Melting Pot

2259 Bel Pre Rd.

Wheaton

598-1736

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

Prices: Most dinner entrees $11 to $15.

Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

This is a good-looking restaurant, a little pricey, with a trans-world menu: a remarkable 48 entrees, including Maryland crab cakes, zarzuela de mariscos, manicotti and stir-fried shrimp.

That's a tall order for one kitchen, so it's not surprising that some of the dishes fall short. The unevenness in the food follows no discernible pattern, unfortunately, so it's hard to provide general guidelines as to what to choose and what to avoid. Still, with careful ordering you can eat reasonably well here.

An excellent appetizer is the chicken shish kebab, a generous skewerful, beautifully marinated and grilled so it's juicy and flavorful, with onion, green pepper and a good rice pilaf. The spinach fettuccine is pleasant too, the pasta properly chewy and the cream sauce nicely garlicky. The onion soup is a decent version, not oversalted or with too much cheese, and the shrimp florentine soup, an occasional special, is well flavored (although too thick for our taste).

A good entree choice is the chicken Alexander, a thick, juicy breast fillet wrapped in layers of ham and bacon and topped with a little melted cheese. The combined flavors are lovely, mild yet nicely smoky.

Another winner is the outstanding manicotti, at $7.95 one of the lowest-priced entrees. In most restaurants, manicotti is a tired mush, but here the pasta crepe is admirably delicate, the ricotta filling is fluffy and fine-textured and the tomato topping is nicely herbed and applied sparingly. The veal picatta is a good rendition too, a generous portion of pale, tender meat with a simple meaty sauce.

The crab cakes are decent enough -- lightly fried and neither diluted with filler nor greasy -- but they're mainly claw meat rather than lump, and they need more seasoning. After the excellent chicken kebab appetizer, I had high hopes for the lamb shish kebab entree. No such luck. The meat had been treated to the same excellent marinade, but it had spent far too long on the fire and was totally dried out. (And this after the server had asked how I wanted it cooked, and I had specified medium rare.) Too bad -- taken off the heat sooner, this would have been an excellent kebab.

The cioppino, which is usually a seafood stew with a light, fragrant broth, turned out to be a platter of undistinguished seafood covered with a thick tomato sauce overdosed with dried herbs and some limp spaghetti. At $14.95, this dish definitely missed the target.

The salads that precede the entrees are large but unremarkable, mainly iceberg lettuce. Sidestep the house dressing, so overly thickened that it has nearly the consistency of a pudding. (The blue cheese dressing is pleasant enough.)

The vegetable accompaniments have been excellent: beautifully cooked broccoli, good baked potatoes, firm separate-grained rice.

There are some first-class desserts here. The brownie, available with vanilla ice cream, is the real thing -- dark, chewy, deeply chocolatey -- and the portion will serve two or more. Just as good is the marble cheesecake, creamy yet intensely cheesy, with marvelous swirls of dark chocolate.