* (1 star) Citrus Cafe

7075 Indian Head Hwy. (near Marshall Hall Road), Bryans Road. 301-375-6000

www.citruscafe-maryland.com

Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 3 to 8 p.m.; bar menu available Tuesday through Saturday 3 to 4 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.95 to $6.95, entrees $7.95 to $12.95; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $7.95, entrees $12.95 to $23.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.

Hearing Oumar Sy discuss his resume is like leafing through a memory book of Washington's recent-vintage French restaurants.

There was the late, great Jean-Louis at the Watergate, under the revered Jean-Louis Palladin, where Senegalese native Sy got his start -- as a dishwasher, in 1989. Then there was Provence, where Sy cooked for two years under another maestro, Yannick Cam. From 1996 to 2000, he was the head chef at Bistro Lepic in Georgetown, a stint followed by several years (and a slice of the pie, as a co-owner) at Petits Plats in Woodley Park.

Now, Sy is 35 minutes away from the action in Washington -- "out in nowhere, if you look at it," he says -- having been seduced by a good deal on a building, buoyed by development in Charles County and supported by his former sous chef at Petits Plats, Richard Morel. The two business partners have taken the former Stable, renamed it Citrus Cafe and turned the barnlike structure into something decidedly less so.

In their new roost, Sy and Morel have incorporated bits of their past with local preferences. Open the menu, and you'll find French onion soup and coq au vin, but also familiar crab cakes and steak. The restaurant's usual piped-in music gives way on Friday evenings to karaoke, a popular holdover from the Stable and something area residents requested that the chefs keep. For better and for worse, the restaurant is a hodgepodge of ideas, a marriage of convenience.

Your first taste from the kitchen is likely to be most reminiscent of the work the men did in their bistro days. A molten cap of cheese yields to sweet onions and beef broth in the French onion soup, while lobster bisque, subtle and creamy, gets dressed up with a pinch of sweet crab in the center of the bowl. The pate is made in-house, too, and tastes like it. Sliced thin but the size of a piece of toast, the peppercorn-ignited pate arrives with a lightly dressed salad, gherkins and cherry tomatoes. Mushrooms sauteed with garlic and basil, deliciously smoky, make another fine start. Oysters take a dip in a batter seasoned with Old Bay, before being fried and served with sweet tartar sauce. They're respectable. And one could make a light lunch from the creamy crab salad arranged with mesclun and buttery avocado.

The most successful entrees involve fish and light sauces. My favorite is salmon, fashionably tiled in potatoes -- picture lacy hash browns -- and napped with citrus beurre blanc. Trout is close competition, lightly grilled and tickled with a delicate butter sauce; some garlicky spinach and whipped potatoes round out its plate, and your pleasure. Sy and Morel tempt commuters to refuel before heading home with an early-bird special: three courses for $18.95 from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

Now and then, the cooking tastes as if the chefs are taking shortcuts that they wouldn't have taken in their previous jobs. The bakery bread is cottony, and the stubby carrots that accompany many of the entrees here have the uniform size and bland flavor typical of frozen bagged carrots. One night's special, prime rib, was about as vapid a piece of beef as I've had in years. The only flavor came from the sweet and winy bordelaise sauce brushed over it. Crab cakes are admirably meaty, but their taste is off, with unpleasantly sour notes. And an assertive mustard cream sauce can't hide the fact that the pork it moistens is tough.

New wood floors, fresh paint, cheery blue-and-yellow curtains and modern lighting separate Citrus Cafe from the previous occupant, though it's still a casual spot. The vinyl table covers are colorful but also sticky, and guess how they get cleaned? With a spritz! spritz! spritz! of spray cleaner, that's how (and that's annoying, particularly if you're sitting downwind of the mist).

Indeed, the service reminds you that you are not in Dupont Circle, Arlington or Bethesda, places where good help is somewhat easier to find. At lunch, the young woman who tries to wait on my friend and me can't manage more than a handful of customers, and basic questions about the food are met with a blank stare, as if she'd never eaten here. Dinner finds slightly more seasoned players, but overall, the service at Citrus Cafe is on par with that of your average coffee shop. It's pleasant enough. Tip to the crew: When pouring wine, a twist of the wrist helps prevent drips. That said, I'm grateful to have my pinot noir or sangiovese served in sleek stemware.

Creme brulee here is soupy, and fruit cobbler falls flat. But the kitchen makes a couple of desserts that should win your approval. Fat apple slices on a thin circle of warm pastry yield a fine, not-too-sweet tart, and it comes with a scoop of ice cream that enriches the whole as it slowly melts. Floating island is another crowd pleaser. A big soft "island" of meringue, gilded with caramelized sugar and showered with slivered almonds, "floats" on a vanilla-flecked pool of custard sauce. If you are with a group, ask for a couple of spoons even if only one person orders this dessert. The temptation to snag a taste is great.

Citrus Cafe provides a soupcon of sophistication along its stretch of Indian Head Highway, where the competition for dining dollars is pretty much limited to a few fast-food joints. While there's plenty of room for improvement in the restaurant, there are also enough draws to cheer its presence.

Ask Tom

Restaurant Eve throws away an average of six entrees a night. Problems with the food? No, problems with the timing, says Cathal Armstrong, chef and co-owner of the Alexandria destination. He frowns on serving food to a table if even one guest has stepped away. "If it takes a tour of the dining room," he says of his cooking, "and the table is incomplete for any reason," the food goes in the trash. "It kills me," Armstrong says, and it can take him an extra seven minutes or more to get the diners their dishes, but he would rather start over than let delicate food wilt while it waits for someone to return from the bathroom or a cigarette break. Armstrong took some heat for these exacting standards when a guest complained on my online chat about being curtly asked to return to the table from a smoke (a pause that typically stretches seven minutes, the chef has found). No diner wants to be told how to eat, but no chef wants to see fish go cool or sauce congeal, either. Armstrong says he has two conflicting responsibilities: to serve "the best-quality food to everyone" and to "make sure guests have a relaxing, enjoyable time." The problem is serious enough that he has considered writing an "intermission" into his multi-course tasting menu, a few words to let diners know the best time to take a break.

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.