fruit chutney with that fish, bites of tasso ham and fresh oregano in that pasta--always make nice statements. And in a city whose restaurants frequently pay scant attention to parting impressions, the Little Fountain Cafe bakes pretty and honest seasonal desserts. Wish for cherry pie in summer, pear torte in winter.

2339 18th St. NW (near Belmont Road). 202-462-8100. Open: for dinner daily. MC, V. Entree prices: $9.95 to $22.95.

Maestro

There are two competing shows at this Ritz-Carlton restaurant. One involves the crisp delivery of the servers, who back up their first-class pampering with genuine enthusiasm and an encyclopedic knowledge of the menu. The other is on display in the exhibition kitchen, a stage set gleaming with copper pots and bustling with cooks in starched white uniforms. Chef Fabio Trabocchi is a dazzling newcomer, just 28 years old, yet his cooking is frequently extraordinary. Looking back and forward, the menu is actually three notions: traditional Italian, modern Italian with global twists, and a tasting menu in three convenient sizes. I tend to order from both the classics and what's contemporary. Whatever you pick, it will be beautiful. I'm still dreaming about the chef's wild turbot, served on a clear glass platter through which could be seen, and smelled, hay (!) and rosemary; the baked fish, with a vanilla-fragrant butter sauce and melting salsify, appeared to float. Other moments of bliss accompanied agnolotti plumped with winy osso buco and an intense seafood broth poured over an island of sweet crab and eggplant. Like all great restaurants, this one celebrates the details. Maestro retains a conscientious sommelier, Vincent Feraud, to choose just the right wines; the handsome animal sculpture on each table is fashioned from silverware; and the treats that open (and close) dinner are both rich and playful. How could a chef top a welcoming bite of glistening caviar and creamy mozzarella presented in a toy-size savory cone? A reservation in this luxurious dining room provides the chance to find out.

In the Ritz-Carlton hotel, 1700 Tysons Blvd. (in Tysons Galleria), Tysons Corner. 703-917-5498. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. Prices: Fixed-price two-course dinner $54, four-course dinner $76.

Majestic Cafe

The sweetest host stand around is found at this charming Old Town address, which often displays the handiwork of pastry chef Valerie Hill at the entrance to its small dining room. One day, a lemon-blueberry layer cake dares you to break your diet. Another time, the temptation is devil's food cake, as moist as can be, impossibly high and frosted with the kind of smooth white icing Fannie Farmer herself might have made way back when. That skill and sense of generosity is a hallmark of everything that comes before the final course, too, be it a napoleon of fried won ton skins and mushrooms, rich with sour cream and mustard, or juicy free-range chicken breast served with a nest of fettuccine; no ordinary noodles, these are flavored with ricotta cheese, country ham and wisps of arugula. And if Mom can't get you to eat your vegetables, this proudly American menu--with its side dishes of stewed tomatoes, garlicky broccoli and sweet potato with citrus-hazelnut butter--just might. The meal comes in a lovely environment. Old black-and-white photos march across the walls, leading the eye to an open kitchen where chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg can be seen watching over each plate as if it were going out to a VIP--which, given the occasional drop-in by Mark Warner or Ted Leonsis, it sometimes is.

911 King St. (near Alfred Street), Alexandria. 703-837-9117. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. for brunch Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $8.25 to $11.75, dinner $15.75 to $22.50.

Makoto

Booking a date at Washington's most exclusive Japanese restaurant is not without a few hassles. "We'll need a credit card" to secure a reservation, the hostess informed me on the phone. "You'll have to sit at the counter," she continued. The conversation ended with a reminder that my party had exactly two hours to dine and the dress code was business attire. When we showed up at the appointed hour, we were braced for a chill. But smooth stone steps leading to a heavy door had a calming effect, as did the tiny dining room we could see beyond the curtains. It holds fewer than 30 people, either at low tables and box seats (whose interiors double as closets in winter) or at a sushi bar facing the exhibition kitchen. Suddenly, we felt very far from home, even more so when we ordered sake and it arrived in a fragrant wooden box instead of a glass. For the broadest experience, try the tasting menu, a seemingly endless parade of exquisite tastes. It might start with a trio of Asian greens, then a piece of salmon with Chinese broccoli followed by perfect shrimp and scallops in a sparkling vinaigrette with julienned carrot. There are petite fingers of first-rate sushi, too, and a single plate that holds edamame, miniature snails, winter melon and eel--four little bites of Japanese poetry, one per corner. In this company, entrees of simple yellowtail or sauteed beef are a bit underwhelming, but a granita of red grapes closes dinner on a gracious note.

4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW (near U Street). 202-298-6866. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8.95 to $19.50, dinner $10 to $30.

Mannequin Pis

There are giggles all around when a family of five receives dinner--a kilo of mussels each, served in double-decker blue pots--and in the accompanying clouds of steam, Mom, Dad and the kids all but disappear for a minute. But then, they're not the only ones enjoying themselves in this cozy ode to Belgian food, just 48 seats wrapped in yellow walls, red velvet curtains and a forest of birch branches in the front window. The background music is in perfect tune with the menu, which features steamed mussels more than a dozen ways (even with lavender), but might offer a frisee salad heaped with lardons, a lobster-salmon souffle in a phyllo purse, a proper steak frites (don't ask for ketchup; the Belgian way to eat these golden fries is with mayonnaise) and maybe bouilla-baisse, heaped with seafood. Beer is the beverage of choice (and a frequent ingredient in some of the food), and there are dozens of European labels to mull over. Near the tiny bar awaits the "chef's table"--six tall stools around three tall tables--and a great view of the scene.

