The brioche arrives hot, along with two butters_one with anchovies and the other mixed with goat cheese. The appetizers disappear, one at a time, at a carefully measured pace_little, edible objets d'art.

At 8:30, the small dining room is full of customers, a well-dressed group but not as elegant as one might expect considering that the restaurant Jean Louis at Watergate leaves its guests well filled but about $200 a couple lighter at evening's end.

Service is efficient, not officious. Silverware is replaced after every course; used dishes and utensils disappear discreetly. Marcia Martino, the 100 percent American maitre d', is irrepresibly chipper, chatting up the guests as they arrive. Captains, waiters and waitresses move smoothly, working gracefully to put guests at ease. Soft lighting behind the teak shantung squares draped around the walls gives the room a warm, relaxed air.

A single swinging door separates the calm of the dining room from the carefully orchestrated frenzy of the kitchen. Jean Louis Palladin, the chef, is marshaling his troops. Used pans are literrally tossed, sizzling, into Ismael the pot scrubber's sink. When Ismael is a beat slow in returning an instrument to him, Jean Louis switches from French to Spanish, urging him on with a terse but not unfriendly, "Amigo! Amigo!"

Nine people labor and create in the tres petite kitchen, a triangular room with not an inch of wasted space. The support troops man the perimeter. Jean Louis' grill, oven and work table are squeezed into the middle.

Jean Louis prepares most of the 14 dishes on the menu, pressing his face within inches of the plate as he places part of a poached lobster in the center, and then carefully, precisely arranges a dozen or so fava beans. He dips his middle finger into the basil sauce, tastes it, then dips his finger into the sauce a second time, tasting again before laddling it onto the lobster.

There is no loafing here, no singing, no small talk--just nine comets that never collide. Jean Louis is on his feet for four or five hours straight, perpetual motion personified. When he finally sits down on a stool at 11:15, the phone rings. It's the fish purveyor asking for Monday's order.