703 King St., Alexandria 548-5454 Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Lunch, appetizers and salads $2.75 to $4.50, omelettes and entrees $5.75 to $9.50; dinner, appetizers and salads $3.25 to $5.25, entrees $9.95 to $19.95 Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express No nonsmoking section Reservations suggested
The small storefront across from Roy Rogers and next to Pizza Hut was supposed to be a carryout and catering service run by veteran restaurateur Marie Potier, but the allure of a restaurant would not go away. So Potier installed about 15 tables in close proximity, decorated the room in a sleek, minimalist style and, voila, a sophisticated French cafe.
The door on the street opens directly into the dining room with its gray/violet walls accented by muted rose and black. It comes as a surprise that the inspiration for this cool, modern setting came to Potier from warm childhood memories of her maternal grandmother's house in France where the walls were also painted gray and where Potier learned to cook.
In this new venture, however, she has turned over the chef's toque to Claude Picard, former chef at the Montpelier Room in the Madison Hotel.
While a meal here is not inexpensive -- a typical dinner for two with a bottle of wine can add up to $60 to $70 -- based on recent visits the results are likely to please. This eight-month-old kitchen shines with careful preparations, fresh ingredients and mellow sauces.
Seafood has a prominent place on the short, hand-lettered menu. Four of the nine main courses are seafood, as are most of the five or six nightly specials. The other regular offerings include one dish each of chicken, veal, duck, lamb and beef.
For a good opener try one of the light, flavorful soups such as the fennel-laced fish stock, or a special lettuce soup with a chicken broth base enhanced by a touch of cream. Other possible beginnings might include the respectable pate du chef, a coarse blend of pork, veal and calf's liver, or a Caesar salad, although the anchovy-edged dressing was a little too heavily applied for my taste.
The fish dishes are the real standouts. I would recommend the perfectly cooked monkfish fillet in fresh basil cream perfumed with green peppercorns. Equally first-rate was a special of bluefish in a similar basil sauce, but without the peppercorns. Still good, but not as perfectly matched, was the combination of coho salmon topped with crab meat and a fine herbes sauce.
From the care in preparation to the buttery sauce sparked by pink, green and black peppercorns, the flavorful filet mignon was a winner on all counts. One evening, a tasty special of veal stew came with large chunks of moist shank meat sprinkled with fresh dill. The least exciting of the entrees, the fanned slices of breast of duck, was nevertheless pleasant in a faintly sweet cider sauce with julienned lime peel.
For dessert, try the exemplary creme caramel with just the right bitter edge to the carmelized sugar topping, or one of the special cakes such as the raspberry chocolate layer cake in a pool of creme anglaise. For a lighter finish, the fresh raspberries with cream are delicious.
The wine list is short and moderately priced but, given the quality of the food, there's room to add some more interesting selections. Beer is also available. At 36 seats, Cafe Marie is too small to qualify for an Alexandria liquor license.
While the small staff is unfailingly friendly and generally accommodating, the level of skill and experience on the floor is not quite on a par with that of the kitchen. On a busy night, the staff is hard pressed to keep up. Although Cafe Marie is still evolving -- a few new items will be added to the menu, a new waiter is being trained -- it's already worth seeking out.