18064 Georgia Ave. (near Route 108), Olney. 301-570-4800. Open: for dinner daily. D, MC, V. Entree prices: $13 to $18.50.

Marcel's

There's enough sparkling stemware on the tables to stock a Tiffany's showroom, and the golden lighting makes even tired faces look as if they just returned from a long holiday. A small fleet of waiters in black jackets tend to customers' needs, while live piano music floats into the dining room from the handsome bar. And those patrons who have come here as a prelude to an evening of music or theater know that the limousine parked out front, ready to whisk them to the Kennedy Center, is part of the $42 three-course dinner. Marcel's is nothing if not concerned about your pleasure. Working from a raised open kitchen that looks onto his audience, chef Robert Wiedmaier prepares a menu that's mostly rich and primarily French. Plump mussels in a shallow black casserole are enriched with cream and scattered with thin fried garlic chips. A fist-size chunk of sushi-grade tuna is sparked with fresh cracked pepper and poised on a fat cake of shredded potatoes made more decadent with Gruyere. But there is also a moist breast of pheasant, lamb loin served with turnip puree, or perfect scallops sandwiching glistening caviar and lapped with buttery lemon sauce. Forget your reading glasses? Ask the maitre d' for a pair to borrow from the collection he keeps on hand. From start to finish, Marcel's thinks of everything.

2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (near 24th Street). 202-296-1166. Open: for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $26 to $39.

Melrose

Amid the crush of new hotel restaurants in Washington, it would be easy to forget Melrose in the Park Hyatt. That would be a big mistake. Brian McBride has been its chef for the past 15 years now, but he shows no sign of coasting. Let's cut to the highlights: scallops with star anise; halibut set off with grapefruit, ginger sauce and a side of grits that would taste at home in South Carolina; curried mushroom soup that suggests the distillation of a fall forest; tender bison spiked with peppercorns. This being a hotel venue, there are standards including crab cakes and rack of lamb, both very good. The waiters are helpful and engaging, and the airy room flashes marble accents here, big sprays of flowers there, and has picture windows overlooking an outdoor terrace. "We need to remember this for our next meeting," I overheard an executive type say to an associate at a recent lunch. I was tempted to lean over and tell them that Melrose is also a wine drinker's oasis (corkage fees are waived on Sunday nights, so you can bring your own bottle for free) and one of the few spots in town that serves dancing with dinner (on Saturday evenings, with a live jazz combo). But I was too busy contemplating dessert, a frozen caramel souffle garnished with nut brittle and a madeleine.

In the Park Hyatt hotel, 1201 24th St. NW (at M Street). 202-419-6755. Open: for breakfast and dinner daily; for lunch Monday through Saturday; for brunch Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $17 to $32, dinner $25 to $34.

Michel Richard Citronelle

My dinner companion is having trouble holding up his end of the conversation. Between the ballet of nearly a dozen cooks dancing to the direction of their master, Michel Richard, behind a big glass window, and the bewitching food coming out of that million-dollar kitchen, my friend appears to be hypnotized. Coins of perfect crisped scallops, topped with matchsticks of nutty abalone and surrounded by lemony sauce and finely diced tropical fruit, leave him speechless. So do the earthy escargots, sheathed in spiky shredded wheat ("mini-porcupines," a waiter jokes) and arranged around woodsy mushrooms dappled with basil pesto. Each dish seems to be more clever, and more luscious, than the next. The dining room is an underground playground, with its soft leather chairs, see-through wine cellar and groovy mood wall, which changes shades from minute to minute. The service is cordial and correct; the wines, selected by a first-class sommelier, mix exciting bargains with splurges. After sampling a plate that showed off duck multiple ways, with a copper pot of airy pommes soufflees that looked like inflated french fries and tasted divine, my friend exclaimed, "Michel took the place of God there for five minutes." Well, he might have been close. My dorade scattered with fried capers and presented with an exquisite hash of snow peas and green beans was transcendent, as were the desserts that followed, including a trembling citrus mousse with coconut tuiles and a triangular lemon meringue tart circled with a piercing basil sauce. Cooking such as this reminds me that Richard isn't just the best chef in the capital, by a mile; he is one of the best in the country.

In the Latham Hotel, 3000 M St. NW (at 30th Street). 202-625-2150. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Prices: lunch entrees $16 to $25; fixed-price three-course dinner $70, four-course dinner $82.

Mikaku Sushi Taro

A playful spirit distinguishes this sushi vendor from a wave of others. At his small marble counter, chef Yoshinori Katsuyama likes to joke around with his customers; the menu, while rounding up the usual suspects--tempura, noodle soups, green tea ice cream--also highlights what it calls "Japanese tapas." These little appetizer plates are some of the best reasons to drop by. Picture sliced octopus with ponzu sauce, tasty roast duck brushed with sweet soy sauce, or maybe tuna tartare, as red as raw beef and spiked with chili flakes and scallions. The sushi is high-quality, the homemade dumplings are a must-try. I'd look elsewhere for a teriyaki fix, but not for a comfortable setting. This one is serene despite its size; what look like paintings actually are framed silk scarves, and lucky are the parties that get the private room, with its pillow seating and sunken floor. Does the name ring a bell? Sushi Taro of Dupont Circle is a part-owner of this suburban pleasure.

