Tempo

4231 Duke St., Alexandria

370-7900

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Prices: Lunch soups and appetizers $1.50 to $3.95, pastas and entrees $5.95 to $8.95. Dinner soups and appetizers $2.95 to $4.95, pastas and entrees $8.95 to $13.95. Brunch $5.95 to $6.95.

Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express.

No nonsmoking area.

They're not exactly an odd couple, but Tempo's Wendy and Serge Albert do have their differences.

In the kitchen, their styles sometimes clash, said Wendy Albert, who professes to be laid-back, perhaps a carry-over from her apprenticeship in California. Her husband is somewhat more intense, perhaps a carry-over from his apprenticeship in his native France, where nobody is relaxed about food.

When it came time to draw up a menu for Tempo's opening three months ago, Wendy Albert vetoed many of her husband's suggestions -- and vice versa. But I'm here to tell you that, from a diner's point of view, all is sweetness and light: The couple's first try as chef-owners is a wonderful success, their small, sophisticated continental menu filled with winners from top to bottom.

The setting is small and sophisticated too. There are fewer than 20 tables, the tops covered with eggshell-colored cloths and the chairs covered with contrasting eggplant-hued upholstery. The high-beamed ceiling, exposed air ducts and walls are a bright white; landscape paintings in blues and violets provide a touch of color.

Virtually everything is well executed and a good value, especially at lunch, when entree prices are $3 to $4 less. The sauces in particular are nicely nuanced. Indeed, they play their supporting roles to perfection.

But dishes without sauce shine too. One of the best, fritto misto ($12.95), also is one of the simplest, with the calamari, flat fish, shrimp, scallops and zucchini sticks coated in a thin shell of tempura-like batter. Although listed as an entree, it could be shared as an appetizer.

Another good opener is the house-cured gravlax, thin slices of buttery salmon accompanied by a dill mustard sauce, capers and shaved onions.

Of the two soups I sampled, the crab soup in a cilantro-infused tomato base was delicious, while the pasta fagioli with black and white beans was pleasant but one-dimensional.

As for the rest of the menu, one notices the combination of French, American and Italian influences, the last a reflection of Serge Albert's association with the D.C. restaurant Tiberio and its Alexandria offspring, Terrazza and Tavola.

On recent visits, three stellar choices were a delicately sauced scaloppine Marsala and a pair of steaks -- a thinly sliced, perfectly cooked swordfish special topped with seafood and a light lobster sauce, and a rib eye coated with peppercorns and mustard seeds in a demiglace with white wine and Dijon mustard.

Almost as good was a chicken leg stuffed with shredded crab and the chicken Vesuviana, topped with eggplant slices, a wonderfully light tomato sauce and creamy mozzarella.

At lunch, I enjoyed the linguine with broccoli rabe, which was gloriously garlic flavored, although the dish would have benefited from the removal of several bitter, rubbery garlic cloves.

Service is efficient, there is a small, moderately priced wine list, and desserts can be selected from a large tray brought to the table.

You'll finish on a high note if you pick either a cheesecake-like Key lime pie or the regular cheesecake.