White Flint Mall, Rockville 468-1155 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Prices: Most dinner entrees $6 to $11. Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa.

La Ruche is a cozy, informal, all-purpose restaurant that makes you feel at home whether you're settling in for a full meal or just ordering a pastry and coffee.

There's a lot to be said for this place. The food has remained remarkably good over the years -- consistency and quality control are strong points here -- and the blackboard list of lunch and dinner specials varies enough over time so that you can eat here regularly without falling into a rut. The prices are moderate, the portions very generous, the young servers quick and attentive.

The restaurant offers two eating spaces: a standard dining room, pleasant and softly lit, and for those who like their outdoor cafes climate controlled and bug free, an open section on the indoor mall. (Trouble is, the only view is of the movie theaters across the corridor. Pretty dull.)

Soups and salads are among the big sellers here, and with good reason. The crab soup is a gem, in a tomato-cream base laced with sherry. The vegetable soup is on target as well, a pureed mixture with peas, spinach, cream and subtle flavorings. The potato-leek soup is a decent version, too, but we found the fish soup hopelessly bland.

All the salads are made with impeccably fresh, high quality greens, although the dressings could use a little more punch. The salade Nicoise is gigantic, with lots of solid tuna, but it's served in an inconveniently deep bowl that doesn't allow for good mixing of the ingredients -- ask for a separate large plate and do your own tossing. The Caesar salad is a somewhat anemic disappointment, short on anchovy, garlic, egg yolk and Worcestershire sauce. It's stiffly priced, too, at $5.25.

What would a bistro be without a croque Monsieur, that Gallic ham and cheese sandwich made with French toast? La Ruche does a terrific croque, the fried bread light and grease free, the ham delicately flavored and piled high, the Swiss cheese topping not too heavily applied.

There have been some excellent dinner entrees lately. The shrimp kebab was flawless, with big, plump, fresh-tasting shrimp and good, lively vegetables. Softshell crabs were tiny beauties, sauteed in butter so they were delicately crisp outside and juicy within, and served on a good, chunky sauce of diced tomato and onion.

The "gourmetisserie" selection offers four cold salads of your choice from about 10 on hand, along with an excellent flaky croissant. Among the options are a good ratatouille and chunky chicken and turkey salads. But beware the hearts of palm and feta, choked in an excess of dried herbs. One of the few flops we found at La Ruche was the quiche -- the spinach version had a nicely fluffy filling but a heavy, oily crust.

Desserts, made on the premises, are worth a try. The champ is the chocolate cheesecake, with a deep-down flavor you won't be able to leave. The chocolate mousse is weak-kneed by comparison. The various meringue-whipped cream tortes can be achingly sweet, but in some of them that's offset by decisive flavorings.