- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2002

The exterior of Monroe's resembles that of a modern nondescript bank in the low-key Alexandria neighborhood of Del Ray, where streets are lined with small, cozy homes and plenty of trees not your usual restaurant location. A look inside the large plate-glass windows, though, erases this impression at once.

The lively interior is cleverly designed with warm colors and bright murals painted by the late Susan Davis, a large inviting bar and a long row of red wine bottles on a partition above the booths that divides the dining room from the kitchen and workstations.

Monroe's calls itself "An American Trattoria." That doesn't begin to describe the charm that has kept regulars coming back for years, some of them supplying owners Laura and Mark Abraham with fresh flowers from local gardens to brighten the welcome desk.

A signature note is the uncorked bottle of wine called Vanti Rosso sitting on each table. It's an above-average table wine that costs $2.95 for each glass. Customers drink as much as they want and report to the waiter at the end of the meal Scout's honor the number of glasses they have poured.

Mr. Abraham, a lawyer by day for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and wine aficionado by night, has selected an extensive and inviting wine list. He has found many less common labels representing nearly all regions of Italy. He offers different single-glass specials on different nights to expose customers to less familiar wines, some of which are available for sale in bottles on site.

While sipping a glass of Italian syrah or chardonnay, ask for the reserve list to get a voyeur's palate-watering geographic tour explanation enough why Monroe's has won an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine five years in a row.

To say the list is "intelligent" misses the point. Mr. Abraham has done his homework without ever having been to Italy by choosing wines that go especially well with the food. A few choice California wines are included as well.

An extensive menu produced under the direction of chef Jesus Rodriguez, a native of Madrid, is given in Italian with an English translation. Sunday's brunch items, listed in English only, are standard but with a little extra flair. Even Sunday brunch fans get hungry for more than the usual, although the usual here is very good and reasonable.

The normal breakfast choices include a hash using house-made sausage. French toast comes with orange butter. A "carbonara omelet" is three eggs, applewood-smoked bacon, onions and vari-colored peppers. Eggs Monroe has poached eggs over wilted arugula and bits of sun-dried tomatoes on either polenta or English muffin, served with basil hollandaise and a small portion of fresh fruit on the side for $6.95. A flip of the brunch menu reveals pizza and pasta choices as well.

Vegetarians will be pleased to see a number of delectable salads, although none is large enough to be a main course on an empty stomach. (In an odd twist, anchovies on a $6.25 Caesar salad cost $1.25 extra.) Ingredients are fresh, and the dressings are just right. Hot vegetables accompany an entree plate of fritto misto, which is a gem. Lightly fried and tender calamari, shrimp and scallops are nicely enhanced by a sauce of lemon juice, butter, garlic and wine.

A cheese-and-garlic-laced white pizza appetizer is not too large to discourage continuing on to shrimp prepared with brandy, a sauce of green peppercorns and cream over pasta accompanied by a side plate of fresh vegetables.

The linguine with sausage was a bit dry one night, but generally the pastas are outstanding. A leg of lamb, ordered medium-rare on the rare side, was somewhat disappointing because of its presentation as small slices of decidedly unrare meat. The chef, who likes to offer a lamb dish nightly one of them uses feta cheese and dates probably shines best with fish. The scallops with basil looked alluring.

Desserts also are prepared on the premises, with the exception of the sorbets and cheesecake. Our table shared a delicious chocolate layer cake that had a rich mousse filling and fudge frosting. An unexceptional custard couldn't compare with the peach sorbet imported frozen from Italy and served in a real peach skin.

The atmosphere at Monroe's overall is comfortable and clean-cut Continental, reflecting Mr. Abraham's philosophy that "you don't have to put an edge on life." He grew up in the neighborhood in the 1950s the Abrahams just celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary and recalls riding his bike to the local deli for a soft drink.

When the Del Ray Cafe, the predecessor of Monroe's under different ownership, closed, the couple took it over, initially with Mr. Abraham's brother and sister-in-law. Maybe for that reason alone, families are welcomed heartily, especially for the early dinner hour.

Tables are covered with black vinyl and a sheet of crisp white paper, but the generous-sized napkins are cotton. Crayons are supplied for doodling. The fenced-in patio eating area along Monroe Street is bustling in good weather.

The outsized wooden bar a holdover from the days of the Del Ray Cafe, is another interior feature drawing customers. A large TV sits in the corner but doesn't intrude or elevate the sound level. Reservations are advised because even on a Thursday in August, every table was filled around 8 p.m.

RESTAURANT: Monroe's, 1603 Commonwealth Ave., Alexandria; 703/548-5792.

HOURS: Dinner and Sunday brunch only. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday brunch, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner, 5 to 9 p.m.

COST: Salads, $4.50 to $8.75; pizza, $8.25 to $12.50; appetizers, $4.25 to $6.95; soups, $3.25 to $4.25; pasta, $9.95 to $13.95; meat, $11.95 to $15.95; fish, $13.95; desserts, $4.95 to $5.95; wine by the glass, $2.95 to $7.50; bottles, $22 to $210 (the latter for what is described as "Italy's premier Cabernet"); draft beer, $3.50.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards except Diner's Club.

PARKING: Behind the building and on the street.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

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