World 's Fare

Phyllis Richman's 1997 Top 50 List

By Phyllis C. Richman
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 1997
Zubin Shroff
Elements of a salad at Cafe Atlantico

hat's your favorite restaurant? I can never come up with an answer to that question. It's hard enough to narrow my list down to 50. Washington has a lot of great food, a lot of hospitable restaurateurs, so much variety that I could go two months before repeating a single ethnicity. There's an enormous choice of restaurants, each of them evolving and changing.

All too often, though, the changes are for the worse. Last year's attention to detail grows sloppy. Successful managers become arrogant. A softening of business demands budgetary constraints. Chefs grow bored. At the same time, diners develop new expectations.

This year has been busy but far from groundbreaking. An unprecedented number of seafood restaurants opened, but like the other newcomers, most have been part of a chain or have branched off from a successful original. All the more apparent is that money, rather than passion, is the driving force behind restaurants. They are a business, of course. But in past years they have seemed equally intent on being an art.

I would have thought the last great economic shakedown had broken restaurants of some bad habits. No such luck. In restaurant terms, we're back to the '80s: Dining rooms are crowded once again. Prices have crept back up. And haughtiness has returned.

When you call for a reservation at, for example, 8:30, the reply you get is all too likely to be abrupt: "We only have seatings at 6:30 and 9:30." How foolish of you to want to eat at the height of the evening. Similarly, receptionists ask whether you want smoking or nonsmoking, then tell you that they can't promise you a smoking table. Ditto a window table. Or whatever else you might wish to specify.

When we request water, waiters ask, "Perrier, Evian or San Pellegrino?" as if tap water were beyond the pale. The hard sell goes on to desserts, side dishes, after-dinner drinks, sometimes a la carte bread. Then, too often the meal doesn't drift to a close, but snaps shut, as a staffer delivers a check instead of a coffee refill. After all, newly arriving diners are waiting for the second shift.

On the other hand, you can dine wonderfully in Washington, on food from nearly anywhere in the world. Along with the city's superstar chefs, there are countless unsung, little-known kitchen heroes. You can find a delicious and gracious $10 meal and an exquisite one that seems worth every penny of its three-digit tab. Discovering such worthwhile restaurants takes some doing, to be sure. But of course, after six months of tracking down 50 favorites, I know that.

See Phyllis' Top 50 picks by category, cuisine and location.
Go to the Restaurant Guide
Two glasses of lassis from Teaism
Zubin Shroff
Lassis at Teaism

BOMBAY BISTRO By some unfathomable mechanism, Indian restaurants have lately gotten better than ever. Once they seemed largely interchangeable; increasingly they have become distinctive, offering a far wider range of dishes than in years past, and the list of excellent ones is proliferating. Bombay Bistro is one of the best, or I should say two of the best, since it has branches in Maryland and Virginia. I'm more familiar with the Virginia location, which looks like an all-American shopping-center restaurant that's taken on a few Asian elements in its beautiful wall decorations and waitresses' costumes.

Dinner can start with American wine, Indian beer or a variety of cooling yogurt drinks, and it can end with an exotic Eastern house-made ice cream or purely French chocolate mousse. In between, too, some of the dishes are presented Western-style -- a platter of grilled fish with rice and vegetables -- while others are served in copper pans over warming candles. In either case, the flavors are unmistakably Indian, with fragrant and hot spices playing games on your tongue as first one, then another dominates and recedes. The yogurt-marinated salmon or rockfish shows off the tandoori technique most deliciously, though all the tandoori foods are handsomely blistered from the hot, smoky oven. Even dishes that are ordinarily tamely seasoned are here scintillating with spices: Spinach with house-made cheese is a little chamber orchestra of flavors, and raita -- house-made yogurt -- is light on the cucumber but heavy on the herbs and cumin seeds. In addition to the usual lamb, chicken, beef and fish curries, the biryanis and the vegetable curries, Bombay Bistro offers dosas, those dramatic table-size pancakes that could serve as a bargain meal on their own.

3570 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax. 703-359-5810. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $4.95 to $11.95. (Other location: 98 W. Montgomery Ave., Rockville. 301-762-8798.)

THE BOMBAY CLUB With so many Indian restaurants, offering meals from $5 to $50, it's not only impossible to pick the best, it's difficult to pick even the five best.

But whatever the size of the list, the Bombay Club remains a contender. It was among the first of Washington's refined and elegant Indian restaurants, and it rarely falters. True, its prices are steep enough to send me looking elsewhere. And it helps to know your way around the menu, so you can skirt the few disappointments. But the dining room has a luxurious and leisurely colonial feel, and in warm weather the terrace is as attractive as any in town. The service is effusive, an attempt to turn a simple meal into an event. And the finest of the cooking is intricately flavored and pungent, not simply spicy.

The scene calls for a cool, refreshing drink, whether a fresh fruit juice, with or without yogurt, or something alcoholic like a Pimm's cup. And while the menu offers plenty of lamb and chicken choices, I prefer the seafood (except lobster, whose delicacy is lost in overcooking and powerful seasoning). Many of the best dishes are among the appetizers -- tandoori scallops, mussels buried in a buttery onion sauce, squid coated with fragrant red spices. In fact, appetizers and breads would make a sumptuous meal. The breads here are top-notch, puffy and light, enlivened with perhaps a topping of red onion or a filling of black-eyed peas. The tamest dishes are from the tandoor oven, but that's no reason to pass them up, particularly if tandoori salmon is among the specials. Or if you want a wide-ranging sample, order a thali, a tray of little dishes and condiments that can show the range of this kitchen's expertise.

815 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-659-3727. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $7 to $18.50.

BOMBAY CURRY COMPANY The only thing more nondescript than the name of this Indian restaurant is the restaurant itself, a small, plain storefront at the end of a shopping strip. What is distinctive is the important part: the cooking. The Bombay Curry Company makes curries that taste totally different one from another, with seasoning that unfolds in waves as you savor it. The rock-bottom prices reflect the serviceable style of the dining room rather than the ability of the kitchen.

The best time to appreciate all this is on Sunday afternoons, when a buffet shows off half a dozen entrees, house-made bread, rice and salads, all for less than $8. Sometimes the buffet includes game and other exotic ingredients; often it reflects the chef's penchant for invention; always it has an array of meat and vegetarian dishes that can give you an idea of what to order a la carte next time you come for dinner. The butter chicken here is more tomatoey than most -- an interesting variation. And there are tandoori dishes as well as curries. I'd be tempted to concentrate on vegetables: soft, pillowy dumplings of potato and cottage cheese in a mild, creamy sauce; chickpeas vibrant with cumin and mango powder; cauliflower tossed with cashews and ginger; chunks of potato draped in bits of chopped spinach. Never again will you think of all curries as just one yellowish stew.

3110 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-836-6363. Open: for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. D, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $3.50 to $6.95, dinner $6.95 to $9.95.

THE BREAD LINE It's always been hard to find a great sandwich, one that combines top-quality bread with an equally worthy filling. The Bread Line serves -- indeed, makes -- the best of both, plus a changing array of related foods -- pizzas, calzones, empanadas, pork buns and the grilled and stuffed flat breads called piadini -- from breakfast through late afternoon.

A disclosure: The Bread Line's owner, Mark Furstenberg, is a friend of mine. Although I've taken pains to review his restaurant as objectively as I would any other, it's important to point out the relationship.

That said, the piadini with falafel is one of the best I've ever had, crunchy with fried whole chickpeas. The tuna sandwich is Moroccan-inspired, with cumin, preserved lemon and olives, and mesclun leaves on top. The Bread Line also makes a luxury version of ham and cheese: real prosciutto di Parma on walnut bread with mascarpone, gorgonzola, watercress and fig jam.

The soups, mostly vegetarian, have a hearty, full flavor, as if a battalion of grandmothers from around the world were standing ready to cook up the ribollita or carrot-ginger or potato-and-leek. The bagels and wheaty English muffins are unbeatable, and then there are scones -- with raisins, dried cherries and candied ginger -- along with muffins, French toast, croissants and Danish a Dane would recognize. You can eat everything in the restaurant or carry it out. There's even bread to take home for dinner.

1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-822-8900. Open: Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. No credit cards. Entree prices: $3.75 to $6.25.

CAFE ATLANTICO The Caribbean and South America have rarely been so flattered as at Cafe Atlantico. The mood is electric, the flavors are bold, yet the style is haute cuisine. This inventive restaurant soars -- literally as well as figuratively -- with four levels of tables on a series of balconies, so you can dine intimately yet be in on the party.

Cafe Atlantico is a terrific place to drink -- there are bars on two floors -- particularly if you're fond of lime, as in margaritas, pisco sours and Brazil's caipirinhas. And its food is vibrant, colorful and moderately priced for such high style. Start with beef fritters from Dominica, feijoada reinterpreted as a salad or the familiar quesadillas, glamorized with such ingredients as huitlacoche, squash blossoms and mango oil. Entrees are updates of such down-home dishes as Oaxacan mole, here slathered on baby chicken, or jerk chicken, which comes with mashed boniato (a kind of sweet potato) and flower infusions. A tamal Atlantico-style features mushroom-stuffed quail. And in perhaps the most stunning dish of the new season, confit of duck is teamed with fresh passion fruit. Heavy dishes are lightened, murky stews are transformed into beauties.

Despite the sure-handed excellence of the cooking, chef Jose Ramon Andres is one of the youngest of the city's high-profile chefs. So certainly there's more to come.

405 Eighth Street NW. 202-393-0812. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for light fare Monday through Saturday 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7.95 to $13.95, dinner $13.95 to $16.95.

CAFE MILANO No restaurant changes moods more starkly than Cafe Milano. At lunch and early dinner it is cool and serene, but as the evening gets later, Cafe Milano crescendos into a sizzling Euro-set bar. At any hour, both the setting and the food are suave, chic, utterly sophisticated.