3065 Centreville Rd. (in McLearen Square Shopping Center),

Herndon. 703-467-0220. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.75 to $22.75, dinner $9.95 to $35.

Minh's Restaurant

With more than 100 choices on the menu, including the daily specials on a chalkboard, it helps to have a guide here--and there always is one, be it a waiter or an owner, at this quietly stylish Vietnamese restaurant. The hard-working staff has led me on some mouthwatering expeditions, one night introducing me to shrimp-and-sweet potato cakes, bundled in crisp lettuce and dipped in tangy fish sauce; another time they pointed out "sizzling" catfish, which does just that as it comes to the table, cubed and buried beneath a mound of fresh herbs, with peanuts, slivered red onions and rice noodles. But even on my own, I've plucked winners from the lot, including crisp, sweet folds of beef with lemon grass, and a special of fried scallops with mint, onions and jalapenos served with a peppery dipping sauce.

Minh's wouldn't be my first choice for pho or a Vietnamese crepe. Still, as with so much of the cooking, a lot of thought has gone into the interior. Pretty with fancy pillows on the banquettes, aged-looking sideboards and walls in shades of olive and burgundy, it doesn't look like the kind of place where entrees average $8.

2500 Wilson Blvd. (at Cleveland Street), Arlington. 703-525-2828. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $4.95 to $12.95, dinner $7.15 to $12.95.

Montmartre

The line out the door on a Saturday night reminds me that while Capitol Hill doesn't have many memorable places to eat, this is part of the solution: a restaurant nearly as good as Georgetown's Bistrot Lepic, where the owners of this sunny dining room both previously worked. The good-looking servers twist and turn like bumper cars as they navigate closely packed tables. Frisee salad scattered with gizzards and lardons, citrusy shrimp on risotto, and cauliflower soup dotted with saffron-tinged mussels all get dinner off to a fine start. You might move on to a nicely ropy hanger steak with crisped potatoes or sauteed tuna in a forest of chanterelles. I want to order the chicken, but the waiter shakes his head. "Try the rabbit," he says, and soon I'm fighting with my tablemates for the last of its succulent meat, strewn with olives and served over a bed of creamy thin noodles that have soaked up the pan juices. The intimate setting--beams overhead, a tiny bar looking into the kitchen--exudes the kind of charm you might expect in the country but are glad to find in the city.

327 Seventh St. SE (at Pennsylvania Avenue). 202-544-1244. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday; for brunch Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $11.95 to $17.95, dinner $14.95 to $19.95.

Mykonos Grill

Greece springs to life in this convivial suburban idyll. One cozy room depicts a faraway village courtyard in blue paint and white plaster, another looks onto an Aegean seascape (even if only by way of a mural). And in good weather, tables and pots of hanging flowers decorate an outdoor patio. The menu plays along. Begin with stuffed grape leaves, whipped fish roe or eggplant split and filled with a blend of tomato, onion, white raisins and pine nuts. Venture further into the meal with tender pan-fried squid with garlicky potato dip, grilled rockfish accented with lemon and olive oil, or a trio of lamb chops accompanied by homey roast potatoes, carrots and soft-cooked green beans tossed with tomatoes. Given the setting and the cooking, it's small wonder that Sunday night looks like a party, nearly every seat filled. Is the host a bit gruff? Are the waiters too serious? At least their suggestions are helpful. Save space for dessert, which sidesteps sweet Greek stereotypes. Ordering "desserts for two" brings very good baklava, walnut cake and phyllo-swaddled custard on a big plate. You can count calories tomorrow.

121 Congressional Lane (near Rockville Pike), Rockville. 301-770-5999. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $7.50 to $18.95, dinner $11.25 to $21.95.

Obelisk

Entering Obelisk for the first time might come as a surprise, like finally meeting the person you've been talking to on the telephone and discovering that the face doesn't match the picture you created in your mind. Obelisk is an Important Italian Restaurant in a rather plain wrapper, with fewer than 50 seats in a single small room, its tables too close together and its design accents limited to a few prints and a band of mirrors that permit every diner a view. As for the set-price menu, there are typically no more than three choices per course, so there is little margin for error. This is rarely a concern, though, because owner Peter Pastan's kitchen turns out food of in-spired freshness and purity. Late this summer, I encountered the best tomatoes of the year: half a dozen kinds, in a rainbow of colors, perfectly ripe and left to shine with just a whisper of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and freshly cracked pepper. Obelisk's pastas, like raviolini stuffed with cod, or tender gnocchi with brush strokes of Gorgonzola cream, are quiet wonders, and what follows them--perhaps turbot scattered with cockles and bits of cured pork, or farm-raised venison paired with garlicky rapini--is no less amazing in its understatedness. Think all puddings are the same? A silky spoonful of wine-laced pudding in this trattoria may convince you otherwise.

2029 P St. NW (near 21st Street). 202-872-1180. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. DC, MC, V. Prices: fixed-price five-course dinner $55 to $58.

Oval Room at Lafayette Square

The Oval Room is just a short stroll from the president's office, which makes it a magnet for administration officials and the people who hover around them. (Psst: They're usually the figures led to the small row of coveted window tables.) It isn't just convenience that pulls in an audience here, though. Following a makeover last year, the Oval Room beckons anew with pistachio-colored walls, soft chairs the shade of persimmon and a handsome chandelier of square lights in the main dining room (there are two, one of which can be used for private parties). As always, the service is welcoming and professional. And chef Frank Morales's American menu continues to be a fun and fashionable read. Seek out his fish and seafood dishes, a strong suit; the catch might include very good grilled prawns poised on a hillock of sugar snap peas and soft plantains, or scallops, monkfish and prawns in a bold stew with tomatoes, fennel and chorizo. Who would have thought this kitchen would produce the best fried chicken of my year, oozing juices and partnered with yellow and green beans and a light golden gravy? The salads are nods to what's good in the garden, the wine list has been improving steadily, and the desserts are worth an investigation. Take your pick from warm chocolate cake, raisin-rich apple strudel or a fine lime-vanilla flan. And keep the place in mind before a show: The Oval Room's three-course pre-theater menu is a deal of a meal for $25.

800 Connecticut Ave. NW (near H Street). 202-463-8700. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $12.50 to $19, dinner $16.50 to $25.50.

Palena

Does the food ring familiar? The same kind of sublime, seasonal cooking you find at Obelisk is what you can expect here, and this is why: After he left the White House, chef Frank Ruta cooked at Obelisk for several years, biding his time in Dupont Circle while he scouted locations for his own place. Two years ago he and partner Ann Amernick found a roost in Cleveland Park. His food is a little Italian, a little French and thoroughly original. If you want to see an improbable marriage work out, try his beets and lobster in a delicate salad. The pastas are some of the best anywhere; no one shapes lighter, more elegant gnocchi, and the soft, dumpling-like canederli with mushrooms and white truffle oil is inspired. There are exquisite nibbles to start: one night a piping-hot croquette of pig's ear, crunchy and delicious beneath a shaving of earthy black truffle. Soulful meets chic in Muscovy duck breast braised with oranges. The bread is made in-house, Ruta cures his own meats, and Amernick leaves you on a high with her cashew dacquoise or one of her sparkling tributes to citrus. All this in a quietly handsome salon, from the bar up front to the banquettes in back.

3529 Connecticut Ave. NW (near Porter Street). 202-537-9250. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. Entree price: $28.

Persimmon

Much like the brilliant fruit that gives this storefront dining room its name, Persimmon is tangy, sweet and not at all shy. There's nothing subtle about ringlets of sauteed squid and diced tomato on a creamy puddle of rosemary-veined polenta, or a trio of big ravioli with a punchy blue cheese and mushroom filling and a dash of white truffle oil. Fried oysters are a house signature; their nubby coats are fired by wasabi, and the Asian theme is extended by a dipping sauce on the side. Nice as the golden crab cakes are, with their roasted corn salad, stuff from the turf tends to outshine stuff from the surf. The sage-scented grilled pork chop is very good, the barbecued rack of lamb showy and delicious, with a pecan crust and a mustard-tinged potato gratin alongside. The small space is loud at rush hour and in need of some design rethinking; at these prices, should we really have to look at bunches of fake flowers on the wall? Persimmon, the fruit, makes a cameo appearance only at dessert, in a lovely cheesecake.

7003 Wisconsin Ave. (near Leland Street), Bethesda. 301-654-9860. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $12, dinner $18 to $25.

Raku

I don't even need food in front of me to get excited about Raku in Bethesda. The setting alone elicits a smile on the grayest of days. Suspended from on high, outsize parasols in gumdrop colors compete for my attention with an inviting sushi bar and more bamboo than Tian Tian and Mei Xiang probably enjoy at the zoo in a week. Then the East-meets-West dishes start showing up. Fried dumplings filled with chicken and pork and ringed with pineapple-star anise sauce. Pumpkin soup jump-started with cilantro and ginger chips. One of the best spring rolls you'll ever crunch into, its thin wrapper yielding to a pure, steamy filling of hot scallop, sea bass and shrimp. Sichuan-style strip steak, which is only vaguely seasoned dull meat, brings me down to earth, but smoky glazed pork ribs and miso-marinated cod keep me coming back for more. No wonder the restaurant, one of many on its block, is always crowded. The deft hand behind this fresh and clever food? Masaru Homma, who once worked his magic at Sushi-Ko in Washington and whose presence, unfortunately, is missing at the Raku in Dupont Circle.

7240 Woodmont Ave. (near Elm Street), Bethesda. 301-718-8681. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6 to $14.95, dinner $14.75 to $19. Other location: 1900 Q St. NW (at 19th Street); 202-265-7258.

