{sstar} (1 star) Palette

in the Madison Hotel, 1177 15th St. NW (at M Street). 202-587-2700. www.palettedc.com

Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.; bar menu available Monday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday 5 to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sundays through Labor Day. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Limited wheelchair access. Metro: McPherson Square. Valet parking. Prices: lunch appetizers $6 to $10, entrees $12 to $19; dinner appetizers $8 to $16, entrees $24 to $39. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $85 to $110 per person.

As part of its top-to-bottom makeover last year, the Madison Hotel rolled out a formal dining room its owners hoped would compete with the city's finest. An ever-changing collection of art on the walls would echo the creations of its chef on the tables, a theme neatly summed up in the restaurant's name, Palette.

Its unveiling, in January, got a chilly reception. Early vistors to the restaurant were baffled by a menu that tasted like a parody of fusion cooking. (Palette's caramelized tomato with black olive ice cream is my latest answer to a question I'm often asked: "What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?") Within a month, the opening chef was replaced by James Clark, a native of South Carolina plucked from Vidalia's in Myrtle Beach. A student of Louis Osteen, a pillar of cooking in Charleston, Clark quickly went to work rerouting the menu. His mandate: Make the food accessible.

The entrance at Palette reminds you that Washington restaurants aren't what they used to be. Anyone who still considers the city dowdy hasn't stepped into its many up-to-the-minute interiors, including this model. Palette opens to a seductive bar, cozy nooks with couches and a communal blond wood table flanked by elegant two-toned stools. This sleek watering hole has been busy every night I've dropped by, patronized by faces you might expect to see in ads for dating services but not in real life. As if nice profiles and whimsical cocktails weren't enough, there's also live jazz the first Thursday of every month, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

In contrast, the dining room has been hushed, a calm underscored by Palette's subtle color scheme. What's not pale maple or frosted glass is earth tones (or aubergine, in the case of a curved wall near the kitchen). The muted design is intentional: It throws the spotlight on whatever paintings happen to be on exhibit. A meal begins here with a waiter bearing three kinds of bread, two kinds of spreads (butter and a vegetable puree) and, minutes later, a gratis nibble from the chef.

Keep Clark's background in mind when you order. Meal after meal, I've been most impressed by his seafood preparations. A scorching summer night was tamed by the chef's lovely and restorative yellow tomato soup, poured with a little flourish into a white bowl holding a centerpiece of fresh crab. The bright liquid was at once tangy and creamy, a nice match to the sweet seafood. Also to begin, there are fresh oysters of good flavor and creamy crab cakes, seared to a fine crunch and set off with red and yellow roasted peppers. As you peruse the menu, your server may steer you toward the shrimp and grits, an entree based on "the chef's grandmother's recipe." The portion is certainly big enough to have been dished up by a generous relative. The textures and flavors are reassuring, too: a soft bed of cream-enriched grits bolstered by bits of salty ham, and topped by big, juicy, Madeira-glazed shrimp.

Duty calls me to explore the full range of any menu, though, and duty requires me to be frank about what I've encountered. Palette's risotto looks like something that ran into the back of a vegetable truck; and, buried under a bushel of tomato, eggplant, yellow squash, carrot and more, the ordinary grains of rice yield very little flavor. A $36 veal chop garnished with rum-glazed onions -- and damp fennel slaw -- was cooked minutes past the medium-rare I'd asked for, and the most memorable part of a pork loin entree was its rich mash of sweet potatoes and plantains and crown of green beans tempura. Barbecued chicken, a lunch entree, is a slick city version, barely tangy but rounded out with a pleasant toss of warm fingerling potatoes, mushrooms and sauteed garlic. Like much of the food, it sounds nice, and it tastes fine, but it's not something you are likely to talk up back at the office.

An unfortunate sweetness surfaces in some savory courses: Spinach salad shows up with a slice of onion tart, heavy and pielike, while an appetizer of foie gras shares its plate with a fruit compote (peach, most recently) and a "french toast" brioche that is all too aptly named: The combination of buttery but bland liver, sugary fruit and soft, sweet bread smacks too much of breakfast.

The kitchen cuts loose come dessert. The kid in me couldn't resist "milk and cookies," a concept that goes back to the future with a glass of silken white custard and equally fancy macaroons, palmiers and pecan-laced chocolate chip cookies. Warm blackberry cobbler has the right idea, fashioned from big juicy fruit and just enough batter. On the other hand, lemon mousse, fluffy as marshmallow, appeared to be missing its citrus the day I encountered it. The clinker in the collection looks like a day at the circus: Just seeing this combination platter of cotton candy, a cookie cone filled with ice cream and a pink candied apple land on the table is enough to induce sugar shock. Ask for a hammer with that apple; its glassy shell is just about impossible to penetrate with your teeth.

The revised Palette has sufficient charms to recommend it -- coolly elegant environs, a staff that knows how to spoil its guests, a way with seafood -- but I wish it performed as consistently well on the tongue as it does on the eyes and ears.

Ask Tom

As Joanmarie Davoli and her young daughter were driving out of the parking lot at Artie's in Fairfax after lunch recently, they were waved down by several employees. "Led by Chris Harris, they warned me that my tire was completely flat, and they rushed over to help me," wrote the McLean reader in an e-mail. "Despite the 90 degree heat . . . Harris, Seth Clark and Steve Reduzzi cheerfully and graciously pulled the spare out of my car, changed my tire, wrapped the flat tire in garbage bags to keep my interior clean, and gave me advice on where and how to get the tire fixed." Davoli, who didn't have a cell phone with her at the time, said the trio's "quick reaction saved me from great inconvenience" and "kept me from encountering serious danger" as she was rushing to pick up two more children from summer camp. "While the state of service in this country continues to fall to an abysmally low standard," she concluded, "Artie's demonstrates that no price can ever be put on goodwill." Harris, Artie's assistant general manager, confirmed the details of the story when I called him. He was modest about playing Superman with the help of servers Clark and Reduzzi. "If I had a wife and a child" in similar circumstances, he said, "I would hope someone would help me." May the good karma flow.

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.