The Vegetable Garden

White Flint Mall

North Bethesda

468-9301

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $7 to $10.

Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

If you're a vegetarian, you'll want to put The Vegetable Garden on your "must" list, and if you're a carnivore, you'll want to go along just to see how many ways tofu can be prepared. As far as we know, The Vegetable Garden is the first meatless, fishless Chinese restaurant in the area, and it's already doing a brisk business even on weeknights (which may be a sign of how strongly vegetarianism is taking hold these days).

The menu is certainly unlike anything you've seen in other Chinese restaurants. In addition to the ubiquitous tofu, you'll find chestnuts, dates, lotus seeds, gluten and zucchini in many of the dishes.

Not everything succeeds here -- in fact, some of the more common vegetable dishes are better prepared in many conventional Chinese restaurants -- but there are enough good and unusual items to make this place worthwhile.

The fare falls into three basic categories: standard Chinese vegetable dishes; original and unusual vegetable combinations; and imitation meat, poultry and fish dishes made of tofu or wheat gluten.

The standard dishes are the most disappointing, largely because of their thick, flat-tasting, monotonous brown sauces. We found the kung pao sauce virtually identical to the one served with the sushi rolls. And the stuffed tofu is so engulfed in that gelatinous brown sauce you can barely detect the delicate mushroom filling.

If you avoid the items with brown sauce, you'll fare better. For example, the vegetable tempura -- broccoli, sweet potato, mushroom, carrot, tofu -- is excellent, lightly battered and beautifully fried. And the serving is immense.

Among the original dishes, the field is mixed. White jade rolls are outstanding -- broad, tender, pleasantly glutinous rice noodles wrapped around a delicate mixture of diced mushrooms and bamboo shoots and served in an unobtrusive white sauce.

The rainbow crown is excellent too, a vegetarian version of the seafood nest served in most Chinese restaurants. In this case, the fried nest is filled with a beautiful melange of vegetables, and includes cashews and chestnuts for added texture and flavor.

The winter melon boat is topped with virtually the same group of vegetables, but it consists mainly of winter melon. If you like plain, unseasoned squash, you'll enjoy this dish.

Pineapple lotus root is an achingly sweet concoction, a hollowed-out pineapple half filled with disks of crunchy deep-fried lotus root (which would be tasty by itself) with bits of canned-tasting pineapple and lots of syrupy lemon sauce.

In the imitation-meat category, the mock chicken is amazingly similar to the real thing, and very good (try the mock chicken appetizer with five-spice flavor). But we found the mock beef unpleasantly mushy -- you'd never mistake this for meat. The sushi rolls, made with the standard seaweed wrapper filled with bits of tofu and bean sprouts, are a qualified success -- they're wonderfully delicate but compromised by more of that flat brown gravy.

The soups here are excellent, particularly the house vegetable soup and the amply portioned noodle soup, a simple but satisfying meal in a bowl.