For me, Cafe Milano is at its best at lunch, particularly if the weather suggests an outdoor table under a canvas umbrella. In any case, the light foods are what attract me -- salads that look as if they are floating, carpaccio of beef or fish (especially swordfish with a coarse paste of green olives). I'll order anything with artichokes -- baby ones -- or with arugula or mache. And in season, Cafe Milano finds the sweetest tomatoes not only for its salads but for its bruschettas. It also makes fine use of seasonal wild mushrooms, in pastas or even, surprisingly, with a silken liver buried in onions cooked to near melting. I always have trouble deciding among the eight or so pages of dishes, and find more thrills than disappointments. On my last visit, cold dishes and pasta were sensational, the liver was sublime, chicken maybe a tad overcooked but so beautifully flavored and garnished that we hardly noticed. The only disappointments were grilled fish -- overwhelmed by smoke and left with a bitter finish -- and a creme brulee that tasted like a packaged mix. No matter. An Italian pineapple upside-down cake compacted with caramel overrode any doubts about this kitchen.

3251 Prospect St. NW. 202-333-6183. Open: for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $21, dinner $11 to $24.

CASHION'S EAT PLACE Two Anns make a one terrific menu. Ann Cashion, proprietor-chef, and Ann Amernick, Washington's nationally acclaimed pastry chef, have teamed up at Cashion's Eat Place to create odes to the season. In the summertime, Cashion might combine fresh red currants with duck breast, while Amernick fashions the berries into tartlets. Or Cashion will fry soft-shells with fresh greens, while Amernick piles golden raspberries or tart gooseberries into meringues or napoleons.

Year round, Cashion presents mussels on a bed of spinach with a light-textured but richly flavored curry sauce as an appetizer, and such house-made pastas as trenette with pesto or spinach-ricotta ravioli. She not only grills salmon to its moistest moment, but sets it on a fragrant bed of buttery cabbage with julienned smoked salmon. It's impeccable. She braises rabbit with a Cajun touch, marinates pork chops with red chilies and fries up a fritto misto that an Italian would be proud to claim. Whatever the entree, though, a side dish of crisp, butter-drenched potatoes Anna is an irresistible idea.

But here's the predicament: To miss Amernick's silken chocolate tortes or crackly meringue-layered gateau succes would be like going to Paris and bringing your own lunch.

All this expert cooking comes in a casual package, too. Cashion's is a bustling little restaurant, as satisfyingly down-to-earth as any hometown trattoria or bistro.

1819 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-797-1819. Open: for dinner Sunday and Tuesday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: about $16.95 to $19.95.

CESCO TRATTORIA Chef Francesco Ricchi is serving something rare in Bethesda's thicket of restaurants: serious Italian cooking, food that resonates with his Tuscan expertise. He honors Italian simplicity but sends it in new directions. For starters, he serves prosciutto with fried bread; a delicate warm salad of octopus, potato and olives; and balsamic-dressed endive dramatically presented in a cuff of crisply baked Parmesan. Even better, start with a pasta -- cappellacci, or tortelloni made with and stuffed with asparagus -- or a classic risotto.

Don't dismiss the heartiest of entrees, osso buco. Fish entrees change daily, perhaps featuring halibut with baby artichokes in a red wine sauce, or rockfish with diced tomatoes and olive oil. A baby chicken is very moist, very brown and very spicy from its peppery, tangy marinade. Rabbit loin is rolled like a pinwheel with green chard and red prosciutto. And there is lamb cut into T-bones and grilled with more of those baby artichokes.

Desserts run to elaborate creamy creations, most notably the zuccotto -- a wedge cut from a dome of thin spongecake, chocolate cream and nutted whipped cream. If only the dining room were as serious as the kitchen. In the wake of its early popularity, Cesco has left diners complaining not just about slow service but, even more, about the staff's apparent lack of concern for their difficulties.

4871 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 301-654-8333. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7.95 to $14.95, dinner $10.95 to $19.95.

C.F. FOLKS While the daily specials are as elegant as you'd find at any expense-account restaurant, the prices are coffee-shop level. And not only doesn't C.F. Folks have tablecloths, it hardly has tables -- just counter seats, a few two-person tables indoors and a few more seating possibilities outside on a covered terrace. Yet this tiny spot serves the likes of crusty seared tuna with curry sauce and fresh mango, or spinach-stuffed chicken wrapped in rice paper and deep-fried like a Vietnamese spring roll. The half-dozen or so specials change daily and revolve from Mexican to Mediterranean to Cajun. Sometimes there are crab cakes, or soft-shells in season. If it's early summer you could find fresh pea soup, in winter some hearty chowder.

C.F. Folks serves sandwiches, but they're not the draw here. Consistently excellent luncheon platters at sandwich prices are what bring a steady stream of nearby lawyers from their offices for eat-in or carryout. And for that they're willing to carry their own trays out to the sidewalk terrace.

1225 19th St. NW. 202-293-0162. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. No credit cards. Entree prices: $3.95 to $6.85.

CITY LIGHTS OF CHINA Who says the best Chinese restaurants have to be in Chinatown? In this city, the one with the most consistently excellent food is just north of Dupont Circle, down a few steps from street level, about as far as you can get from an ethnic neighborhood. And even though it's positioned among dozens of other restaurants, City Lights has a line out the door on weekend evenings.

The reason is not just its three pretty pink-and-aqua dining rooms with comfortable booths, or its cadre of efficient waitresses, or its reasonable prices -- many of the best dishes are under $10. City Lights serves food of unstinting freshness and generosity. Its menu is broad, with plenty of vegetarian dishes among the luxurious lobster and Peking duck (which is about as good a version as you'll find in the region). And the vegetable dishes are often highlights. In asparagus season, you could try a new dish every night for nearly two weeks without repeating. The baby eggplant in sweet-hot garlic sauce is like eggplant velvet. Bean curd dishes are as substantial as any platter of meat, particularly the tofu curl made with two kinds of bean curd, to wrap in lettuce leaves. Whatever the dish, the sauces are light, free of grease, vivid in color and flavor.

1731 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-265-6688. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 3 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $5.95 to $19.95, dinner $6.95 to $21.95.

COCO LOCO It's a Brazilian churrasqueria combined with a Mexican tapas bar, and its style is cheerful excess. The tables are painted like holiday costumes, the walls pulsate with glossy colored tiles, Latin music thrums and waiters roam the two-level dining room with swords bearing sirloin steaks, marinated chicken thighs, sausages, lamb roasts, short ribs or turkey wrapped in bacon, ready to slice off as much as you want and return with more. A meal here is more than dinner, it's an Event.

The fixed-price churrasqueria -- grilled meats -- starts with a buffet of salads as colorful as the tabletops. Then comes the parade of meats, accompanied by coconut rice and terrific crisped potato wedges, plus a dish of salsa and grainy manioc (ground cassava root) to sprinkle on the meats. They don't need embellishing, since they're fragrant from their marinades and their searing on the rotisserie. The red meats are milder and chewier than we're accustomed to in America, and they're well trimmed. No particular one is thrilling, but as a team they're sensational.

For smaller appetites or more adventurous tastes, there's a four-page menu of "contemporary Mexican tapas," which includes such exotica as ostrich stew, tripe with posole, or a crepe filled with blood pudding, as well as the more mainstream mushroom quesadilla. My perennial favorite is shrimp heavily sprinkled with garlic and fried parsley on a bed of chewy, earthy black squid-ink rice. Two or three of these small dishes could make a meal. For dessert, skip the watery rice pudding and splurge on chocolate -- Mexico's cinnamon-scented chocolate, here flavored also with anise, made into a creamy ganache spread thickly in a multi-layered torte.

810 Seventh St. NW. 202-289-2626. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.25 to $9.75, dinner $4.95 to $29.95.

DUANGRAT'S & RABIENG We have countless Thai restaurants, and plenty of very good ones. Probably some serve even better food than Duangrat's and its sibling around the corner, Rabieng. What I like about these two, though, is their combination of fine Thai cooking and refined Thai environment. They are lovely places to relax as well as satisfying places to eat.

Niches displaying gilded Thai treasures give Duangrat's the air of a museum. Waitresses in long pastel silk costumes with vividly contrasting sashes lend it the glamour of musical theater. Its menu is full of whimsical temptations: salmon purses, Southern Island salad, Grandma Duangrat's duck, Shark Island bouillabaisse.

Those salmon purses are crisp and greaseless spheres filled with a soft and intriguing mix of salmon and potatoes. Salmon is equally fetching as part of a curry, the fish crisped on the surface and teamed with soft, barely cooked scallops. But that's just the beginning. The menu is long, weaving modernized and traditional dishes throughout.

Many of the same dishes are available at Rabieng, which is quietly comfortable but less ornate. And its prices are lower -- about $1 less for appetizers, $2 less for entrees. Those aren't the only considerations in choosing between the two, however. The cooking at Rabieng is spicier. That curry with seafood is hotter, the ground-meat appetizers larb and nam sod are stronger with chilies and citrus, and the pork with fried garlic is bolder. As for me, I'm happy to alternate between the two.

Duangrat's: 5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church. 703-820-5775. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday 3:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 3:30 to 10:30 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $18.95, dinner $9.95 to $18.95. (Rabieng: 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, 703-671-4222.)

GABRIEL Hotel restaurants compete heavily for brunch business with vast buffets that only a hotel could afford to produce. But often their food is more show than substance, and their prices are high enough that they'd make you pause even if they were on a dinner check.

Gabriel is in its own league. Its Sunday brunch buffet is reasonably priced, all the more so because it includes champagne. Its softly carpeted, soothingly upholstered dining room provides an inviting contrast to the weekend crowds on P Street. And its food shows the personality and style of a fine chef: Greggory Hill. Like all good brunches, this one caters to a broad range of tastes, from bacon-and-egg traditionalists to paella and bacalao adventurers. For the health-conscious (and the taste-conscious), there are creative whole-grain salads: wheat berry, wild rice, hominy and more. Luxury-seekers will find cold compositions of mussels, a new rendition of ceviche, and the piece de resistance, a whole juicy suckling pig. Much of the food has a Spanish, Mexican or Southwestern accent; even the cassoulet is dark and spicy. Yet there's a full array of French croissants and American muffins and a dessert display worthy of a bakeshop. I'm most fond of the tiny puckery lemon tarts, but I always find room for at least a smidgen of the cheesecake, the creme brulee, the rice pudding and several of the creamy layered extravaganzas.

