{sstar}{sstar}{sstar} (3 stars) Restaurant Eve

110 S. Pitt St. (near King Street)

Alexandria. 703-706-0450

Bistro open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; limited menu available Monday through Friday 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.; closed Sunday. Tasting room open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. No smoking. Prices: bistro lunch appetizers $6.75 to $12.50, entrees $16 to $19; bistro dinner appetizers $6.75 to $13.50, entrees $18.50 to $24; tasting room five-course menu $65 per person, nine-course menu $90 per person. Full dinner in the bistro with wine, tax and tip about $80 per person; five-course dinner in the tasting room with wine, tax and tip about $110 per person.

"Who is the governor of Virginia?" isn't a question waiters typically see on a job application, but Restaurant Eve isn't your everyday Virginia restaurant. As Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong prepared to open their establishment in April, the couple looked for personality over experience in their recruits. They spoke of creating "a family" instead of "a clique" at Eve and avoided the obvious hiring strategy: Most of the service staff "doesn't have fine-dining experience," says Cathal Armstrong, the Irish-born chef. "Too many bad habits to break there."

The hiring process is one of many details that distinguish this modern American restaurant from its competition, not only in Old Town but in the Washington area as a whole. Christened for the owners' 5-year-old daughter, Eve is actually two places to eat under one roof: a honey-lit bistro with entrees averaging $20, and a more formal "Chef's Tasting Room," offering five- and nine-course menus. (Both places are reached via a hallway flanked by a glass-enclosed wine "cellar," cooled so you never have to encounter a wine as warm as the kitchen.) Depending on your mood and your budget, you can drop by for sauteed chicken breast or seafood stew in the bistro. Or you can luxuriate in the gentle pacing of a performance in the tasting room, one that might begin with several amuse-bouches -- a deviled quail's egg perched on a coin of toasted brioche and glistening with osetra caviar is bliss -- and end, hours later, with a tray of fetching bite-size confections.

No matter where you find yourself at Eve, you'll want to start dinner with a cocktail, even if you normally don't. Sommelier and general manager Todd Thrasher, a veteran of Signatures and Cafe Atlantico in Washington, spends more time than anyone else I know dreaming up ways to whet diners' whistles. Although I'm not much of a Bloody Mary drinker, I'll gladly make an exception for Eve's slender glass of vodka and tomato water shot through with lemon grass and chilies. The tomato juice is clear, having been passed through cheesecloth, and the blend is at once sharp and snappy, a fire-and-ice sensation that spells summertime relief. Another evening, Thrasher incorporated purple basil into a cocktail fashioned from coconut water, simple syrup and two kinds of rum. Tinged pink and sporting a foamy cap, it went down like a soft island breeze. Even Thrasher's martini is different, garnished with house-made pickles.

Given the team behind this production (the chef hails from Bistro Bis; his wife managed Gabriel), my initial meal in the bistro was not love at first bite. The greeting was warm and the room -- set off with a peaked skylight -- felt cozy, but for every winning dish (garden-fresh asparagus soup with airy croutons), there was one of lesser quality (heavy oxtail-stuffed ravioli with too-tart red wine sauce). Tender veal short ribs with garlicky broccoli rabe and thyme-fragrant polenta delighted my friends and me; Scottish salmon in a murky broth with oyster mushrooms and ramps was left unfinished. And so it continued through dessert, where one of us ordered a slice of delicious "birthday cake" with kid-friendly pink frosting -- just try not to smile when you see it -- and another got a many-layered fruit tart whose strawberries had no flavor.

Thank goodness I didn't stop there. Two weeks later, I found myself back at the bistro, tucking into a slice of rabbit terrine marbled with moist ivory meat. The subtle richness contrasted with some pickled mushrooms alongside. There were creamy little crab cakes, too, bound with a bit of coarse mustard, and a golden roast chicken poised on pleasantly bitter beet greens and caramelized turnips. After a spoonful of bouillabaisse laced with saffron and heady with garlic, I realized I'd finally found an honest rendition of that Provencal classic, served here with skate and a side of spunky rouille. A plate of crisp-edged crepes with raspberry jam, creme fraiche and tart lemon curd followed. Alas, the meal also included a dessert "mojito" of jellylike lime cubes robed in chocolate, which resembled something preschoolers would devise without any supervision in the kitchen.

The chef's tasting room is in a different league altogether. In comparison with the bistro, everything there is more special, from the colorful paintings of fruit and vegetables on the wall to the genteel service and leisurely pacing. Not to forget the cooking. Give or take a dish, I always admired Cathal Armstrong's French food at Bis, but what I've encountered in the tasting room is on such a higher plane, it's as if I were tasting his work for the first time. Who knew that guinea hen could be so moist and succulent? Gnocchi, tucked into a nest of warm spinach and tomato, are as tender as you'll find in the city's best Italian kitchens. My notes recorded immediately after my dinners here were accompanied by numerous exclamation points, marks I usually use sparingly, but I just couldn't resist. Buttery-textured "albino" tuna tartare -- actually sashimi-grade escolar, from fish caught near Hawaii just days before I sampled it -- had a sparkling sea flavor enhanced with a jolt of chili oil and an elegant crown of caviar. In another early course, layer upon fine layer of puff pastry supported woodsy roast mushrooms; a creamy moat of sauce, brightened with lemon thyme and sherry, raised the dish to glory. Only an underseasoned casserole of braised artichokes, carrots and potatoes burst my bubble. It resembled something you'd get at a fat farm (albeit a tony one).

Young though it is, Restaurant Eve reminds me very much of the beloved neighborhood restaurants, smart and focused, that one finds in greater number in places such as San Francisco and New York. Even better, Eve reminds me that I don't have to travel far from home to catch first-class cooking. One can only dream of what a little age will do for this novel mom-and-pop.

Ask Tom

"How long does one 'own' a table at a restaurant, particularly a nice, more expensive one?" wonders Don Montuori, who dined with his partner at Montmartre on Capitol Hill one recent Saturday. "We arrived at our reserved time, 6:45, ordered cocktails, bottle of wine, appetizers, entrees and dessert," reports the Washington reader in an e-mail. "We paid our check around 8:10, and at 8:15 the manager came over and very brusquely said, 'We need your table now.' We were pretty much ready to go, but this caught us by surprise -- especially since there were open tables both inside and outside." When I called Christophe Raynal, a co-owner of the French restaurant, to describe the incident, he called the rush job "a mistake." While Montmartre typically budgets 1 1/2 hours for a table for two, that estimate is flexible, Raynal says. "I want people to leave happy." I called a few similarly priced establishments around town and learned that they generally figure a couple will occupy a table for 90 minutes to two hours, depending on the day of the week and the occasion. From my vantage point, Montuori and company certainly deserved more than what they got.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.