Ristorante Tosca

Named not for Puccini's opera but for the daughter of chef Cesare Lanfranconi, Tosca is my ready response to many dining queries. Where to go for a formal business lunch? A fancy dinner before a show? A special occasion? This northern Italian restaurant comes to the rescue with a spare but stylish interior and equally inviting food. Not everyone appreciates the cool elegance of the space--a snapshot in beige with splashes of teal--but I find it a soothing environment even when three-quarters of the crowd is rushing through dinner to catch a concert. Zucchini blossoms stuffed with sweet crab are fried in a tempura-like batter; crisp and hot, they rest on a shallow pool of garlic sauce. Octopus is shaved as thin as paper and spread out into a pink-and-white mosaic with fennel, sliced artichokes and a jolt of lemon. Lanfranconi's starches are superb--he previously cooked at Galileo, after all. He slips local tomatoes inside tiny ravioli and invigorates them with summery basil sauce, and perfumes a rustic pork sausage risotto with truffles. Desserts are better than ever these days, and they play by the calendar: In late summer, diners could find a fine polenta cake garnished with juicy cherries and a flaky tart of tomato marmalade presented with a scoop of basil ice cream. (Trust me, it works.)

1112 F St. NW (near 11th Street). 202-367-1990. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $12 to $18, dinner $15 to $28.

Samantha's

It might be early on a Sunday evening, but at Samantha's the mood is like a Saturday fiesta. In flow eager-looking customers, hoping to find a vacant seat in this plain but cheerful pink dining room; out from the kitchen comes a steady parade of sparkling seviche, fried pork heaped with fingers of yuca, and pupusas sandwiched with seafood--generous portions of food that also taste like a Salvadoran grandmother had a hand in their making. It's not just the pitchers of margaritas that put smiles on all the faces. In fact, the cocktails aren't quite as fresh as I remember them from my first time here. But the tamales are as soothing as ever, the oniony steak as robust and well seasoned, the fish as fresh and delicious; a special of garlicky whole red snapper with carefully cooked vegetables deserves permanent status on the bill of fare. Oh, there are some Mexican dishes, too, but tacos and enchiladas should not be the reason you're here. There really is a Samantha, by the way: she's 6 years old, the youngest member of the Jorge Garcia family and a frequent presence in her father's restaurant.

631 E. University Blvd. (near Piney Branch Road), Silver Spring. 301-445-7300. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $6.95 to $14.95.

1789

1789 has been around only since 1962, yet it's as steeped in tradition as any Washington monument. Here's where generations of Georgetown University students have been given a respite from cafeteria fare by their visiting parents and countless men have proposed to their girlfriends (and later returned to celebrate them having said yes). It's a handsome backdrop to these life moments, five nicely aged dining rooms spread over three floors. For all its Federal charm and decorum--guys, be sure to wear a jacket--it's no dinosaur. The American menu is just about as modern as any in town. Thus, roasted red pepper soup is freshened with basil and orange; grouper adopts an Asian accent with its gingery coconut broth; and the vegetarian sampler is a true celebration of the season rather than some kind of penance. That said, the more tradition-bound diner knows he or she can count on good crab cakes, an even better veal chop and roast rack of lamb lapped with red wine sauce, a 1789 mainstay. Desserts run to fruit crisps, chocolate cake and lemon chess pie--classics all.

1226 36th St. NW (at Prospect Street). 202-965-1789. Open: for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $18 to $36.

Singh Thai

This family-run purveyor of angel wings, pad thai and mango with sticky rice manages to pack in a lot of flair despite having fewer than 40 seats. Fresh flowers grace the tabletops. Shards of blue tile turn the bar into a pretty mosaic. And the walls soothe tired eyes with soft shades of orange and green. From the small kitchen, hidden behind a curtain, comes a long list of hits: spicy ground chicken salad, sliced grilled beef set off by a zippy lime and fish sauce, deep-fried frog's legs scattered with fried basil, and terrific catfish and duck preparations. This is one Thai chef around town who hasn't toned down his cooking to appeal to an American palate. And the tabs are gentle. Entrees average less than the price of most movies--and encourage repeat viewings.

2311 Wilson Blvd. (at N. Wayne Street), Arlington. 703-312-7118. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.95 to $10.95, dinner $7.95 to $12.95.

Sorak Garden

Named for a mountain in Korea famed for its beauty, Sorak Garden lives up to the designation with an artful interior. Rich wood, lush plants and Korean artifacts are everywhere; strings of tiny white lights hang in the main dining room. Busy as it can get, it's a lovely environment in which to sample the hearty and boldly flavored cooking of Korea. Crisp dumplings in the shape of half-moons are stuffed with juicy crumbled beef, and squid and sweet peppers are scattered over a pleasantly gelatinous "pancake." Grills built into the tabletops are used to stir-cook the barbecue for which Korea is famous, and entrees are preceded by a colorful parade of snacks, or panchan. The menu is big, ranging from noodles to casseroles to sushi, although raw fish is not the best reason to come here. The various hot pots are. A little black cauldron of brick-red broth, thick with cabbage, pork slices and custardy tofu, steams and bubbles as it is set before you; this kimchi soup takes its color from potent red chilies. Good news: Where once I complained about indifferent service, lately I'm pleased to report smiling welcomes, and help with grilling your shrimp, beef, squid or vegetables at the table.

4308 Backlick Rd. (near Little River Turnpike), Annandale. 703-916-7600. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $13.95, dinner $9.95 to $44.95.