Hill shows his talent at other times as well, of course, with his inventive tapas and his multicultural, largely Latin lunch and dinner menus. But there's no better introduction to his style than brunch.

2121 P St. NW. 202-956-6690. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 6:30 to 11 a.m., Saturday 7 to 11 a.m., Sunday 7 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $7.25 to $10, dinner $15.50 to $22.

GALILEO Young as he is, Roberto Donna is the founding father of Washington's modern Italian restaurants. At the moment, though, he is busy fathering ever more of his own restaurants, and his leadership is spread thin. The flagship, Galileo, is a large and dignified dining room of spare elegance, and while the staff at its best is polished and knowledgeable, diners complain about long waits on busy evenings and indifferent service. The food, too, can be supremely elegant Italian or ordinary international. But while we complain and scold, we can't ignore this often impressive restaurant.

The secret is -- besides avoiding weekend evenings -- to order the dishes that are labor-intensive and utterly Italian, as well as those that depend on top-flight ingredients. The Parma ham is the most delicate of prosciuttos, served in season with fresh figs and a prettily constructed little garden of young mache. The mozzarella-and-tomato salad uses the best of cheeses, though when they're out of season even first-class tomatoes are unworthy of being the focus of a salad.

The path I'd choose at Galileo is to concentrate on the pastas, particularly the house-made ones such as pappardelle, fettuccine and pansotti. An early-summer pappardelle with earthy morels and fennel-spiked sausage, perfumed with fresh rosemary, was unforgettable. And here is the restaurant where I would order risotto, thick and creamy, with the faintest crunch to each grain of rice. In spring, particularly, the risotto might be an ethereal pale green -- the ideal use of the sweet fresh peas that are one of the last of the truly seasonal ingredients. Look to the seasons for dessert, too, with fruit crisps and knockout granitas. And when the weather calls for it, try dining in the large walled garden, which is a rare treat in Washington.

1110 21st St. NW. 202-293-7191. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $11.95 to $16.95, dinner $19.95 to $29.95.

GEORGIA BROWN'S Really, I'm easy to please. Just give me a mess of greens, cooked with some ham to complicate their flavor and make them glisten, and spiked with a shake of hot sauce and vinegar. The greens at Georgia Brown's these days are classic, and truly wonderful, especially with the fried chicken. The only flaw is that they're served on the plate rather than in a bowl, so you can't spoon up their pot liquor.

Georgia Brown's is an upscale Southern restaurant whose kitchen at last seems to have discovered its soul. It's still got modern touches -- including a whole section of vegetarian entrees -- but it's chock-full of such homey food as fried chicken livers with sausage gravy, fried green tomatoes (overwrought with herbed cream cheese, but accompanied by a great green-tomato relish), shrimp with grits, gumbo, and a Southern take on cassoulet. The Carolina perlau is just about the best rice dish I've had between here and New Orleans, with duck, sausage and truly fresh head-on shrimp in a vinegary, peppery red rice mix. The fried chicken has the frying right, though the chicken itself hasn't much flavor, and not everyone likes gravy slathered on.

With all those heavy temptations as entrees, it pays to start light. Grilled oysters on the half shell are one of the few cooked oyster dishes that are an improvement on unadorned raw ones. These are barely warmed, topped with a dab of creamy dressing and lemony iced smoked salmon. Sensational. As are the corn sticks and biscuits that come with the meal. Thus the tray of desserts can seem like overkill, even if the pies are house-made and nicely short-crusted.

Good Southern food, a pretty dining room and servers who nearly bubble over with hospitality. The only thing I'd wish for is gentler prices.

950 15th St. NW. 202-393-4499. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $14.95 to $19.95.

GERARD'S PLACE Only Gerard Pangaud among Washington chefs can boast of two Michelin stars -- awarded to him years ago in Paris. And those stars still show on the plate, though not all the time. When Gerard's Place is in gear, it's worth every penny. When you hit the wrong day or the wrong dish, it's just plain boring at any price.

The dining room is endearing, walls painted autumn colors and ceiling dotted with sprigs of artificial flowers. It is tasteful and quiet rather than dazzling, an environment well suited to Pangaud's understated cooking style. Mme. Pangaud's presence at the door assures a French suavity to the service. And while the menu is not long, it carefully balances classics and inventions, the year-round and the seasonal.

I've had my best luck at dinner, a time suited to grand gestures such as squab and lobster, their perfect slices alternating on the plate, or a magnificent veal chop, its flavor gently heightened with julienne of artichoke, prosciutto and gruyere. Pangaud brings new interest to escargots by sealing them between layers of fried potato as a whimsical variation on ravioli -- or the world's most luxurious potato chips. And nobody better understands how to do honor to ripe tomatoes and haricots verts, whether separately as salads or in combination to garnish that veal chop.

What happens, then, at lunch when on Pangaud's plate of three salmons only one of them has any taste other than salt? Or when his velvety, tender stuffed chicken roll is utterly flavorless? Some eccentric combinations work -- as in lobster with ginger, lime and Sau- ternes -- while others, like the relish of capers, apples, tomatoes and mushrooms that drowns out seared salmon, are merely strange. And desserts are underwhelming and dull, except perhaps for a thick, rich chocolate pudding with candied pistachios masquerading as creme brulee.

915 15th St. NW. 202-737-4445. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $15.50 to $26, dinner $16.50 to $32.50.

GOLDONI RISTORANTE What sets Goldoni apart from the other grand and ambitious Italian restaurants is the force of personality. Every dish looks as if Fabrizio Aielli were in the kitchen constructing it. And he was. Whether a dish shines or falters, it shows his mark, his style, his taste. And in this era of peripatetic chefs, that's good news.

For one thing, it means that the daily specials reflect the imagination of the chef as much as the standing menu does. Whatever fish is freshest that day is available simply grilled with herbs and olive oil, or elaborately wrapped or stuffed or otherwise subjected to Aielli's creative energy. On the standing menu, too, the usual game birds, meats and fish are treated to complex stuffings or unique vegetable sauces, and layered or wrapped. Most often they turn out to be taste revelations. Zucchini sauce on the pasta or meat? Pomegranate seeds and cheese in the salad? Endive with figs, goat cheese and a dressing of honey and truffle oil? Aielli's cooking sounds slightly bizarre and looks painstakingly constructed, but it typically tastes deceptively simple.

I've had some disappointments, particularly the over-herbed and murky fish in parchment and a pasta topping of whole peas that tasted no better than what I'd find in the freezer case. And while Aielli's pastries look like a festival, they don't live up to their beauty.

And yet his pastas are delicate and supple -- they're the best of this kitchen. In season, ribbons of fragile fettuccine are tossed with yellow tomato puree, chunks of white cheese and shreds of green herb, so the dish looks like a sunset and tastes like a summer morning. Ravioli are airy pillows, even when stuffed with potatoes and cheese.

In keeping with cooking that often soars, the skylit two-story dining room with its gilded modern paintings is a cathedral of light and space. The zest of the place is reflected in the service -- more breezy than formal. This theatrical dining room encourages an air of fun.

1113 23rd St. NW. 202-293-1511. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $11.95 to $18.95, dinner $14.95 to $23.95.

HEE BEEN No longer is this shopping-center Korean restaurant a secret discovery. By noon on a weekday, people are lined up for its $6.95 lunch buffet, one of the best buys on the Eastern seaboard. The hot table displays the likes of tempura vegetables, Chinese sweet-and-sour pork and vegetables with calamari. But that's a mere beginning. There are trays of sushi rolls -- mostly vegetarian -- and an array of cold dishes, from soy-sauced transparent noodles to potato salad with apples, tomatoes, peanuts and raisins (a surprise you're likely to want to reproduce at home). Naturally, there's kimchi. And at the table, the waitresses -- wearing floor-length Korean dresses in fabulous colors -- start you off with miso soup and bring cold, sweet buckwheat tea with pine nuts for a proper Korean finish.

Hee Been looks and sounds like a house party, with friends greeting one another, multi-generational families coming together for celebrations and young singles conducting the ritual of advancing toward becoming couples. At night nearly everybody orders kalbi or bulgogi to grill at the table, accompanied by a dozen little dishes of condiments. Even the rice dishes, the noodle dishes and the chili-fired seafood soups are big enough to share. So this is sociable food. And it is so imbued with authenticity that with eyes, ears and tastebuds alert, you could learn much about Korea, at least enough to draw you back again to try the exotic dishes at the next table.

6231 Little River Tpk., Alexandria. 703-941-3737. Open: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; lunch menu Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $29.95, dinner $8.95 to $35.

HIBISCUS CAFE There just isn't another place like Hibiscus -- anywhere. With the irrepressible Jimmie Banks as host, and Sharon Banks's creative and flowery Caribbean cooking, it's an utterly personal restaurant. Yet with a high-decibel Georgetown crowd slurping down rum punches, it can have the feel of, say, a Jamaican frat party. Hibiscus is full of contradictions. On this quiet Georgetown street you can usually park right in front. Inside, the bright colors and sounds make it a playground for grown-ups. And the food is very sophisticated, yet with all the gutsy flavors of folk cooking.

I'd begin and end my meal with an appetizer assortment if I could ever resist the entrees. Shark and bake -- a sort of biscuit sandwich -- with fresh pineapple chutney is sensational. The fried things -- seafood fritters, spicy calamari -- are unusually flavorful and grease-free. And jerk chicken wings are on the soggy side but brilliantly spicy. Thus a $20 appetizer platter is excitement and food enough for four sensible eaters or two gluttons. Afterward, it's foolhardy to go on to the smoked rack of lamb with smooth, rich sweet-potato-and-plantain mousse, or the incendiary little jerk quail, or to sample the side dish rice-and-peas, or to investigate the Caribbean pizzas or blackened fish. But how often will you have the chance if you miss them this time? If Sharon Banks were cooking in Manhattan, you'd have to reserve a week ahead rather than find a table on the spur of the moment as you can -- at least on weekdays -- in Georgetown.

3401 K St. NW. 202-965-7170. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices $9 to $18.50.

I MATTI While the high-profile Italian restaurants capture all the hoopla, I Matti has quietly developed into a remarkable Italian kitchen. It's just a typical Adams-Morgan storefront, and its prices are distinctly lower than the big names', but its long and often-changing menu is one of our most interesting.

In addition to a rolling cart of antipasti and predictable pizzas, I Matti prepares such pastas as agnolotti with ground veal strengthened by puree of turnips, and house-made squares of spinach pasta topped with a fresh combination of shrimp, baby artichokes and a pancetta made in-house. Sauces are delicate; ingredients from shrimp to tomatoes have more savor than most. And plain grilled entrees, from swordfish to lamb steak, are perfectly cooked and highlighted with a touch of vinegar or herb and garlic. This is food with the flavor of home-style and the consistency of a professional kitchen.

I Matti is a place where you can find the usual bruschetta or the rarely encountered bagna cauda -- the warm anchovy sauce bathing roasted peppers. Its pastas skirt the obvious -- no lasagna or linguine with clams -- in favor of zucchini-filled half-moons with Parmesan and pistachio sauce or squash-and-amaretto-stuffed cappellacci. Even the coffee is far better than one expects at any price.

2436 18th St. NW. 202-462-8844. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $10.95 to $15.95.

INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON What a fantasy! A small American restaurant in one of the smallest towns in rural Virginia has become a mecca for gastronomes around the world. Its cookbook has set publishing records. Its tables fill up a month ahead -- which is as far in advance as reservations are taken -- and its guest rooms several months or more. Its prices could make a New Yorker gasp.

Is it worth it? If any restaurant is, the Inn is. It's the work of perfectionists. There isn't a corner left undecorated, from the foyer, with its working fireplace, to the lavatories, with their masses of fresh flowers in each stall. No restaurant in this country has more attentive and gracious service. Nowhere is dinner more of an event, from the thrilling one-bite tidbits and the demitasse of hauntingly good soup that introduce the meal to the tray of glittery jewel-size pastries and chocolates with coffee. The menu is fixed-price, now expanded to a tasting menu and a vegetarian menu as well as the elaborate four-course mainstay.

Chef Patrick O'Connell's appetizers include several of the most memorable in my dining career. His little boudin blanc is on a bed of wildly delicious sauerkraut with Virginia ham in riesling. This year he's added a fragile fontina cheese pizza with truffles instead of pepperoni. I always dream of ordering three courses of appetizers, so I can once again taste the salmon five ways and the world's most elegant vitello tonnato.

Seeking what's new in entrees this year, I have been rewarded with the most succulent squab stuffed with duxelles under the skin, and wild rockfish in a memorable broth afloat with large pearl couscous. The colors of the sauces reverberate in spring and summer. Even if I don't appreciate their sweetness with the rack of lamb, I'm bowled over by the looks of the bright green and ruddy brown sauces on a white plate.

Don't miss the garden, preferably for dessert and coffee. Desserts are pure and pretty: a warm apple or rhubarb tart, berries with a shimmery custard or chocolate upon chocolate that reaches a crescendo in a sampler called Seven Deadly Sins. Then, at last, the chocolates and mini-pastries, tiny perfect baubles.

309 Middle St., Washington, Va. 540-675-3800. Open: for dinner Monday and Wednesday through Friday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 8:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday. MC, V. Fixed-price four-course menu: Sunday through Thursday $88, Friday $98, Saturday $108.

KINKEAD'S It seems that no matter how many new seafood restaurants open in Washington, they only serve to make Kinkead's look better. And Kinkead's itself gets better: It has opened a raw bar, and its large first-floor lounge offers a wonderful menu of light and reasonably priced small dishes. It's a casual alternative to the full-blown dining room upstairs. Unfortunately, as the restaurant gets better it grows more popular, and over the phone and at the front desk it now treats its patrons with more impatience than deference. So try Kinkead's on a weeknight.

Once you're seated, the service is as personal and concerned as this superb food deserves. The wine list is fascinating, and its prices are refreshingly fair. The menu is moderate in size but so original and enticing that it's hard not to want to taste everything. Any of the seafood can be ordered simply grilled, and there are a couple of meat dishes for contrarians.

Appetizers are as complex and satisfying as any entree. Tuna tartare is a mini-buffet of avocado timbale, jicama julienne and garnishes galore. And in addition to intricate and lively salads, Kinkead's serves some of the most extraordinary soups ever simmered. Crab and corn and cream -- with enough pepper to give them a kick -- make you want to order this soup by the tureen; but then there's the true New England seafood chowder and the interesting Americanizations of French aioli-spiked fish soup and Portugal's classic clams and chorizo.

Entrees, too, are elaborate. Salmon is a star with its pepita crust and flavorful ragout of crab, corn and chili. Seared tuna has Japanese accents of sesame seed coating, maki rolls and nori cabbage salad. Yellowtail snapper is more European, with baby artichokes, broccoli rabe and potatoes. Some dishes have Southern accents -- crab, Virginia ham and spoonbread with the cod. Others are Northern -- fried shrimp seasoned like Buffalo wings with celery and blue cheese. But all have gone through Bob Kinkead's metamorphosis and become clearly his own.

2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-7700. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch about $11 to $16, dinner about $18 to $24.

LA FOURCHETTE It's an antidote to glitz. La Fourchette is a well-seasoned, down-to-earth restaurant of the kind you'd find in any little town in France. One lone flower on each small table, chairs that make no pretense at luxury, a bare wood floor and a mural covering the walls with a warmhearted cafe scene -- there's nothing much to distract from food and conversation. And the food, at least, is always good.

The menu is full of the dishes one remembers from a first trip to France. Pate made in-house, well-herbed mussels, and salads brightened with beets or shreds of duck meat in a simple vinaigrette are starters, along with a heftier onion tart or pastry filled with vegetables. My favorite appetizer is the crab and spinach custard, so fragile and rich that it seems in imminent danger of melting. Entrees feature old-fashioned pork or tongue with mustard sauce, sweetbreads in cream, credible bouillabaisse and sometimes a traditional coq au vin. Fish might be just grilled or sauteed with a moistening of beurre blanc, or perched on a bed of spinach. Nothing is painted, carved, piped or towered. This is food meant to look and taste of exactly what it is. And for dessert, there are such forgotten sweets as oeufs a la neige, crepes with kirsch custard, a refreshing and lightly syrupy mixture of oranges with their candied peel, and the inevitable chocolate mousse.

2429 18th St. NW. 202-332-3077. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8.95 to $19.95, dinner $14.95 to $19.95.

L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANCOIS This endearing French country restaurant goes beyond popularity: Many Washingtonians couldn't celebrate an anniversary or a birthday without going through the ritual of repeatedly speed-dialing its number four weeks ahead of time for a reservation. Me, I'd rather wait for a balmy day and drive out to the country early enough to snag one of the flower-laden, tree-shaded outdoor tables, which are first come, first served.

Several things account for L'Auberge Chez Francois's unrivaled popularity. Food is not primary among them. Foremost is the environment; the place looks and feels so very French. The service is hospitable, professional and Gallic, even when the servers are American. The dinners are lush, abundant, with every entree accompanied by garlic bread, herbed cottage cheese, an appetizer chosen from an immense list, salad, palate-cleansing sorbet, a vegetable served family-style and dessert. Nobody leaves hungry; most leave stuffed. And while the cooking often tastes pedestrian -- the kitchen has as many as 60 staffers churning out meals for this large warren of dining rooms -- the long menu is unfailingly seductive.

I'm always drawn to the salmon baked in a pastry crust with crab and lobster, chateaubriand, real Dover sole with lobster and wild mushrooms, the variety of sauces for the entrecote or the soft-shell crabs. Then there are the Alsatian specialties: matelote of fish, choucroute with meats or -- as an appetizer -- with fish. Puff pastry is a staple. Old-fashioned bearnaise, wine sauces and cream sauces flow. I can find much to criticize among the overcooked meats and the one-dimensional sauerkraut, the bitter foie gras, the bland shellfish. But there's so much to try that no disappointment overshadows the whole.

The wine list pays homage to the restaurant's spiritual home, Alsace, and its geographic home, Virginia. The dessert array includes old-fashioned kugelhopf and superb tarts, especially the fresh Alsatian plum. From the first sip of champagne with raspberry liqueur to the last airy spoonful of souffle, L'Auberge Chez Francois weaves a mantle of well-being, of traditions observed.

332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls. 703-759-3800. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 1:30 to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Prices: four-course dinner: $31.50 to $41.

MAKOTO The slippers lined up at the door alert you that this Japanese dinner is going to ring of authenticity. Makoto is very Japanese, very small, very good. Its fixed-price dinners run eight to 10 courses -- each an exciting little tidbit -- although there are a la carte sushi and yakitori options as well.

The list of courses sounds daunting, but this is light food in tiny portions, each as decorative as it is delicious. After taking your order for sake or beer, your waitress keeps up a steady pace of deliveries: a bowl with slivers of tangy seaweed and bean curd, chunks of marinated clams -- and if you choose to pay a little extra, a rare chance to taste fatty yellowtail sashimi, which is almost the texture of butter. A couple of slices of duck will be accompanied by three snippets of asparagus and a mild and mysterious fish cake. A small melange of vegetables will show new nuances of squash and eggplant. Sushi is doll-size and pristine. Then, after you think you can eat no more, the miniature main course appears, a choice of fish -- again, opt for the yellowtail, which is crusty and juicy -- or the most flavorful and tender piece of beef tenderloin. Soup comes near the end, a fragrant clear broth floating buckwheat noodles and your choice of savory additions such as mountain vegetables or mushrooms. Dessert is a few spoonfuls of sorbet the texture of snow -- grape if you're lucky, or perhaps mango -- with a cup of hot green tea.

There are always a couple of surprises. But most important are the invariables: the quietly gracious service, the fun of watching the cooking done behind the counter, the sense of abundance and of spareness at the same time, the impeccable ingredients and the chance to taste them fully, with all your attention focused on each bite. This is what a tasting menu should be.

4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW. 202-298-6866. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday noon to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. MC, V. Prices: lunch entrees $3.50 to $19; fixed-price eight- to 10-course dinner $38.

