What makes a handful of restaurants stand alone as gastronomic theaters is not just prices such as $100 or more per person, but also an emphatic intention to treat food as art. Jean Louis, for one, is a restaurant where you go to have your eye delighted, your palate teased, your artistic sensibilities challenged. Dinner is not appetizer-main course-two vegetables-dessert, but four or more courses of studied presentations, the main course identifiable by the fact that it is red meat, veal or game rather than seafood or rareties such as foie gras or wild mushrooms.

As long as you are having a half-dozen courses, you can accept one -- or two -- being only intellectually exciting rather than scrumptious. The layered terrine of multicolored noodles with foie gras, for instance, is a lot of dull starch on the tongue, though an interesting idea and quite attractive. And squab with dates, honey and cumin was thickly and cloyingly sweet last time I tasted it -- though the same preparation of duck, previously, had its sweetness restrained. The more serious problem is that some days the restaurant misses with more than a couple of dishes and, at such prices, that is intolerable.

That said, the main point is that Jean Louis Palladin is a brilliant chef, and the restaurant is normally worthy of his name. Dinner starts delectably with his squid tempura -- airy puffs -- or some such teaser, and then is accompanied by extraordinary brioche slices with anchovy butter. You choose a multicourse dinner, accompanied if you like by a glass of wine chosen for each course. And then come beautiful creations of the season -- when zucchini is flowering, the blossoms will be stuffed with lobster mousse and sauced with truffle butter; foie gras will be saut,eed with peaches or pears or whatever fruit is best at the moment. There might be two contrasting sauces on the salmon, a soup or flan of silver queen corn with baby scallops. And for meat courses, an herb-infused roast lamb of outstanding flavor and melting texture or veal stuffed with wild mushrooms.

Desserts at Jean-Louis can be very good -- or astonishingly good. If you have the option of something prepared to order -- a butterscotch millefeuille or a lime souffl,e, for instance -- don't turn down the opportunity. In fact, you might order such a creation when you telephone for a reservation. Otherwise, from the cart, pay special attention to the tarts.

This small restaurant is high styled and luxurious. Its service is serious and painstaking. It is not impeccable, but it is indeed exciting. 2650 Virginia Ave. NW. 298- 4488. L $30, D $55-$80. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, C, DC, MC, V. Res req. Full bar.