Spices

Spices gives us plenty of reasons to seek it out, one of them being its location across the street from the Uptown, one of the last great movie houses around. Another is the restaurant's moderately priced menu of Japanese, Thai, Chinese and other Asian dishes: It's no problem if you want sashimi and your mate wants pad thai or Peking chicken, because the gang's all there, and delicious to boot--as are scallion pancakes invigorated with sweet and sour sauce, and curry puffs filled with gently spiced potatoes and ground chicken. Did I mention how stylish the place looks? The long blond sushi bar is backed by soothing yellow-green walls, and a small alcove across from it assures privacy for anyone sitting there. The stir-fried pork is enlivened with basil and fiery with chilies, and I always make time for a refreshing house signature, the ginger salad. The lilting music, the warm service, the fresh and appealing cooking served on lovely plates with twiglike chopsticks might seem familiar: Spices is owned by its blockmate in Cleveland Park, the distinguished Yanyu.

3333 Connecticut Ave. NW (near Macomb Street). 202-686-3833. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $7 to $19.

Tavira

Get past the underground location in a remote Chevy Chase bank building. Because the payoff is delicious, and even rare around here: the sensual cooking of Portugal, a subtle but distinctive cuisine that weaves together a lot of garlic, whole fish, salt cod in different guises and such enhancers as piri-piri, a hot chili seasoning. You could almost close your eyes, point anywhere on the menu and snare a winning plate. Will it be garlicky shrimp, fried cod fritters or a potato puree with sausage and kale--the classic caldo verde? All are very appealing introductions. The entrees make decisions difficult, too. Seafood, sausage and roasted peppers get a backdrop of saffron-perfumed rice in a Portuguese take on paella, while grilled chicken gets a kick from some of that piri-piri and a side of airy homemade potato chips. Duarte Rebolo, the passionate host, is eager to please. With its low ceilings and yellow walls, Tavira offers an intimate atmosphere in which to pretend you're on vacation, if only for a few hours.

8401 Connecticut Ave. (near Chevy Chase Lake Drive), Chevy Chase. 301-652-8684. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.25 to $13.95, dinner $16.95 to $24.95.

Ten Penh

When people complain about how dull Washington is, I feel compelled to ask if they've been to Ten Penh. Always busy and always exciting, this stylish downtown restaurant serves the kind of food that makes you sit up and take notice. And the setting is its equal. Picture brilliant silk fabrics, details in teak and an exhibition kitchen. I never tire of the menu, be it a lunch of mussels swimming in a fragrant yellow curry or a dinner of whole fried catfish with an herby and electric dipping sauce. Spice-rubbed folds of beef give an Asian twist to steak salad, while a fistful of tender shrimp adorn a refined red curry rounded out with juicy fresh pineapple and basil. ("It's our most popular dish," a waitress says, and one bite reveals why.) Endings--lovely ice creams, a small pyramid of chocolate mousse--are sweet and elegant. Reservations for this fashion show are a must, though there are first-come, first-served alternatives if you haven't planned ahead: The big marble bar is a fine spot to dine, as are the sidewalk tables facing Pennsylvania Avenue. No matter where you sit, though, you'll find the service gracious and informed. Even better, Ten Penh is within easy walking distance of several of Washington's most popular stages.

1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (at 10th Street). 202-393-4500. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $13 to $18, dinner $14 to $26.

2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria

People who expect a lot of razzle-dazzle with their pizza might not care for this Neapolitan-flavored outpost near the National Cathedral. The crusts at 2 Amys are minimally dressed, its staff doesn't sing "Happy Birthday," and the dining rooms are simple and spare. All of which is why I love the place--it has the spirit of a real Italian pizzeria. Who needs a whole brick of melted cheese on a pizza when the crust, blistered from time in an oven fueled by oak wood, is good enough to eat by itself? (Not that you should try it that way: Topping choices such as rapini, anchovies and hot pepper, or capers, cockles and grana should not be missed.) The young staff is casual yet smart; you know they've tasted the Italian wines, which are delicious and moderately priced, poured in a back bar illuminated with bare bulbs dangling from on high. The broad wood tables and cheerful yellow walls, meanwhile, add to rather than detract from the pleasure of eating a pie here (though I can see how the white tiles up front remind some people of restrooms). But first, ease in with an appetizer; the deviled eggs with green sauce are wonderful, as are salt cod fritters and any of the simple salads; the one made from orange slices decked out with olives, red onions and a fruity drizzle of olive oil is my current pick. The straightforward desserts follow suit. Frankly, it's tough to choose between a hunk of Gorgonzola paired with chestnut honey and a marsala custard so seductive it really ought to carry an R rating.

3715 Macomb St. NW (near Wisconsin Avenue). 202-885-5700. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: $7.95 to $12.95.

Wazuri

It took Kojo Davis to give Washington something it really needed: an African restaurant of distinction. That's not to take away from, among others, the dozens of area Ethiopian places that season the landscape. But in his friendly orange-and-yellow dining room, the former manager of the nearby Bukom Cafe is offering a much broader

geography lesson, with food that he says represents the places Africans came from, sailed to or eventually called home. So there are grilled shrimp surrounding a sassy tomato, mustard and chile dip; a spicy callaloo (vegetable soup); appealing fish specials; and such savory accompaniments as pureed sweet potatoes, soft-cooked plantains and fragrant rice to go with lamb in peanut sauce or vinegar-stoked chicken legs. The cocktails here are eye-openers; Davis, a frequent presence at the entrance, specialized in drinks at his former watering hole. Wazuri promises "A Taste of Africa," and it offers just that, plus good music, a diverse clientele and rooftop tables when the weather says yes.