MORRISON-CLARK Returning to Morrison-Clark after a long absence was like encountering a child I hadn't seen since she had grown into a beautiful young woman. Susan McCreight Lindeborg's always appealing cooking has developed an elegance. In fact, the first appetizer to appear at our table, a mussel tart, stopped all conversation. This small round pastry radiated sunshine. Drifting among its orange mussels was a saffron yellow sauce with slivers of golden brown fried onion. A cut of the fork revealed soft green spinach, like warm grass in the sun. And this delicate tart tasted at least as delicious as it appeared.

Risotto cakes looked like large scallops, but were soft and oozing cheese, their creaminess balanced by a sharp lemony sauce. And chard-chipotle enchiladas were thin and fragile, as if Escoffier had been born Mexican.

What entrees could follow such brilliant appetizers? A simple fish -- a thick tuna steak, grilled crusty and rare -- with cubed fresh mango and pink slices of pickled ginger: seductive fruit with sparkling detonations. Lamb was more earthy, well marinated and rubbed with spices, teamed with diced raw vegetables and eggplant similarly slathered with Middle Eastern spices. Excellent. But surely there's a flaw. Ah, yes, fresh-corn tamales that are merely very good rather than stunning.

No room for dessert? Undoubtedly one can manage a bit of chess pie, given that such a perfect blend of lemon, eggs and sugar in shatteringly delicate pastry is so rarely encountered.

Food isn't all that's persuasive about Morrison-Clark. It has a cushy Victorian dining room with a touch of romance to it, and its waiters serve as expertly and smoothly as old family retainers. What more could one want? Homemade rolls? You got 'em.

1015 L St. NW. 202-898-1200. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $12.50 to $14.75, dinner $17.50 to $23.

MORTON'S OF CHICAGO When I want steak, I want Morton's. I don't care too much whether it is the Georgetown or the downtown Morton's (both of which I prefer marginally over the Tysons Morton's), though the downtown branch has the advantage of an open-air balcony, and its kitchen is more visible to the dining room than the others.

What I care more about is what I'll eat. The appetizers look showy and taste ordinary -- big undistinguished shrimp, big but bland oysters on the half shell, big scallops overwhelmed by bacon, big lumps of crab meat. Smoked salmon or a salad is less apt to be deflating.

But who needs an appetizer when you can tuck into, say, a pound of unbeatable steak and some of the best hash brown potatoes ever to sop up a ton of butter? The steak is the porterhouse, and this is a place that knows how to blacken it without burning it. If you're a filet eater or a strip steak guy, even a roast beef person, you'll also be satisfied; this beef is well marbled, aged and flavorful, cut thick enough to retain its juices. The lamb chops are thick and fine, too. But Morton's is not the place I'd recommend for fish, unless the fish eater is just being nice to a meat-and-potatoes companion. And spending big bucks for lobster (usually a minimum of three pounds) is a waste, in my book, when it's baked rather than steamed. Desserts are -- of course -- very big, very sweet and super-gooey. If you've eaten your fill of steak and potatoes, ordering one is sheer bravado.

Great steak merits great wine. And you can find it at Morton's. Furthermore, like the meat, it's served with all the panache it deserves.

3251 Prospect St. NW. 202-342-6258. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $17.95 to $29.95. (Other locations: 8075 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, 703-883-0800; 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-955-5997.)

NORA For decades now, I've admired Nora's commitment to organic ingredients -- before the concept became commonplace. I've appreciated its following the seasons and its creative ways with vegetables. Even now, few restaurants take advantage of the garden the way Nora does. And as the menu reminds you, the restaurant seeks purity in everything from the water to the wine -- which is a carefully and intelligently composed list. Nora has proved that healthful food can be glamorous.

The dining room, too, has a purity and serenity, due in no small part to the museum-quality quilts hung on the walls. The mood is much less relaxing, though, if you are crammed into the rear enclosed porch. In other ways, too, the restaurant tries my patience.

The menu changes daily, and the vegetables are often the highlight. All sorts of greens -- mustard, frisee, chard, arugula -- keep company with the likes of wild mushroom ragout, root vegetable gratin or eggplant and zucchini in a Moroccan tagine. In fact, that's my frustration: The entrees disappoint, whether overly peppered and undercooked monkfish, liver that's badly trimmed and cut too thin to cook perfectly, or chewy lamb chops. I find myself edging the meats and fish aside to get at those great mashed potatoes or that earthy chickpea puree.

But the vegetables usually save the day. Salads also are exquisite, whether perfect young lettuces with bits of cheese and croutons or nuts, or a more elaborate starter of a juicy little spiced quail on frisee with blood oranges.

Even when it comes to desserts, fruits are the stars. You'll do best here if you don't stray from the garden or the orchard.

2132 Florida Ave. NW. 202-462-5143. Open: for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. MC, V. Entree prices: about $18.95 to $24.95.

OBELISK Is there a restaurant that I'd call consistent? One, for sure. That's Obelisk, a small Italian restaurant with only three or four choices for each of the courses in its fixed-price menu. The dining room and the food are both elegant in the most unfussy way, so everything about the restaurant feels in tune. The room is decorated with one massive bouquet of flowers on a central table set with breads, cheese and grappas that alert you to the excitement to come.

A meal starts with a tiny hors d'oeuvre, anything from a wedge of potato omelet to a fried baby artichoke. Then comes antipasto: surely some salad, perhaps carpaccio, one day an extraordinary moist little crab cake. The pasta or soup course is generally my favorite, and in spring I particularly watch for the first sweet peas to be teamed with delicate house-made noodles. Then comes meat or fish, and I wouldn't miss the guinea hen or game in season. There's often grilled lamb and always a fish or two, perhaps salmon with baby artichokes, thyme and house-made pancetta. A bit of cheese arrives to help finish your wine, then dessert, none better than biscotti with vin santo. What lingers in memory is the impeccable simplicity, the honor paid to seasonal ingredients, the careful search for excellent and appropriate wines and the coarse and tangy house-made bread. Obelisk, despite its obscure name, is absolutely true to the spirit of Italian cooking.

2029 P St. NW. 202-872-1180. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. DC, MC, V. Fixed-price four-course dinner: about $42.

OLD ANGLER'S INN Romance comes naturally to the Old Angler's Inn. It doesn't need elaborate furnishings or spiffy service. All this restaurant -- set off in the woods above the C&O Canal -- has to do is dim the lights and respond to the weather. On balmy evenings it scatters tables on the flagstone terrace, which is decorated by starry skies and rustling leaves. When the temperature drops, it lights the fireplaces in the lounge and installs guests there for a pre-dinner drink. Insiders know to study the menu and order dinner before they climb the narrow winding staircase to the second-floor dining room, which isn't nearly as charming.

The menu is lavish and the food has long been good, though not always up to the prices; the wine list is so greatly marked up that dinner with a modest bottle adds up to one of the more expensive meals in town. The cooking is contemporary American, offering plenty of seafood, from diver scallops to lobster, and luxury meats such as rack of lamb, veal chateaubriand and quail. Chef Jeff Tomchek ran the kitchen for five years, then departed last month just as this guide was going to press; thus, Old Angler's remains a favorite as a sign of hope rather than certainty.

The new chef, Tom Power, plans to change the menu gradually; his experience at Michel Richard's Philadelphia restaurant and briefly at Citronelle here suggests a similarly fashionable new American style. But exactly what he'll do for Old Angler's is unknown. So at the moment the restaurant's reputation must rest largely on its huge advantage: Only half an hour or so out of town, it lets you feel a million miles away.

10801 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. 301-299-9097. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Sunday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Friday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $13.50 to $14.75, dinner $25 to $29.50.

OODLES NOODLES Asian noodle parlors are the carbo craze these days, and Oodles Noodles shows why. The long menu of meal-size soups and other noodle dishes covers the range from Thai fire to Chinese soothing, from a complicated Indonesian nasi goreng platter to a simple seafood ramen broth. Any day you can satisfy a taste for something light or something heavy, rich meat or austere seafood, mildness or chili heat. All at a very modest price.

Given the competition, an Asian noodle parlor needs something special. Oodles Noodles certainly complies. Its two locations, in Bethesda and downtown, are cute and modern, with seating clustered in intimate sections, and the service is unfailingly hospitable. What's more, the menu is chock-full of interesting choices. The ginger salad is a refreshing and fragrantly healthful way to start. Not quite so healthful perhaps but utterly irresistible are thin meat-filled deep-fried savory pancakes. Scallion pancakes, unfortunately, are prone to greasiness. Another disappointment is drunken noodles, its flavors not melding as they used to do. Yet some dishes exceed expectations, most notably the grilled chicken noodle soup, not just a curative broth with bits of boiled chicken, but a well-developed stock with fat rice noodles, scallions and big chunks of the tenderest, juiciest soy-and-sugar-glazed grilled chicken. It's a barbecue and a soup all in one. The obvious question that comes to mind about a restaurant serving so many varied foods is whether it can really be good. It can.

1120 19th St. NW. 202-293-3138. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $6.95 to $8.95. (Other location: 4907 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-986-8833.)

PESCE Seafood seems simple, but with the new abundance of seafood restaurants in town, we've learned that sparklingly fresh fish is rare. Properly prepared fish is more so, and moderately priced excellent fish is beyond that. Yet Pesce offers all this and more. This small, clattery, crowded and whimsically decorated seafood cafe has an outstanding chef in David Craig. The lengthy list of his creations is changed daily and chalked on a board brought to each table, and it reflects a wider range of seafood than you're likely to find elsewhere. You can also look over the fish in the glass-fronted case to see which glistens most.

Even if you have to wait in line -- and you probably will -- you'll surely be enticed. Every detail is well attended: excellent bread, nicely chosen wine list, agreeable service. The only problem is that the choices are all too compelling. Fresh grilled sardines on a bed of greens? Juicy salmon carpaccio surrounded by a fluff of arugula? Curls of smoky, tender grilled squid with walnuts and raisins poking among the greens? Monkfish, even sweeter and more moist than expected, with its own little salad?

These are appetizers -- light yet robust in flavor and satisfying without being too filling. I'm likely to make a meal of them. Entrees are rarely flawed either, whether crisp-edged skate wing or silky-firm turbot, with truly seasonal vegetables. And the seafood-studded pastas are always interesting. Even desserts are an outstanding variety -- a chocolate and meringue creation if you've still got the appetite, or a light and refreshing, not to mention remarkably flavorful, mango sorbet.

