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Museum of Food 

Bringing the galleries of Copia alive, French-style

Wednesday, Feb 12 2003
I hadn't planned on visiting Copia, the year-old American Center for Wine Food & the Arts (as it styles itself), in Napa that day. I wasn't planning on going to Napa at all. It was a glorious afternoon, I was driving up to meet friends for dinner at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, and I thought I'd explore that tiny town, largely unseen in my three previous visits, when I'd gotten there just in time for a lunch or dinner reservation at the French Laundry and driven away, sated, afterward. And in case the attractions of Yountville paled, I had a book to read in its little park.

But I was tempted by a roadside sign that accomplished its aim in the simplest possible way: I think it said "Turn left here for Copia." And I did.

I like museums in general. I guess I like regular old art museums the best, though I've spent a lot of time in, oh, museums devoted to history and science and nature and design and just about anything you can devote a museum to, such as dolls or bananas or Freud. (Those last three neatly dovetail with my fondness for obsession in all forms.) But if you were to construct a museum just for me, one in which I could wander through lightly, as in a dream, enjoying every exhibit and the thought behind it, you could do a whole lot worse than Copia. (I remember going through the permanent collection at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena with a friend, and telling him, guilelessly, that I had a weakness for food-themed art, and that I could feel my responses growing in ardor from still lifes featuring fruit or vegetables to those with fish or meat, greater still for kitchen or dining-room scenes, and even more for the rare paintings of restaurants. We were standing in front of a massive and glorious 17th-century Flemish painting of heaps of fruits and vegetables piled over and under and around a sturdy wooden table, and I could tell he thought I was nuts.)

Anyway, I'm just the sucker for "Forks in the Road," Copia's permanent exhibit featuring interactive food quizzes on computers, cases full of labor-saving kitchen devices and foodstuffs enshrined in equal parts as art and history, and clips of eating scenes from movies projected on a wall. I pick my favorites among the antique chocolate molds displayed in "True to Form" (I like the cartoon characters -- and the knife, fork, and spoon, of course). I'm too late to taste the savory bread pudding with garden greens and aged goat cheese that was the day's lobby freebie, but I snag a copy of the recipe. I'm so enchanted by the almost overwhelming calendar of daily lectures, wine tastings, films, and performances that I become a museum member on the spot: I am now, officially, a Peach. (I consider joining at the pricier level of Stringbean, but decide that, alas, the name is inappropriate.)

I drive the few miles to Yountville. Entering Bistro Jeanty is like walking into another gallery of Copia: It's a perfectly propped bistro, from the signage to the hard-boiled-egg stand on the bar's counter, familiar not just from trips to Paris or Nice, but from hundreds of French movies. The only jarring note is the television hung above the small bar, but it's playing Jacquot de Nantes, Agnés Varda's loving tribute to her husband Jacques Demy, the perfect idealized picture of French life in this idealized bistro.

My friends Tom and Arlene arrive; they're in Napa doing research for their new wine newsletter, Swirl. We choose, among the dozen appetizers and an equal number of main courses, saumon fumé maison (home-smoked salmon), an unusual rillettes de canard (duck instead of the more familiar pork, and this version contains goat cheese), and pieds de cochon (when I inquire how the pig's feet are prepared, having enjoyed whole trotters, I'm told it's a terrine), followed by cassoulet, moules au vin rouge, and coq au vin. (I also bow to the menu's suggestion and order a side of buttered egg noodles -- "yummy with coq au vin.")

The food is uniformly good and prettily plated, and the service is excellent -- we're offered additional toast for the rillettes even before the first plate disappears. The salmon is especially buttery; the rillettes taste as fatty as expected, even with the unobtrusive goat cheese. The green beans that come with my nicely gelatinous, parsleyed pig's feet terrine are brilliantly green and sweet against their sharpish dressing. I still have the eerie sensation that Bistro Jeanty is an adjunct of Copia, as though we're eating in a museum of food.

This feeling continues through the textbook crumb-encrusted cassoulet (Tom works his way through the entire crockful), the mussels, and the dark, smoky coq au vin. We're eating rather winning, accurate French comfort food. No revelations, but happy mouths. We finish with a deceptively simple rice pudding crowned with seductive brandied cherries, a warm bread pudding with house-made ice cream that Arlene finds the perfect marriage of hot and cold, and a tarte Tatin that exhibits the first flaw of our extremely correct meal: It's mushy.

