Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturdayfor lunch and light meals; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday for dinner; closed Sunday.

Credit Cards: Master Charge, Visa.

Reservations: Not accepted.

Price Range: Light meal items $2.15 to $5.35, dinner entrees $6.50 to $9, complete dinner about $15 to $22 per person.

Question: What do you get when you try to sanitize the real world and bring it indoors? Answer: White Flint Mall, where it never rains on the imitation front stoops, cobblestones and street signs, and where the decor reminds you of some science-fiction spaceship dedicated to preserving little bits of planet Earth.

So it's no wonder that the stucco and ceiling beams at La Ruche, White Flint's French restaurant, are fake, or that the "outdoor" cafe section overlooks just some more of the climate-controlled shopping center.

But to fault La Ruche for its unnatural setting would be a mistake. In fact, this place captures remarkably well the essence of a French cafe: coziness, informality, conviviality, reasonable prices and good, unpretentious food. It's a place for a planned lunch or dinner, or a spur-of-the-moment, odd-hours visit for just a salad or pastry.

If it's hard to find a spectacular dish at La Ruche, it's also hard to find a poor one. And the solid quality holds up, day after day. Wines? A short list with no surprises, but what's there is fairly priced.

You can't go wrong with salads here. Nicoise and Printaniere are immense, the fresh greens well tossed with a good, simple vinaigrette dressing, and the other ingredients of high quality and generously applied.

Most of the soups are excellent. Potage Parisienne is a fine rendition, the broth laced with plenty of cream and butter, the vegetables firm and bright. Crab soup, enlivened with cream and sherry, is a standout. And the gazpacho, the vegetables finely diced but not pureed and the flavor perked with vinegar, is delightful -- a salad in a soup bowl. The fish soup, though, is one of the few bummers we've encountered here, an unpleasant, oversalted brew with a smoldery flavor and very little fish.

Parmesanne au fromage, a gargantuan mound of fried puff pastry topped with cream and melted Swiss cheese, is one of those odd dishes that requires both a recommendation and a warning. By all means try it--the frying is light, and the hot cheese topping will remind you of fondue. But be prepared for more bulk than any single diner can consume in one sitting. This is a dish either for Superman, or for sharing as an appetizer/snack among four to six mere mortals.

Among the entrees, the heaping platters of mussels in garlic butter have been consistently first rate, fresh, plump and tender. Soft-shell crabs, when they're available, are just as good: snowy-white and sauteed quickly in butter so they're lightly crackly and bursting with juice.

De-boned chicken breast is the basis for several entrees, and it's generally treated very well--moist, tender, just slightly battered, sometimes with only lemon, butter and parsley, sometimes with a bit of melted brie.

Just as reliable is London broil -- the beef flavorful and the red wine sauce pleasant if unexceptional. The trout has been a tad dry, but it's nicely pan-fried in butter, and the Bearnaise sauce that sometimes accompanies it is sparked with fresh tarragon.

Dessert displays often promise more than they deliver, but at La Ruche most of the desserts don't let you down. The puff pastry that underlies the tarts is usually as light and crackly as you'd hoped it would be, and the whipped cream in the chocolate roll never heard of aerosol cans. The chocolate cheesecake is a dream. But the chocolate mousse, although deep and dark, is knocked off balance by an excess of sugar, as is the otherwise excellent walnut cake.

For those with the grit to hold fast against the temptations of pastry, butter, chocolate and cream, there are just rewards: excellent fresh fruit combinations. And you can feel so virtuous as you watch your weak-willed friends wipe the chocolate guilt from their lips.

La Ruche, all in all, is a sweetheart of a restaurant. Not necessarily the choice for a big celebration, or a special tete-a-tete, or impressing your boss. But a place to return to again and again for good, reliable dishes, one in which to become a "regular."

A neighborhood restaurant, in other words, in the best sense of that term. Strange, that neighborhood restaurants are found nowadays in space ships like White Flint. Maybe that's something to think about.