2016 P St. NW. 202-466-3474. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch about $12.50 to $17, dinner about $13 to $18.

PHO 75 By now, lots of neighborhoods have their own pho restaurants, where diners sit at long tables and make a meal of slow-simmered Vietnamese beef broth with their choice of meats on top and a filling tangle of noodles. The broth may be meatier at one, the star anise more fragrant at another, and some serve chicken broth as well. But the idea is the same, the price is always rock-bottom, and usually the soup is a most satisfying meal.

The pho restaurant of my choice is the oldest, and I rely on its unchanging nature. The broth is fragrant but without one spice dominating, packed with thin noodles, and floating minced scallions and coriander leaves. The meats -- thin-sliced round, brisket or flank with the more esoteric tripe and tendon -- are plentiful. With the soup comes the usual plate of bean sprouts, mint leaves, sliced chilies and lime wedges, and on the table are fish sauce and squeeze bottles of brown bean paste and red hot chili sauce. I love to watch my neighbors -- mostly Vietnamese -- using the garnishes and condiments to turn each bowl of soup into a personal statement of balance and heat. To drink, there is a great array of lemonades (sweet, salty, with or without soda), tropical fruit juices such as young coconut, and tea or coffee. People make great ceremony of their condensed-milk iced coffee or milky tea.

Even when the place is jammed -- weekend afternoons, particularly -- seats are quick to come available. Service is rapid: Your order is taken as soon as you are seated, your soup is delivered forthwith, and whenever you are finished you walk up to the cashier to pay your minuscule total. Sated and heart-warmed, you wait for change from your $10 bill.

1711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-525-7355. Open: daily 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cash only. Entree prices: $4.25 to $4.95. (Other locations: 3103 Graham Rd., Falls Church, 703-204-1490; 1510 E. University Blvd., Langley Park, 301-434-7844; 771 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, 301-309-8873.)

PIZZERIA PARADISO Pizza needn't be gloppy and soggy and heavy. At Pizzeria Paradiso it returns to its roots: bread with a bit of flavorful topping. What makes it more than the usual forgettable pizza is that the base is chewy, yeasty bread dough, baked in a wood-fired oven so that the bottom is crisp and flecked with smoky bits of char and the top is blistered to a flavorful golden finish. Crust this good doesn't need to be drowned in tomato sauce or smothered in cheese. The toppings instead enhance the bread.

My favorite is the richest -- four cheeses, including gorgonzola, all exuding garlic and brightened with parsley. There are the usual salami, sausage and pepperoni -- of fine quality -- but the more popular alternatives are vegetable-based. Chunks of fresh tomato, mushrooms, spinach, red onions and mozzarella make up the mild, lean Bosco. Zucchini, eggplant and peppers are featured in the Siciliano. And simple tomato-mozzarella versions, maybe with fresh basil, are appealing here.

The excellent dough that makes the pizza is also formed into loaves and rolls, the foundation for terrific sandwiches. Thus Pizzeria Paradiso is probably the only pizza parlor where you're advised -- no, urged -- to also order a roast lamb sandwich, crusty at the edges and clouded in garlic. It hardly leaves room for the house-made gelato.

Pizzeria Paradiso is adorable, a tightly packed cafe decorated with painted pizzas on the walls. It's immensely popular, though, so impatient diners have been known to order carryout and sit right down on the front steps to enjoy it. The benches in nearby Dupont Circle are a better idea.

2029 P St. NW. 202-223-1245. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday noon to 10 p.m. DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $5.50 to $9.75.

PROVENCE Even in midwinter, Provence transports me to summer. The lemony sponged walls, the earth tones of the stonework and the abundance of sunny flavors -- peppers, garlic, olive oil, olives -- relocate the south of France to my table. And while this restaurant is certainly elegant (and expensive), the full-flavored, refined but uncomplicated cooking evokes terraces and gardens rather than formal dining rooms.

The menu is a joy to read, though it's so long as to seriously disrupt conversation. What isn't a pleasure is to have to absorb a recited list of specials that stretches well over a dozen appetizers and entrees. Whatever happened to the printed menu-of-the-day?

So choosing dinner is a chore. But you can't go far wrong. Amend that: Lobster appears repeatedly on this menu, but it's not nearly as worthy as other seafood here, so tread lightly. I've adored it with lentils -- but that's because of the marvelous lentils, not the chewy lobster. Plenty of other intriguing seafood dishes can divert you: monkfish with olives and anchovies, perhaps swordfish with artichokes, sometimes a bouillabaisse. Appetizer specials are particularly creative, the likes of coriander leaves sandwiched between smoked salmon sliced so thinly that their green shows through. And typically wintry dishes -- a dark, sausage-spiked wheat-berry soup, or duck breast sliced and fanned out with carefully carved turnips -- are heavy in flavor yet light in texture, so as to span the seasons.

The dessert list has been short lately, suggesting that the kitchen gives sweets little consideration. And tasting a couple of them reconfirmed my suspicion. The wine list, on the other hand, is extensive and lovingly chosen. And even though the cellar isn't as full as the list suggests, its leather-bound book, along with the oversize menu, makes fascinating reading.

2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $11.95 to $19.50, dinner $16.50 to $28.

QUEEN BEE More than two decades old, and almost nothing's changed. Thank goodness. What keeps the tables filled at Queen Bee is the reliability of its standard Vietnamese dishes. This barn of a restaurant hasn't much charm, certainly no flair. Its tabletops are decorated with reviews under glass, and its idea of garnishing an entree is to perch two broccoli florets on the chicken. Its waiters don't talk much, and they smile even less. They just take your order and deliver your food. Pretty quickly.

So what's the fuss? The food itself. Pho, the long-cooked beef broth with noodles, onions, cilantro and thin slices of meat, has as much depth and flavor as any in town. Grilled meats such as Hanoi pork are crusty and sticky with tangy, garlicky and slightly sweet marinades that intensify the char. Lemon chicken is flavored with far more than lemon grass; it's got a syrupy, spicy glaze, with lots of pepper and ginger as well, that coats the tender pieces of dark meat and onions. This is bargain-priced food, so don't expect elegant seafood; it's more likely to be chewy shrimp and fake-crab surimi. And the frying can be greasy, even for the famous spring rolls (which lacked seasoning, too, on my most recent visit). Grilled foods are best, to pile with thin cold rice noodles and cilantro in lettuce leaves, then eat by hand. After a meal at Queen Bee, you'll never again accuse Vietnamese cooking of being bland.

3181 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-527-3444. Open: for lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner daily 3 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: for lunch $3.50 to $8.95, for dinner $6 to $10.75.

RIO GRANDE CAFE It's everything I complain about: It's an out-of-town chain restaurant with a formula menu, and it's too noisy for an adult conversation. But Rio Grande Cafe is fun. The portions are so large you're sure it's banking on quantity rather than quality. But no, these huge but home-style restaurants maintain a cheerful efficiency and steadily good food year after year. If you're looking for down-to-earth high-octane Tex-Mex cooking, here it is. You can find fresher, tangier margaritas elsewhere, and the soups are somewhat timid broths. But the ceviche features tender little scallops with chunks of shrimp and orange roughy, the chiles rellenos come in a wonderful eggy batter, and the enchiladas have flavor as well as a pepper or tomatillo kick. The beef for the tacos and fajitas is grainy and succulent flank steak, and the chicken is grilled just until it is done, not until it is dry. The salsas have a crunchy freshness and the tortillas have that homemade taste. Furthermore, if you want to observe the rituals of suburban American family life, there is no livelier place to do so.

4919 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-2981. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 3 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 3 to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $20.95, dinner $7.50 to $20.95. (Other locations: 4301 North Fairfax Dr., Arlington, 703-528-3131; 1827 Library St., Reston, 703-904-0703.)

ROCKLANDS Common wisdom would suggest Rocklands at Carpool in Ballston as the branch to recommend between these two barbecue locations. It's spacious and it's entertaining -- being installed in a former gas station with an adjacent bar and pool tables for company. Yet I remain loyal to the tiny carryout in Glover Park, with its tall center table where a few diners and people waiting for takeout orders share a big bowl of peanuts in the shell. It's almost like dropping in on a generous neighbor who's a very good cook.

In either case, the food is simple and delicious and as close to healthful as any barbecue place could come. The smoked meats are impeccable -- ribs, chicken, juicy sliced brisket and tender chunks of pork. There's also a sandwich of fine grilled leg of lamb and a grilled fish that can compete with any in town. You can slather these with the tangy and light house barbecue sauce or sample any of the dozens of bottled sauces that line the walls. Then there's the healthy part: a large selection of house-made side dishes that includes traditional coleslaw and mashed potatoes, regional specialties from Texas corn pudding to Southern mustard greens with pork, and a few light and unexpected niceties like house-made applesauce. Everything's fresh, everything including the wood smoke is real, and the service combines speed (guaranteed service within eight minutes of ordering) with friendliness. Pure Americana.

2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-2558. Open: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. AE. Entree prices: $2.95 to $7.99. (Ballston location: 4000 Fairfax Dr., Arlington, 703-528-9663.)

RUPPERTS Modern-day menus tend to be advertising scripts, describing in detail every ingredient, its origins and its cooking method. After you've read them you almost feel as if you'd already eaten. Rupperts breaks the mold. Its daily-changing menu is as succinct as possible: scallops and fennel; kidney and broccoli; lamb with figs and lentils. It has the effect of opening up a dialogue with the waiter, who can explain each facet of the preparation and what makes it exceptional.

The point is, whatever you choose will be simply prepared, absolutely fresh and of the season, and indeed exceptional. Rupperts cooks from the market. On a single day in June, for instance, among the seven appetizers and seven main dishes one could find fresh peas, lotus roots, crisp fennel, sugar snaps, brilliant asparagus, long Japanese eggplant, okra, kohlrabi, fiddleheads, morels, favas, mustard greens, Vidalia onions, pea shoots and plump, juicy figs. Several of the short-season delicacies could be ordered as a vegetarian plate of consummate luxury. And the meats and fish were their equal: moist tilefish, guinea hen with a taste that filled your mouth, the most pearly soft-shells, kidneys of great finesse. As for dessert, where else would you find burstingly fresh litchis teamed with gingerbread and slivers of fresh ginger in cream? What's more, the breads are coarse and hearty, just from the oven; the wine list has a distinct personality and moderate prices; and the meal begins and ends with the chef's tiny inventions.

