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Belle Époque 

Jeanty at Jack's

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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I'm not always a huge fan of classic French cooking -- nothing is more dissatisfying than a poorly made version of a dish my grandparents might have ordered on their first date -- but then, it's not every day that I wander into a restaurant owned by Philippe Jeanty. In case you've never heard of him, M. Jeanty spent 20 years in the kitchen at Yountville's Domaine Chandon restaurant and winery before opening that town's highly regarded Bistro Jeanty. Both are a bit farther away than I normally care to drive. Fortunately, Jeanty has now made things easier for all of us city dwellers by opening Jeanty at Jack's on Sacramento.

There's lots to report here -- a big-name chef takes over a space that's been operating since shots were still being fired in the Civil War -- but the thing I really want to talk about is the tomato soup. A white tureen topped with a golden dome of puff pastry is set before you, the fortunate diner. Pierce the top with a spoon and behold a seemingly simple purée that will strike you with the force of satori at first taste. It's a pure, clean, voluptuous tomato flavor infused with enough butter and cream to keep the milkmaid busy until noon. