My husband's passion for computers brought us to the Cucumber Bookstore in Rockville, which led to lunch at a nondescript Spanish restaurant around the corner. Even the white lace curtains across the front windows were undistinguished white lace curtains. Our stab in the dark turned out to be a lucky one, though. The lunch and a subsequent dinner at Andalucia were exceptionally good.

Andalucia is as simple inside as out -- a few posters, some faience, and a shawl on white walls. White tablecloths and fresh flowers establish a level of refinement, but no one would go to Andalucia except to eat well. The out-of-the-way location and physical simplicity are what help owner Joaquin Serrano hold down prices. Eight and a half dollars buys a lunch entree of shrimp with onion, garlic, tomato and brandy; a dinner veal chop grilled with rosemary costs $15.95 -- unusually reasonable sums, given the quality of preparation.

Our lunch entrees on our first visit consisted of two glasses of the house wine, Rene Barbier ($3 each), a plate of trout ($8.95), which was a special, and ternera Sevillana, or veal scaloppine with ham, green olives and dry sherry ($7.95). The handsome fish was very fresh and served in a way uncommon to American tables -- cut open at the underbelly, boned, laid open, skin and spine down, and sauteed. Protected from the skillet by the skin, the flesh remained perfectly moist and delicate. With mushrooms and a quiet butter-and-wine sauce spooned over the top, it was absolutely first-rate.

So, too, were the veal scaloppine in a robust sherry sauce. Some bland green olives turned out to be Spanish, blanched for American tastes. Mr. Serrano said people had complained flavors were too salty, but the intensity had been olives, not salt. We said we liked bold olives, and he brought us a dish of them. Both plates contained fresh green beans, a fine dice of onion, and oven-browned potatoes.

Finding we were in capable hands, we splurged on dessert. Mine was a rich, cinnamon-dusted custard the consistency of porridge; my husband's, an intriguing bread pudding studded with blanched, sugar syrup-softened orange peel.

Our waiters were young, Spanish, quiet, dignified and pleasing. A couple of them were also on the Sunday evening staff when we dropped in several weeks later.

We were alone in the room at first with a table of Spanish-speaking guests enjoying a family dinner. A friend of theirs played classical Spanish guitar when he wasn't engaged in conversation.

From a list of familiar Spanish appetizers we sampled clams in green sauce (($5.95) and a bowl of gazpacho Andaluz ($3.50). Why were the clams better than the same dish most other places? Because the mollusks were wonderfully fresh, garlic was plentiful, the broth was superb, and an expert had done the cooking. The gazpacho was a flavorful cold puree composed of all the classic elements -- tomato, onion, garlic, oregano, cucumber, bread and olive oil -- and served with a choice among garnishes: delicious croutons (what a difference there can be among croutons), green pepper, onion, tomato and cucumber. It was a rare, notable gazpacho.

Our entrees were to the same high standard. A special of meluza ($15.95), or hake, was served, like the clams, in a thick clay ramekin that kept the sweet and aromatic fish -- and the shrimp, mussels and clams that surrounded it -- piping hot. Its sauce was similar to the green sauce served with the clams, but more complex and vibrant with fish juices.

A veal chop ($16.95) special was cooked to a perfection of medium-rare, and served with a beautiful, mahogany-colored reduction from one of the few genuine, made-from-scratch meat stocks I've tasted in recent months. An abundance of flavorful, sliced, cooked, fresh mushrooms lay over the top, and to the side was a stack of thin green beans, and a spoon of potato au gratin, edged with seductive curls of caramelized onion.

Desserts, made in-house, were fresh and splendid. One was a long rectangle with a thin white meringue over the top and four layers of spongecake bound by what? fruit and a bit of syrup? My Spanish is too rudimentary for a good conversation about what we were eating. My husband's sweet was a lighter, three-layer confection backed by browned, shaved almonds and topped with a dense layer of raspberries, held in place by a refined fruit jelly.

To find Andalucia, go north on Rockville Pike from the Capital Beltway, turn right at Randolph Road, left at the third traffic light (Parklawn Drive), and left at the second traffic light (Wilkins Avenue). The restaurant is on the northwest corner of the first intersecting street (Kraft Drive).

Next: Mehfil


12300 Wilkins Ave., Rockville, (301) 770-1880 HOURS:

Lunch Tuesdays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 4:30 p.m.

to 9:30 p.m.


FEATURES: Spanish cuisine



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