I enlist my parents and my Aunt Muriel to join me for dinner at Jeanty at Jack's, the fraternal restaurant of Bistro Jeanty that took over the multistoried building previously home to the venerable business district restaurant from 1864 until December of 2000. (Unlike the historic Sam's and Tadich's, Jack's operated continually in the same location.) Among my three companions, they've spent years in France and enjoyed many meals at Jack's, in its original incarnation (listed in Doris Muscatine's 1963 A Cook's Tour of San Francisco as a French restaurant, its specialties including calf's head vinaigrette, tripe, and frog's leg sautéed sec or poulette). Jack's was sold in 1996 to John Konstin, who renovated the place, reopened in 1998, and sold the building in 2000 as office space. It was rescued from that fate by Philippe Jeanty, who opened Jeanty at Jack's last year.

I'm depending on my relatives' memories, since mine, from one or two meals at Jack's as a child, are impressionistic and blurry -- almost literally, because I remember lots of well-suited businessmen smoking during their multicourse repasts. Theirs seem a little blurry, too: While I'm a bit stunned by how fresh and clean the place is (Jack's was always somewhat worn), they're remembering that the first floor was much deeper, that the staircase went up to the second floor, and that there was no mezzanine (where we're seated).

The menu is twice as big in format as Bistro Jeanty's, but among the 19 appetizers (divided into les charcuteries et pates, les entrees, and two listed under the heading "bistro ... bistro!") are the dozen familiar from Bistro Jeanty; I've seen most of the dozen main courses there, too. (Oddly, the menu at Bistro Jeanty is somewhat more Frenchified; here the crème de tomate en croute is called plain tomato soup in puff pastry.)

We start with quenelles de brochet, lamb tongue-and-potato salad, the tomato soup, and petit salé, or cured pork belly, parenthesized as the chef's favorite (though it's not on his menu at Bistro Jeanty). The tomato soup, under its buttery lid, is not very compelling, made as it is with February tomatoes, but the quenelles are properly light beneath their rich, creamy sauce. The lamb tongue salad is universally enjoyed, its crunchy, stringy frisée lettuce an admirable foil for the cubed meat. I've had lusher renditions of the cured pork belly (this one could almost pass for a thick slice of bacon), but it comes with lovely stewed lentils and a surprisingly big chunk of perfectly seared custardy foie gras.

After such a promising beginning, I'm almost taken aback by the lackluster impression made by our main courses. The daube de boeuf is a touch dry, and its mashed potatoes are cold. The veal osso buco "blanquette," almost as dry, is neither an osso buco (the meat is off the bone, though there's a wee marrow bone in its midst) nor a blanquette. Its advertised light mushroom cream is a dark and not particularly creamy sauce. The fat cote de porc, though still pink at the core, is also on the juiceless side, ameliorated somewhat by its tasty caramelized onion sauce and sautéed spinach. I choose the monkfish and clams over the sole meunière, expecting more flavor than I get from its saffron broth and squiggles of mild aioli.

The service is not nearly as adroit as we had at Bistro Jeanty, either: We have to instruct the server in that slightly foolish litany of "I'm the fish, she's the veal" for every course. More than the crème caramel, lemon meringue tart, or crêpes sort-of-suzette (on the dry side, again) that we get for dessert, I enjoy my mother's tale of the time she was invited to Jack's for an ostensible business dinner by an old friend and was shocked to be escorted to a private room on the third floor, with a bed clearly visible in an alcove. Unlike Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, who sang, "Isn't this the height of nonchalance/ Furnishing a bed in restaurants!" in Funny Girl, my mother informed her would-be seducer that she preferred to dine downstairs. (Nowadays the third floor is above reproach and beneath the stars, visible through a stunning new skylight.)

No restaurant, not even one in continuous operation for decades, can be encased in aspic. (Or, even worse, mummified.) Change can both confound (when the gifted Anne Rosenzweig came in to freshen up the kitchen of New York's 21 Club, the regulars forced her to restore the unremarkable burger and bland chicken hash) and resurrect (the equally brilliant Lydia Shire brought Boston's Locke-Ober back from a long, slow suicide by banishing frozen seafood and floury sauces). Jeanty doesn't pretend to be Jack's, though the line "An elegant restaurant in the heart of San Francisco since 1864" on its Web site is a bit coy. The history and art of the bistro is honored at Bistro Jeanty. But what was on exhibit for us at Jeanty at Jack's that night was a little dusty.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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