The focus is on the food -- uncomplicated preparations of stellar ingredients, with few sauces. The dining room is but a plain white backdrop, and you'll see people in suits but also shirtsleeves. Rupperts is the kind of restaurant that makes even the conversation seem remarkably fresh and seasonal.

1017 Seventh St. NW. 202-783-0699. Open: for lunch Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: about $16 to $30.

1789 RESTAURANT It was obvious from the beginning that chef Ris Lacoste knew seafood. After all, she'd been Bob Kinkead's sous-chef for more than a dozen years when she took over the 1789 kitchen. But she turns out to be equally adept with meats, pasta and, most important, the produce of the season. This lovely age-tested series of Federal dining rooms has never fed us so well.

In keeping with the dignified and handsome furnishings, the menu offers the classics. They're modernized a bit, with black beans and creole sauce on the crab cakes, and feta potatoes and merlot sauce with the rack of lamb -- but not so much that traditionalists would scorn them. And the more adventurous dishes are so dazzling that to taste them is to love them. I've had Copper River wild salmon played off against sweetly caramelized cassis onions and tart sorrel; soft-shells have been perfectly plump and crisp with Smithfield ham, spring onions and fava beans, a shimmering little corn pudding alongside. And the rack of lamb at the next table looked so magnificent it made me envious.

The first courses are memorable, whether light (thick, firm asparagus with grapefruit in a ginger-lime-sesame dressing) or weighty (translucent ravioli heavy with ground veal and wild mushrooms, buried in pristine vegetables and roasted garlic sauce). And desserts keep tabs on the seasons with local strawberries in a shortcake, raspberries in the bread pudding -- and chocolate all year round, in a homey pudding or sophisticated bittersweet hazelnut bars.

1226 36th St. NW. 202-965-1789. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: about $18 to $32.

SHOLL'S COLONIAL CAFETERIA Every city needs a down-home cafeteria, and few have one with more character than Sholl's. It's been a D.C. fixture, albeit in several different locations, long enough to qualify for Medicare, and the prices have hardly increased. Meat dishes average less than $3, and a full dinner will hardly set you back $5. Lines form for each meal, as Sholl's hosts everyday regulars, visiting school groups, the down-at-the-heels and the well-heeled. The draw is plain, homey food that flows with the seasons. In summer that means corn on the cob (sometimes all you can eat) and fresh peach pie, in winter stews and roast pork or breast of lamb. It's a last bastion of Jell-O salads and baked custard or rice pudding (for a mere 50 cents). Its vegetables are fresh, even the french fries, and the rolls, biscuits and pies are made in-house.

While the menu shows a few breaks with tradition lately -- spicy rice and beans on my last visit -- Sholl's is best known for the most basic American cooking: baked chicken, liver and onions, baked fish, chicken a la king. My favorite is the chopped steak, ladled with a little pan juice, and accompanied by whatever green vegetables are seasonal -- leaving room, of course, for a slice of pie.

1990 K St. NW. 202-296-3065. Open: for breakfast Monday through Saturday 7 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 4 to 8 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cash only. Entree prices: $1.75 to $5.25.

SUSHI-KO No cuisine clings to tradition more tightly than Japanese, but Sushi-Ko satisfies both tradition and our insatiability for change. Its sushi bar has long been one of the best, and in recent years it has also become the most innovative. Chef Kazuhiro Okochi is always coming up with new "little dishes." And every time I try a new one, my list of favorites grows longer. This year I added to it first a briny soup floating soft curds of scrambled egg and sweet bay scallops, and then a disk of wasabi-flavored cold mashed potato (a kind of mashed potato salad) topped with a fluff of raw salmon slices. Those are just a start. I wouldn't miss the cold salad of buckwheat noodles with shredded raw vegetables and sweet gingery vinaigrette or the grilled miso-marinated sea bass on a pedestal of turnip.

In fact, all of the little fish dishes compel me. I usually skip the commonplace teriyakis and tempuras and head right for the sushi, supplementing the familiar and excellent tuna, eel, yellowtail and such with a seasonal special, maybe salmon with mango sauce. For dessert, the sake sorbet with a touch of red berry compote in a martini glass is utterly refreshing.

And good as it is, Sushi-Ko is undoubtedly going to get better, when it completes the renovation of its kitchen and dining rooms later this year. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to make the prime-time wait for tables any shorter. Try for a reservation, or come for lunch or early dinner.

2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-4187. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $17, dinner $7.50 to $18.50.

SWAGAT Vegetarians in Western restaurants often have to make do with a single "vegetarian plate" or perhaps a choice of pasta primavera or spinach lasagna. Indian vegetarian menus are, in contrast, dozens of dishes and several pages long. It could take weeks to eat your way through one. Vegetarianism in India strikes me as not so much a limitation as an opportunity.

Swagat is hard to find from a car whizzing by on University Boulevard, and nothing outside indicates the spaciousness and charm of this dining room, with its riveting photos framed by lacy white wall paintings and its earth-tone booths. Once inside, the difficulty is choosing from so many menu offerings.

One way for a newcomer to understand the menu is to try the buffet, which displays a range from soups to appetizers to curries and biryanis, accompanied by breads, chutneys and salads, followed by dessert. A thali -- a kind of one-person mini-buffet -- is another option for making the most of Swagat's breadth. I prefer ordering a la carte, though, to make sure I get the khasta kachori -- a hefty appetizer that's like a short-crusted turnover filled with vegetables and topped with chutney and yogurt. I also can't resist the dosas, those crisp rolled rice pancakes the length of a baseball bat, filled with spiced potatoes, onions and chilies or mixed vegetables. Among the curries, the mixed vegetables are excellent -- each one's taste and texture stands intact -- and the house-made cheese, paneer, can be combined with various gravies, spinach, mixed vegetables or peas. My favorite is kadai paneer, a combination of vegetables in a moderately hot red sauce.

Complicated as the choices are, there's an easy solution. Service is solicitous, and the staff acts as if you are doing it a great favor if you ask for advice. So do.

2063 E. University Blvd., Adelphi. 301-434-2247. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday noon to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.; for brunch Sunday noon to 4 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $2.99 to $6.25.

TABARD INN I celebrate the seasons at Tabard Inn. In winter, I love the lounge with its time-worn sofas gathered around a fireplace. In spring, the walled garden is the nicest place for a midday escape called lunch. And the dining room itself has the cozy laid-back comfort one hopes to find in a small inn.

Over the years the food has sometimes achieved splendor and sometimes been forgettable, but it's always been composed of fresh and lively ingredients, often from the Inn's own farm. While not long ago I found the food undistinguished, this year the cooking has perked up again. Despite lapses such as limp, bland pasta diluting the impact of clams steamed in tomato fennel fumet at lunch one day, the kitchen seems to be back on track. To start, the house-smoked salmon is as succulent as one could want, and it's draped over brioche toast, drizzled with creme fraiche and accompanied by a salad garnished with caper berries. In a heavier mode, the pate is home-style, smooth and pungent with dried currants and cranberries.

The Tabard Inn is experimenting, going beyond cliches. The entrees might include Peruvian potato croquettes or gumbo with duck and oysters; there is always plenty for vegetarians as well as straightforward burgers at lunch. And while everyone else does crab cakes, the Tabard Inn makes smoked trout cakes, a savory change of pace. The list of wines by the glass is impressive. Desserts are a big deal, minglings of chocolate and tangerine, pears and caramel, apples and red currants, in pies, tortes, cheesecakes and crisps. Richness galore.

1739 N St. NW. 202-833-2668. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10 a.m., Saturday 8 to 10 a.m., Sunday 8 to 9:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch about $8.50 to $13.75, dinner about $17.50 to $22.50.

TABERNA DEL ALABARDERO I love nibbling. I'm delighted to have a meal of tapas, mezze or zakuski, in which the table is covered with small dishes of hot and cold appetizers. There are many places to dine thus in our city. What sets Taberna del Alabardero apart from the others is its Old World formality. The banquettes in this ornate dining room are velvet, with lace against which to rest your head. The napery is weighty and the service has dignity -- even when the waiter has no talent for English. The burbling voices in the dining room are largely Spanish, and most of the diners look as if they just flew in from Madrid.

I'll admit that the large, flat platters of paella look tempting, but they are for two people, and I'd rather sample a lot of small dishes than make a whole meal of rice. Besides, I can order a small dish of paella among my tapas. I inevitably include the roasted duck leg, the meat nearly melting under the crackly skin. Fresh sardines are not to everyone's taste, but I enjoy their strong fishy character. And the potato salad smothered in garlic is so outrageously delicious I'm tempted to order one for the table and another just for me. This tapas list is steeped in Spanish tradition, with thick potato omelet, grilled chorizo, shrimp sauteed with garlic and veal stuffed with ham and cheese. Purists can accompany them with a proper sherry. Sometimes I slip into the regular menu's appetizer list for roasted red peppers plumped with salt cod puree. And for dessert, I break tradition with a pineapple tart, a kind of tropical tarte tatin, a thin buttery round of pastry topped with sweet fresh pineapple right out of the oven.

1776 I St. NW. 202-429-2200. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $16 to $19.95, dinner $18 to $28.

TAHOGA From its brick-walled garden of cascading green vines to its stark minimalist white dining room, Tahoga has a fresh, clean look. All the more to highlight the artistry of its contemporary American cooking.

The menu is short, and nothing is routine; the chef provides different -- and interesting -- vegetable accompaniments for each entree, right down to house-made ketchup for the steak. The emphasis, however, is on seafood. Mussels come in a mahogany-colored broth tangy with sharp mustard and bourbon. Buttermilk-battered shrimp have an unexpectedly rich seafood flavor, with a light crackle of batter. Tuna tartare is barely seasoned, the diced raw fish bright and fresh enough to stand on its own with just a little help from a mild coconut dressing.

