What Nowe!

1118 King St.

Alexandria

683-4989

Hours: Lunch 8:30 a.m to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Prices: Lunch appetizers $3.25 to $4, sandwiches and entrees $5.50 to $8.50. Dinner soups and appetizers $3.50 to $6.75, entrees $12.75 to $18.75. Cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard. Nonsmoking area available.

What Nowe! may sound like a contrived name until one discovers that the chef and part-owner is Dennis Anthony Nowe and that much of what he produces deserves the exclamation mark.

Not only does his contemporary, eclectic palate in the kitchen make this an interesting, spritely and winning endeavor, but his sculpture and paintings also decorate the walls.

The setting for Nowe's inventiveness is an intimate, even a bit cramped, room with a sophisticated black and white motif. There is an upstairs cafe for light fare where live folk-jazz is available from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. Saturdays.

The cooking, too, is sophisticated and cosmopolitan, sometimes combining several cuisines in one dish. For example, there is the delightful shrimp and chevre cheese empanada with Asian fish sauce, and an equally distinctive appetizer of fresh salmon cured in cilantro and tequila with a spicy Thai cucumber vinaigrette.

The black and white decor is mirrored in such dishes as the good, cumin-sparked black bean soup with a dollop of sour cream, and the slightly less successful black ravioli stuffed with white cheese.

Salads, too, are a work of art. The peppery and tender arugula leaves with tart red grapefruit sections and crunchy jicama slivers in a sweet orange Campari dressing tastes as good as it looks.

The thinking that goes into the entrees tends to be less iconoclastic except, perhaps, for the chicken ravioli. It is worth ordering because it's paired with a smoldering, earthy mole sauce ($13.75). As for other entrees, I enjoyed the large, sweet shrimp flavored with lemon zest and strewn with shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. It is served with rice ($15.75).

I also would recommend the potpourri of delicate scallops, pungent sausage and smoky chicken in a golden sauce crowned with a puff pastry ring ($14.50), and a flavorful beef tenderloin glazed with the sweetness of melon but modified by the saltiness of green olives ($16).

Lunches offer an opportunity to sample some of the chef's creativity for about half the dinner entree prices. There is a terrific pickled ginger butter sauce that enhances an already delicious crab cake ($8). (But tell the kitchen to hold the so-so tomato sauce that also comes with the crab cake.)

Two other good lunch entrees were the salad with grilled tuna, roasted peppers and goat cheese ($7), and the perfectly cooked and seasoned pan-fried catfish, although it is accompanied by bland bacon and cheese grits ($7.50).

Beverages range from a refreshing carrot-cantaloupe cooler to a Thai sweetened iced coffee, espresso, cappuccino and several boutique beers and moderately priced wines.

The desserts are decent, but not quite up to the rest of the menu. If I wanted to finish on a sweet note, I would go for the slices of dense, fudgy chocolate pate' with both a strawberry sauce and a rich vanilla custard cream garnished with fresh dates.