12300 Wilkins Ave., Rockville


Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $12-$16.

Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Spanish restaurants are a rarity in suburban Maryland, and that alone makes Andalucia worth noting. But this place has more than mere novelty going for it. Most of the food is excellent, and a few dishes are standouts. Be prepared for rather steep prices, though, and for somewhat stingy portions with some items. And don't expect posh surroundings -- this is a comfortable and inviting restaurant (except for the unusually glaring track lighting), but it's obviously been decorated on a budget.

Dinner starts on a high note with authentic, wonderfully crusty hearth-baked bread that's honestly fresh, unlike the frozen and warmed stuff served in too many restaurants. Andalucia deserves credit for serving the real thing. The mussel appetizer is outstanding, a smallish portion, perfectly fresh -- use a hunk of that good bread to sop up the ambrosial sauce. The fried calamari are very good too (but, like the mussels, a little skimpy in portion), tender but not soft, with a nicely crisp batter. Also good (but pricey at $4.75) are the sweet red peppers, long-marinated in oil and fresh garlic.

Soups are a highlight here. The gazpacho is finely pureed and intensely flavored, with a good kick of pepper, and the vegetable soup is rich. The lentil soup, when they have it, is even better. But the real standout is the fish soup, generously flavored with saffron and crammed with fresh mussels, scallops, calamari, shrimp and fish. If they served this marvelous brew in a big bowl, it would make a terrific entree.

Restaurant paellas are generally disappointing, more often than not overcooked and dry. But Andalucia's paella is flawless, each rice grain moist, firm and tender, barely coated with oil. And the other ingredients -- chicken, sausage, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, calamari -- are perfectly fresh and perfectly done. And, unlike some of the other dishes here, the paella is amply portioned.

The zarzuela, a seafood combination with rice on the side, has the same good shellfish, but in rather austere amounts -- $15.95 seems exorbitant for a dish of this size. The langostinos, five gorgeous jumbo shrimp, fresh-tasting and perfectly cooked, are the same price, but more understandably so. They're served in a simple but irresistible sauce of olive oil, minced garlic and parsley -- go back to that good bread for dipping if you're hungry.

The veal here is superb -- tender and juicy, fine-textured yet with some heft to it. The version called ternera sevillana, with ham and olives, is delightful and generously portioned. Pollo al ajillo is chicken in an outstanding sauce of tomato, green pepper, onion and garlic. It would be a winner if it had more chicken -- there's just not enough meat here to warrant the $11.50 price. We found the trout with ham and capers pleasant but uninteresting compared with the other dishes.

For dessert there's a good shimmery flan or, more unusual, a delightful pudding-like custard called natilla, flavored with lemon zest and cinnamon. Or try the refreshing pear poached in red or white wine.