{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Red Dog Cafe

In Rock Creek Shopping Center, 8301-A Grubb Rd. (at Washington Avenue), Silver Spring. 301-588-6300. www.reddogcafe.com

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 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 8 p.m.; for breakfast Monday through Saturday 7 to 11 a.m., Sunday 8 to 11 a.m. Coffee, juices and bakery items available between meal service. AE, D, MC, V. No reservations accepted. Smoking on patio only. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.75 to $8.75, entrees $8.95 to $14.95; dinner appetizers $3.75 to $10.95, entrees $8.95 to $15.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 per person.

Chili? Scanning Red Dog Cafe's brief menu, I thought, that's an odd appetizer offering for summer. But minutes later, as a tropical storm walloped Silver Spring, the cafe's unusual variation on this all-American favorite had my full attention. Easy on the spices, it was a delicious hybrid of beef bourguignon and Tex-Mex stew, with succulent pieces of chuck steak and tender, whole black beans united by a flavor-filled puree of toasted ancho peppers. A find in any season.

Another starter, roasted mussels, came to the table in a startling presentation -- the pointy black shells poking forth from a split copper sphere. Chef Janis McLean, it turns out, became familiar with this Portuguese cooking vessel, called a cataplana, during her yearly European travels. When the garlicky shellfish -- the meat is plump and pinkish -- were finished, I couldn't stop myself from dipping chunks of the house-baked focaccia into the aromatic white wine and shallot broth.

Red Dog's location and decor are similarly surprising. The small Rock Creek Shopping Center, tucked inside a residential neighborhood on Grubb Road off East-West Highway, is home to the Parkway Deli and Restaurant, the Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Co-op, a bike shop and a few other small businesses. It's hardly a place where you would expect to find a hip, urban-style restaurant. Yet Red Dog's look is industrial loft meets 1950s ranch, with a few Art Deco elements thrown in; the colors are playful, including multiple shades of red. Architect Brian Thornton, who also worked for the firm that designed the American Film Institute Silver Theatre a mile east, has created a soaring, sweeping space that plays with the line between indoors and out. In fair weather, the windowed front of the building can be rolled up like a garage door, so the restaurant opens on to a patio shaded by market umbrellas. The whole package works as a casual and inviting place for a date, or for a meal out with the family.

The chef and owners, who all live nearby, were hoping to create a spot for the neighborhood to hang out. But the look of the restaurant signals an ambition to draw customers from farther afield. McLean spent several summers working at Anne Willan's La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, France, followed by kitchen gigs in Washington at the Morrison-Clark Inn and Red Sage. Her cooking, while uneven, has a sense of style.

That style is precisely why I'd take a trip out of my way for her enormous, five-spice-flavored pulled duck breast salad, composed of escarole and watercress, sauteed grapes and smoky bacon bits. Among the cafe's range of salad options -- which also include one with goat cheese, honeyed pecans and dried cherries, and another with salmon -- that duck is a winner. But not everything tossed is perfect. The "classic Caesar" is disappointing, with a dressing that has no taste of anchovy and, in place of the crispy croutons mentioned on the menu, has chunks of soft focaccia. Such bread is better suited to scooping up smidgens of another appetizer, baked goat cheese circled by a sauce of tangy tomato and caramelized shallot.

Some of the area's best pizza crusts -- crisp on the outside and chewy within -- are baked in Red Dog's stone hearth oven. Here's dough with flavor. My favorite pizza, the margherita, has ample mozzarella cheese, ripe Italian tomatoes and fresh basil leaves. A gorgonzola cheese pizza sprinkled with toasted walnuts, though, is more like a mildly flavored onion tart and works better as a shared appetizer; it is too rich, too sweet, for an entree. One continuing problem: These good pies scream for a dash of salt. Once it's applied, the flavors pop. The pizza oven also turns out a kind of hot, stuffed sandwich that Red Dog calls a ripieghi, but the one I tried, the roasted lemon chicken, was swamped in sweet cucumber-yogurt sauce.

Service is generally Red Dog's weak suit, swinging wildly from sporadic to overly friendly. More than once, I overheard grumbles from adjoining tables as to where was this or that. One evening, a waiter tapped my shoulder repeatedly as I ordered, as if to say "good choices."

Since it opened in March, Red Dog has added microbrewed and imported beers, as well as some nice, reasonably priced wines to its drink possibilities. But iced specialty coffees and fresh fruit/vegetable juices have been the staples: The menu lists many more items under "specialty vegetable juices" than under "entrees." Such concoctions take time to prepare and, unfortunately, slow down the service still more. When they finally arrived, I did like the refreshing "frothy orange" and the lemonade, both mellowed by apple juice. I'd take a pass on the bland "melon quencher," which lacked any trace of fruity sweetness. The very farm-friendly "mega-boost" -- an unattractive mixed vegetable combo -- had an unpleasant, earthy taste.

You'll find better juice inside one of the entrees: the pressed, Tuscan-style chicken, a fine half bird with herbs layered under the crispy skin. Every bite of the breast was succulent. Red Dog's salmon, too, goes beyond the expected: Its moist flakes taste both sweet and smoky, and it's dressed with a red chili glaze. The slow-cooked pork ribs, coated with a peppery dry rub, have tender, fork-friendly meat; a tangy vinegar-based sauce brings a mild kick of heat. The combination is awesome. All of the items on the short list of entrees come with a choice of sides, such as pleasant, herb-laced oven-roasted potatoes or a little house salad. But plain potato chips are a better choice than the humble coleslaw, which one evening had a lingering aftertaste of over-the-hill cabbage (the fruit salad at breakfast also tasted less than fresh). When a dining pal of mine sampled the penne pasta and cheddar cheese entree, she said: "My kids wouldn't eat this macaroni and cheese. It's too adult." I say, their loss. Boy, was it good, in a modern-homey way.

Cute little Bundt cakes aren't made on the premises, but they make dessert worth waiting for. A very intense, yet not over the top, chocolate Bundt with raspberry sauce takes its refined flavor from quality ingredients. Summery coconut cake drizzled with mango puree has me dreaming of tropical islands. Equally tempting is the house-made apple crisp, which is light and warm, with just the right amounts of sugar and oatmeal.

Red Dog's impressive design and relaxed atmosphere are bound to satisfy a lot of people. Add to that unexpected dishes such as mussels in a cataplana -- and find a way to sharpen up that service -- and before long we'll be calling it Good Grubb Road.

Walter Nicholls is a reporter for The Post's Food section. Tom Sietsema is on assignment.