Tahoga's entrees show how much new American cooking has matured. They are fairly simple: seared lamb, sirloin, tuna, scallops, roast chicken, yucca-crusted salmon or crisped soft-shell crabs. Each has a light splash of sauce to perfume it -- a lamb jus or a wild mushroom sauce, corn essence or roasted shallot butter. None of the sauces overwhelms, or even draws much attention from, the basic meat or fish.

The simple excellence carries through dessert. A dark flourless chocolate cake has an airy quality despite its intense flavor. A berry sorbet is like concentrated berries right from the vine. I found a berry crisp too sweet, but not everyone would, and it was warm and freshly baked. Finally, a plate of tiny buttery house-made cookies finishes dinner with a flourish.

2815 M St. NW. 202-338-5380. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7.85 to $13.50, dinner $16 to $21.50.

TARA THAI The two branches of Tara Thai look, in both senses of the word, cool. The walls are painted deep-sea blue and decorated with underwater creatures, so you feel as if you are a part of the ocean. And being enclosed in these dark yet vivid colors creates a mood both electric and serene.

Such a dramatic room makes me think of tropical fruits, and Tara Thai is ready to fulfill my cravings with a fresh, fizzy drink of mango, orange and pineapple -- a Tropical Treasure. On to something spicy to nibble -- there are the usual satays, larb gai and mee krob, as well as meat or seafood salads with lime, cilantro and chilies. No holds are barred: The Thai slaw with the oven-dried beef nua sawan brings tears to your eyes, and it's not even identified on the menu as especially fiery. Entrees, as one would expect, stress seafood. And in season this is a good place to try soft-shell crabs -- with chili and garlic, black bean and ginger, or curry. Outside of crab season, whole rockfish, either wrapped in a leaf and grilled or steamed with plum sauce, are the most original offerings. I particularly like the combination of grilled shrimp and ground chicken -- goong phuket -- which is topped with a stingy sprinkle of crab meat but is spicy and intricate. The menu also lists the standbys, the curries and noodle dishes and chili-fired stir-fries found on every Thai menu. Furthermore, the kitchen promises to make adjustments for vegetarians and invites fire-eaters to order their dishes extra-spicy.

All this suggests a cool ending. Indeed, Tara Thai features four exotic ice creams and fragrant Thai rice desserts, arranged on glass plates that look like ice floes. A fitting finale.

4828 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. 301-657-0488. Open: for lunch Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 3:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $4.95 to $7.95, dinner $6.95 to $12.95. (Other location: 226 W. Maple Ave., Vienna, 703-255-2467.)

TEAISM Teaism is as much about mood as about food. It's a small self-service tea shop that offers light meals -- bento boxes, breads and kebabs cooked in a tandoor oven, stir-fries and house-made desserts as well as half a dozen breakfast choices. Its focus, though, is teas, more than a score of them, with samples set out for you to sniff and learn their differences. You can buy them to brew at home or to accompany your meal.

The shop is at its best during off-hours, when the small upstairs dining room isn't crowded and you can sit on an upholstered stool at a window table to watch the street scene as you sip. And the best of the food, as far as I'm concerned, are the salmon bentos, square lacquered boxes with compartments of jasmine rice, a small salad and either the makings of sushi hand rolls with a luscious tea-cured salmon that's like Japanese lox, or cold glazed teriyaki salmon, delicate and nearly dissolving on the tongue.

To drink, there are lassis flavored with mango, orange or tea, or pots of tea to fit your frame of mind. Most often, though, my mood is suited by a cup of chai, a lightly sweetened milky tea that's been brewed with such spices as cinnamon, allspice and clove. A mid-afternoon cup of chai and a book could turn an hour into a vacation.

2009 R St. NW. 202-667-3827. Open Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $4.25 to $7.50.

VIDALIA It may be underground, but Vidalia looks as sunny as a garden, with its sponged yellow walls and colorful crockery. Its theme is Georgia's sweet onions and its cooking is New South, but that's not carried too far. This is just a fine American restaurant that happens to use country ham, grits, black-eyed peas and onions here and there. And it has that Southern genius for quick breads. That means the bread basket is a treat of cornbread -- the richest in town -- and flaky biscuits, along with focaccia (it's not as delicious as it used to be) topped with caramelized onions. And for dessert, the shortcake, with a light and flaky sugared biscuit, is as good as shortcake gets.

Salads here are grand, from the old-fashioned chopped salad updated with goat cheese to such seasonal produce as asparagus, which keeps company with wild mushrooms, pearl onions and red peppers. Heftier salads include duck breast and foie gras with black-eyed peas, charred rare tuna with soba noodles and pickled seaweed, spice-crusted lamb or seared steak. On the warm side, the appetizer tarts -- Vidalia onion with gorgonzola and bacon, or asparagus with country ham and hazelnuts -- are exciting complexities in a perfectly thin, crackly crust.

Entrees include cleverly reinterpreted old Southern dishes such as chicken and dumplings with the chicken roasted, sliced and served atop a dumpling base (an unfortunately heavy dumpling, though). And they cover the luxury gamut of venison, pheasant, veal chop, sweetbreads, plus seafood dishes from shrimp and grits to fried catfish. These are intricately constructed plates with bundles of vegetables, sprinklings of seasoning and drizzles of sauce, all sure-handed, with logical connections rather than random ingredients. Often those decorative bits of vegetable are the most irresistible parts of the dish. Even beverages here get more attention than in most restaurants, with a carefully constructed and reasonably priced wine list, an interesting assortment of microbrewed beers, house-made lemonade and minted tea.

1990 M St. NW. 202-659-1990. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $12.75 to $18.50, dinner $18 to $24.50.

ZUKI MOON NOODLES Walls the color of green tea, chairs that look as if they had been handcrafted for a gingerbread house, hand-thrown pottery for display and dining -- Zuki Moon is dressed for a quick meal in high style. But it goes deeper than that. It's an Asian noodle-and-grill cafe that strives for freshness and healthfulness as well as artistry. It's ready with a fast dinner before or after the Kennedy Center, a lazy lunch or almost anything in between.

This is the work of chef and owner Mary Richter, who cooked at Cities in its heyday. She has an instinct for flavor that shows in her tempura: Its dipping sauce, spiked with wasabi, is so compelling you might look for something else to dip in it when your airy tempura is done. Thin half-moon Japanese dumplings are nice enough; their sauce, though, is the star. Her grilled squid isn't as juicy as I would wish, but its soy marinade, which soaks into the sticky rice and the baby bok choy that accompany it, has a lemony sparkle that tempts you to spoon up the dregs. Some of the noodle soups are too purist: I could use more spice in my grilled chicken soup with udon. Still, its fat Japanese noodles are perfect, the grilled chicken succulent and the melange of seaweed and vegetables flavorful in its own right.

Richter pays attention to significant details. Fresh-squeezed juices (carrot-apple-ginger works well), a thoughtful and modest wine list and ice creams so rich they taste almost like frozen butter are among the accessories that complete a distinctive meal.

824 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202-333-3312. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $7.50 to $15.50.

Biggest food (by volume): At Udupi Palace in Langley Park, the puffed fried bread called channa batura looks like a pillow meant for a giant's head.

Most improved: In the past two years, Pesce on P Street NW has been tasting better and better.

Most colorful ideas: Monroe's in Alexandria has giant fruits and bottles painted on the walls, plus crayons for use on the white paper tablecloths.

Family value: That's Amore (in Chevy Chase, Vienna, Rockville and Sterling) serves the family-style food to each child's specifications. Waiters even pick out hated vegetables on demand.

Thinnest pizza: At the Corner Bakery in Maggiano's at Tysons Galleria and at Union Station, it's just a sheer film of crunchy dough topped with razor-thin slices of tomato.

For wine bargains: Look for the oldies at Le Lion d'Or on 18th Street NW, where they were bought at pre-inflation prices and cellared for years.

Best bite: It took a $95 tasting menu to find it, but the mini-tower of foie gras with litchi and wheat berries at Lespinasse on K Street NW was just about the most delicious two bites of my Washington dining year.

Best news: Farm-raised oysters from both coasts, safe to eat, have arrived on the scene. They're featured at seafood restaurants such as Georgetown Seafood Grill, Kinkead's, Legal Sea Foods, Old Ebbitt Grill and McCormick & Schmick's.

Most surprising spot for a surprise party: The elaborately decorated banquet room next door to Arlington's La Cote d'Or looks like a party all by itself.

Restaurants By Cuisine

The Bread Line
Cashion's Eat Place
C.F. Folks
Inn at Little Washington
Morton's of Chicago
Old Angler's Inn
Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria
Tabard Inn
Hibiscus Cafe
City Lights of China
Gerard's Place
La Fourchette
L'Auberge Chez Francois
Bombay Bistro
Bombay Club
Bombay Curry Company
Cafe Milano
Cesco Trattoria
Goldoni Ristorante
I Matti
Pizzeria Paradiso
Hee Been
Cafe Atlantico
Coco Loco
Rio Grande Cafe
Taberna del Alabardero
Oodles Noodles
Zuki Moon Noodles
Georgia Brown's
Tara Thai
Pho 75
Queen Bee

Restaurants By Locale

Cashion's Eat Place
I Matti
La Fourchette
Bombay Club
The Bread Line
Georgia Brown's
Gerard's Place
Morton's of Chicago
Oodles Noodles
Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria
Taberna del Alabardero
Dupont Circle
C.F. Folks
City Lights of China
Pizzeria Paradiso
Tabard Inn
Cafe Milano
Hibiscus Cafe
of Chicago
Glover Park
Seventh Street Area
Cafe Atlantico
Coco Loco
Upper Northwest
West End/Foggy Bottom
Goldoni Ristorante
Zuki Moon Noodles

Adelphi/Langley Park
Pho 75
Cesco Trattoria
Oodles Noodles
Rio Grande Cafe
Tara Thai
Old Angler's Inn
Bombay Bistro
Pho 75

Bombay Curry
Hee Been
Pho 75
Queen Bee
Rio Grande Cafe
Bombay Bistro
Falls Church
Pho 75
Great Falls
L'Auberge Chez Francois
Rio Grande Cafe
Morton's of Chicago
Tara Thai
Inn at Little Washington

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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