1836 18th St. NW (near T Street). 202-797-4930. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Sunday; for dinner daily. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $12 to $17.50.

Yanyu

The more I explore Asian restaurants around the area, the more I appreciate Yanyu. Its service is solicitous. The space, graced with handsome murals of long-ago rulers, is very appealing: Will it be a booth upstairs or a table near the floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor? The menu dances from Hong Kong to Malaysia to Vietnam, from calamari ignited with hot green peppers; to lily bulb dumplings hiding a goodie bag of chicken and water chestnuts beneath a topknot of caviar; to silken sea bass. No Asian restaurant within 100 miles carves a finer Peking duck or pours from a better wine list, including such finds as Turley zinfandel and Caymus "Conundrum." Can't decide what to eat? There are four different tasting menus, requiring 90 minutes of your time, you're told, and it is time well spent. Not content to serve just what it always has, the kitchen dishes out rich surprises: Duck liver on a finger of gently vinegared rice, anyone? Called "foie gras sushi," it's nothing short of an inspiration.

3435 Connecticut Ave. NW (at Ordway Street). 202-686-6968. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: dinner $15 to $38.

Yuan Fu Vegetarian

An admission: I'm not generally an advocate of food manipulated to look like something other than what it is. But this vegetarian Chinese kitchen convinces me that there can be delicious exceptions. The color photographs on the menu look much like crab and duck, for instance, and the smells that follow those dishes are truly fragrant. But the orange-flavored "beef," seemingly caramel-ized morsels in a citrusy dark sauce, turns out to be soybean protein, while the kung pao "shrimp," tossed with bright green peppers and peanuts, is actually white yams having some fun with your taste buds. That nicely crisped skin on the "fish"? It's seaweed. As you might expect, actual vegetables are paid great respect; don't miss the sliced, battered eggplant or the crackling spinach pancake, accented with sesame seeds and electrified by some hot mustard sauce. Tucked into a small shopping strip, this dining room is pretty in green and nice enough for toasting a special occasion--although since there's no alcohol, it'll have to be with a soda or tea.

798 Rockville Pike (near Norbeck Road), Rockville. 301-762-5937. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.25 to $12.95, dinner $6.50 to $12.95.

Where to go for...

Bisteeya: Taste of Morocco (3211 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-527-7468) serves this classic, phyllo-covered pie two ways: filled with ground chicken, egg and almonds, or with fish, squid, vermicelli and fresh coriander. Both are $12.95--appetizer enough for two--and both are habit-

forming. In Morocco, diners plunge their fingers into the steaming bundles, tearing off bites to eat; here, you're allowed to use a knife.

Caesar Salad: It's one of the best shows playing at MCI Center: the $9 Caesar salad tossed at Nick & Stef's (601 F St. NW; 202-661-5040). Prepared tableside (at dinner only), it starts with virgin olive oil, egg yolk, lemon juice and red wine vinegar whisked with Dijon mustard, garlic, minced anchovies and Worcestershire sauce. In goes Parmesan cheese, too, followed by romaine leaves and hearts. Crisp, cool and punchy, it's my kind of prelude to a great dry-aged steak.

Choucroute: A marriage of juicy sausages, smoked pork loin, apples, caraway seeds and tangy sauerkraut--there are few better ways to welcome cold weather than with this strapping Alsatian signature (say shoo-KROOT). L'Auberge Chez Francois (332 Springvale Road, Great Falls; 703-759-3800), where the basic four-course dinner costs $47 to $54, has served a lusty choucroute seemingly forever.

Doughnuts: Based on a White House recipe for rolls, the high, tender, yeasty and butter-rich doughnuts baked by chef Frank Ruta of Palena and sold at the Amernick bakery (3313 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-537-5855) are available only after 11:30 a.m. and only on Fridays and Saturdays. Sprinkled with sugar or topped with a powdered sugar glaze, they sell for 99 cents apiece. Their elusive flavor? A bit of orange zest in each batch of dough.

Dosa: Think of it as a burrito by way of India. Made from a batter of lentils and rice, it's a thin, crisp pancake wrapped around your choice of fillings, the most popular of which at Amma Vegetarian Kitchen (344-A Maple Ave. East, Vienna; 703-938-5328) is potatoes mashed with cumin and onion. Sambar--a souplike partner of vegetables--and coconut sauce turn this snack ($3.99) into a savory feast.

Grilled Cheese: There are grilled cheese sandwiches and then there are "super grilled cheese" sandwiches ($6.50). Make mine a super, and make it at the brown Formica counter of the lovably scrappy Stoney's (1307 L St. NW; 202-347-9163). American cheese, tomatoes, bacon and onions--"You got to get it with red onions," a manager insists--are placed between slices of thick white bread and warmed to a gentle crisp. Just make sure you ask to swap the industrial french fries for the house-made coleslaw.

Ice Cream With a Twist: Forget butter pecan. If you want to take a walk on the wild side, consider York Castle Tropical Ice Cream (9324 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-589-1616). Owned and run by a Jamaican family, this small storefront scoops up ice cream in such nontraditional flavors as papaya, lychee, soursop, peach in summer, pumpkin in fall, and Guinness, the last potent enough to warrant an ID check. The price: $2.33 a scoop, $3.95 a pint.

