3500 Connecticut Ave. NW

966-9775

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Lunch salads and sandwiches $2.75 to $7.95; dinner appetizers $2.95 to $6.75, dinner entrees $9.50 to $12.95.

Cards: Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.

Let's start out by saying that the Uptown Cafe has any number of positive attributes: a personable, if somewhat inexperienced, staff; a tempting-looking bakery and a cute third-story dining room, with windows overlooking much of the neighborhood; classical music to lull us; a menu that sounds inventive, if somewhat trendy (for starters, there's a spinach salad with smoked duck breast and sesame seed dressing).

The prices, too, are reasonable -- and we all know Washington can never have too many moderately priced restaurants. Yes, the Uptown Cafe is full of good ideas. But not many of them are fulfilled on the plate.

After three visits and a sampling of well over half the menu, I tend to agree with a fellow diner who dubbed her dinner "Potemkin food." In other words, much of it is style masquerading as substance.

And you know you're in trouble when the fresh-squeezed orange juice and the fresh-brewed coffee are the highlights of a meal.

The pate maison comes to the table in the form of triangular wedges, set on a glossy pool of lingonberry sauce and surrounded by a fan of gherkins. Looks great, tastes awful, the sauce being exceptionally cloying. The bagna coda, on the other hand, is pretty, and pretty harmless, a rainbow of peppers, zucchini, celery and such, somewhat mismatched with an insipid anchovy dressing.

Some of the food is just plain underseasoned, like the bland "herbed brioche" accompanying several of the appetizers, or a soup special of practically lobsterless lobster bisque, which was shallow and thin tasting.

While meal-size, $6.25 is still too high a price for the spinach and duck salad. The few warm slices of duck resting atop the greens turned them into a grassy tasting stew, and for all the ingredients -- rings of onion, bell pepper, croutons and sesame seed dressing -- the dish fell flat.

Across the board, the main dishes were disappointments, from a special of heavy and chewy cheese-stuffed ravioli, masked by a more satisfactory spinach cream sauce, to a petite fillet that was little better than banquet fare.

Unfortunately, those were among the better dishes. My nomination for worst poultry dish of the year resulted in a tie between the dismal chicken breast -- trapped in a triangle of overbrowned phyllo with bits of nuts and brie cheese, and served with an orange sauce that could have passed for cough syrup -- and the equally unappealing breast of duck, breaded with crushed nuts. For all its flavor and texture, the duck could have been overcooked steak.

To the kitchen's credit, the accompaniments and garnishes are generally eye-catching: tiny lobsters and rabbits fashioned from pieces of carrot have graced the entrees, as have dainty little beet timbales and swirls of squash puree. But those bits of fanciness are unable to rescue the plate as a whole.

The Uptown Cafe is evidence that housemade dishes are not necessarily better. The bread and desserts are cases in point, varying in quality from a homey, somewhat wet, bread pudding to vegetable muffins, highly recommended by the manager, that tasted gummy and salty.

You might have a problem simply getting what you ordered. Once, we got a strawberry mousse cake after ordering shortcake (it was dreadful, artificial tasting, and sheathed with a red armour of gelatin). And another time, a chocolate mousse cake was delivered after we were offered chocolate mousse. The menu lists nine coffee drinks, but when we last inquired, we were informed that the espresso machine was broken.

You get the picture.

Clearly what this restaurant needs is someone who is as attentive to taste as to presentation. In the end, good looks and good intentions don't add up to a good meal at the Uptown Cafe.

Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.