McLean Hilton Hotel 7920 Jones Branch Dr., McLean 761-5199 Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Prices: Soups and salads $2.50 to $5; appetizers and small plates $3 to $10.50; entrees $7 to $22. Cards: All major credit cards accepted. Nonsmoking section available.

The almost six-month-old McLean Hilton has created a lovely setting in which to try its version of "grazing," the new eating trend of sampling a variety of foods in small portions.

The beautifully translucent pink, black-veined Italian marble in the entryway is picked up in the color scheme of the spacious, rectangular room. Fabric in deep rose covers the walls and hangs in pleated Roman shades over the windows, and wide bands of black lacquered moulding circle the room at both the chair rail and the ceiling. Other touches, such as the black stemmed glassware and black, lily-ornamented cover plates, opaque Italian crystal wall sconces and graceful potted palms add an Art Deco look.

The first time around, the menu can be confusing. As your eyes scan the long list of possibilities running almost the full length of the current menu, you will not find the familiar divisions between appetizers and entrees. Instead, most of the 23 choices are offered as either a large or small (half portion) plate, opening up seemingly endless combinations of starters and main courses.

In addition, a section at the bottom lists the soups, salads, and desserts under the note: "The following can be served at your request anytime during the course of your meal." Although I like the concept of having the choice between full and half portions, sometimes too many variables can be overwhelming. Indeed, while the management is committed to the basic grazing concept, it is tinkering with a new, simplified menu format.

Based on recent visits, inconsistencies in food and service make generalizations difficult. For example, on one occasion the nicely chewy rolls arrived as we were seated and were replaced so promptly it seemed as if our bread plates came equipped with magical roll dispensers. Another time, however, no rolls were in sight until we asked for them midway through the meal. One evening, dinner progressed relatively smoothly, but on a subsequent evening it turned into a four-hour test of endurance.

The young serving staff has a California-casual style that doesn't quite seem to mesh with the polished, sophisticated surroundings.

As for the food itself, it is as unpredictable as the service. Two soups -- a weak minestrone and a rich but bland mussel bisque -- were quite forgettable, while the puree of red lentils was better, although reminiscent of a marinara sauce.

The spinach salad is nicely done -- fresh, tender spinach, dotted with feta cheese, sweet red peppers, mushrooms and real bacon -- while the sunburst salad is pretty but not as satisfying.

While presentations are artful, portions can be small. For example, the pretty trio of nicely cooked medallions of beef, veal and lamb, each complemented by a different sauce, is tasty but makes a skimpy main course for $19. Served only as a large plate, it is accompanied by the vegetable and potato of the day, but they appear as a garnish..

The pricing is sometimes difficult to fathom. Shrimp cilantro is hardly a bargain at $8 for only three shrimp and barely a hint of the featured herb. In theory, the three larger shrimp fritters at $4.50 are a better deal, although mine were not especially flavorful. But for $5 you can enjoy six sweet snow crab claws served in a showy conch shell dish.

The best entree for flavor and value is chicken Martinque ($14) with a caramel-like stuffing of chutney and banana in a curry coconut cream sauce. The blackened New York sirloin (minus the Cajun spices) is topped with a flavorful cognac/mushroom sauce. It would have been an unqualified winner, except mine was too well-done. Another near miss was the tuna steak, nicely grilled but overly lemony.

Two exceptions to the generally attractive presentations were a drab, pesto-sauced beef ravioli and a forlorn and gamy breast of duck sitting in a pool of tart cranberry sauce.

The wine list offers moderately priced foreign and domestic choices with a couple of half bottles in each category.

For dessert I recommend either the dense and decadent slice of chocolate pate accompanied by a divine Grand Marnier sauce or the dainty but intensely flavored mango tamarind mousse in a raspberry sauce.

Martinique's is lovely to look at, but when it comes to food and service, the results are uneven.