Meatloaf: During peak theater season, downtown's Star Saloon (518 10th St. NW; 202-347-6333) sells up to 100 orders a week of its oh-so-homey meatloaf ($11.95 at lunch, a buck more at night). Served in soft, soothing 12-ounce portions, it comes to the table with nicely sauteed vegetables, a heapin' helpin' of mashed potatoes and a demi-glace enriched with whipping cream.

Mezze: A spread of Middle Eastern appetizers is the best way to experience Bacchus, with modestly charming locations in Washington (1827 Jefferson Place NW; 202-785-0734) and Bethesda (7945 Norfolk Ave.; 301-657-1722). Choose from among thick yogurt, strewn with walnuts and brightened with mint; chopped fresh spinach with lemon and coriander; bullet-shaped lamb kibbe in sweet-tart pomegranate sauce; deep-fried smelts--you could try one of these appetizers a day for a month and still not run out ($3.25 to $8.25 at dinner).

Steamed Crabs: Eating steamed crabs in the city is like wearing Bermuda shorts to the opera: It's all wrong. That's why, when the mood strikes, you'll find me at the convivial Harris Crab House (433 Kent Narrows Way N., Grasonville; 410-827-9500) on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Four sizes of crabs are typically available, and they're lightly dusted with spices that sting the lips but don't detract from the sweet meat. Prices, based on availability, run from $27 per dozen for mediums to $72 per dozen for jumbo crabs.

Tuna Tartare: You'll find this appetizer all over town, but nobody presents it in quite so clever a package as the roaringly popular DC Coast (1401 K St. NW; 202-216-5988). Here, for $13 at dinner, glistening diced raw tuna is splashed with a mixture of coconut milk, jalapenos, ginger and fish sauce. Decorated with slivers of lime, red onion and cilantro, it shows up in (move over, Gilligan) a coconut shell. It's at once sweet, crunchy, cool, zippy . . . and irresistible.--T.S.

Restaurants by Locale

District of Columbia

Adams Morgan:

Cashion's Eat Place

Little Fountain Cafe

Brightwood Park:

Colorado Kitchen

Capitol Hill:

Bistro Bis

Montmartre

Cleveland Park:

Palena

Spices

2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria

Yanyu

Downtown (East):

Burma

Caucus Room

Jaleo

Ten Penh

Downtown (West):

Breadline

C.F. Folks

Corduroy

Equinox

Laboratorio del Galileo

Oval Room at Lafayette Square

Ristorante Tosca

Dupont Circle:

Al Tiramisu

Gabriel

Johnny's Half Shell

Obelisk

Wazuri

Georgetown:

Bistrot Lepic

Michel Richard Citronelle

1789

Glover Park:

Heritage India

Upper Northwest:

Greenwood

Makoto

West End:

Marcel's

Melrose

Virginia

Alexandria:

Majestic Cafe

Annandale:

Sorak Garden

Arlington:

Costa Verde

Guajillo

Layalina

Minh's Restaurant

Singh Thai

Fairfax:

Artie's

Falls Church:

Huong Que/Four Sisters Restaurant

Herndon:

Mikaku Sushi Taro

Tysons Corner:

Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern

Maestro

Washington:

Inn at Little Washington

Maryland

Baltimore:

Charleston

Bethesda:

Black's Bar and Kitchen

Heritage India

Jaleo

Persimmon

Raku

Chevy Chase:

Tavira

Easton:

Inn at Easton

Germantown:

India Palace

Olney:

Mannequin Pis

Rockville:

Cuban Corner

Mykonos Grill

Yuan Fu Vegetarian

Silver Spring:

Samantha's

Wheaton:

Hollywood East Cafe

Restaurants by Cuisine

African

Wazuri

American

Artie's

Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern

Breadline

Cashion's Eat Place

C.F. Folks

Corduroy

Equinox

Greenwood

Inn at Little Washington

Little Fountain Cafe

Melrose

Oval Room at Lafayette Square

Palena

Persimmon

1789

Australian

Inn at Easton

Belgian

Mannequin Pis

Burmese

Burma

Chinese

Hollywood East Cafe

Yuan Fu Vegetarian

Cuban

Cuban Corner

French

Bistro Bis

Bistrot Lepic

Marcel's

Michel Richard Citronelle

Montmartre

Greek

Mykonos Grill

Indian

Heritage India

India Palace

Italian

Al Tiramisu

Laboratorio del Galileo

Maestro

Obelisk

Ristorante Tosca

2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria

Japanese

Makoto

Mikaku Sushi Taro

Korean

Sorak Garden

Latin American

Gabriel

Mexican

Guajillo

Middle Eastern

Layalina

Pan-Asian

Raku

Spices

Ten Penh

Yanyu

Peruvian

Costa Verde

Portuguese

Tavira

Salvadoran

Samantha's

Seafood (American)

Black's Bar & Kitchen

Johnny's Half Shell

Southern (American)

Charleston

Colorado Kitchen

Majestic Cafe

Spanish

Jaleo

Steak

Caucus Room

Thai

Singh Thai

Vietnamese

Huong Que / Four Sisters

Restaurant

Minh's Restaurant

Tom Sietsema is The Post's food critic. He will be fielding questions and comments about the Annual Dining Guide at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.