I SAY again: Bigger is not always better.

Every once in a while, a good chef abandons the heavy-turnover grind and winds up cooking what he knows best for fewer patrons, freed from the niceties of "concept" and trend and frill. Such is the case with Moroccan-born chef Larby Bouaichi, who has soldiered for a quarter-century through various French, Italian and Mediterranean establishments in the Washington area (Dominique's, BeDuCi, Il Ritrovo, Le Canard) before transforming an unremarkable strip-mall bar into a startlingly atypical pan-Med cafe.

Marrakesh de Paris is, in fact, the closest thing to a Parisian cafe you'll find for some miles around, and not solely because of its cosmopolitan patronage. Like those seemingly indifferent sidewalk boi^tes, it lacks any sort of real host or maitre d', is casually dismissive of reservations and seems to hope to get by on a handful of staffers, counting the kitchen (one waiter of the older school and a couple of extremely ingratiating assistants limited to deliveries and refillings).

Service has that very French combination of speed and leisure: You are expected to be quick with the menu, as the dishes are cooked to order, but somewhat relaxed in your expectations of service. (Indeed, some nights the restaurant seems unpredictably overwhelmed despite the many empty tables waiting to be bused, and the line of customers inexplicably ignored. No wonder Bouaichi often carries out his own plates.) You may get a mixed basket of a good focaccia, bread sticks and French white, or a flabbier white, though all bread is served with both butter and a tasty eggplant spread, something like a combination of baba ghanouj and Boursin.

Some nights you might get a classic palate-cleanser of lemon sorbet, sometimes not. "No wine list," the waiter announces firmly, and rattles off the choices -- which wouldn't be a bad thing except for the unexpected markup. The offhand mention of a Chateauneuf de Pape elicits a B&G (Barton & Guestier), which later appears on the bill at $45 a bottle.

And for all that, if I lived nearby, it would be one of my neighborhood hangouts. Because Bouaichi's cooking makes me quietly happy. Not elated, not sated, not intrigued or quizzical. Just . . . satisfied. Merci. Shukran. Pass the pillow.

Let me say right off that I haven't covered the whole menu, which includes a fair number of French and Italian dishes (and a few of what I call mid-Atlantic continental), though I have dabbled enough -- the odd gnocchi and ravioli, the not-overrich and generously portioned duck liver pate{acute} and a couple of the half-dozen duck treatments -- to feel fairly secure about it. But I find it hard to stray from Bouaichi's North African-style dishes, which are still generally listed as nightly specials even though they're the centerpiece of the place. He's a master of a handful of elements -- rabbit, duck, shellfish, puff pastry and couscous -- and can mix and match them, along with some carefully tendered veggies and equally well-rendered broths, into perhaps 25 dishes that make me homesick for a country I haven't even visited.

Marrakesh de Paris is not exactly cheap (even without the wine), but you get a lot for your money; an order of rack of lamb looked to be at least a double. Harira, a moderately spicy Moroccan lentil-tomato soup with pasta and garbanzos, has a deep-roasted flavor, and the lobster bisque is good if not breathtaking. Another special, a cream of cauliflower with hidden treasures of diced black olives and a green swirl of olive oil, was well-nigh fabulous.

Bastilla is the most Persian of North African dishes, a pastry dome filled (traditionally) with chicken or squab, almonds (and/or hazelnuts and pistachios) and powdered sugar. Bouaichi's versions go a little further afield -- the chicken has raspberry sauce, the duck an orange sauce, etc. -- but he makes his own filo dough, and it shows.

Couscous is often used to refer to any North African dish with semolina involved, but it's actually the grain itself, and in fact its correct steaming and seasoning is a matter of pride. Bouaichi makes several versions: lamb and merguez (and his homemade merguez, the spicy lamb sausage so often served dry and hard, is first-rate), chicken, duck, a mixed fish and seafood and a vegetarian version, each with well-considered seasonings. One night's special version featured jarret de veau a{grv} la Tunisienne -- a slice of veal shank, or osso buco, flavored with cinnamon and caraway -- which despite the amusing misnomer of "Janet de veau" was the equal of any osso braised in town, accompanied by non-mushy garbanzo beans, zucchini, carrots, cabbage and potato-size wedges of butternut squash.

The tagines (a sort of braised stew, usually with some citrus) are more delicate and less intensely fruit-preserved than some versions, but the cleverly reconceived recipes are refreshing. Among the best are two lamb versions, one with prunes and carrots and another with artichoke hearts, peas and potatoes; a chicken with lemon baldi (a sort of honeyed marmalade); and an occasional vegetarian version with sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant, cukes, prunes, potatoes, olives, harissa (a chili condiment) and Chermoula, the lemon-parsley-garlic-pepper grind. Bouaichi even makes a paella worth the name, with small-pearl rice, tangible saffron and tender seafood, including those tiny octopuses, topped with a shrimp the size of a rock lobster.

There are a few less satisfying dishes. Stuffing a bastilla with mixed seafood and cellophane noodles only sogs the pastry (and the Chermoula sauce was much too reticent); red snapper with lobster and crab in a puff pastry seems to hold up better. A sort of antipasto salad was marred by tuna that tasted like the vacuum-pouch version. And that quite frothy sorbet would be more easily negotiated with something smaller than a tablespoon.

But I'm not worried. I just hope it stays small. I want that "Janet" again.

Marrakesh de Paris's lamb tagine is more delicate than most versions.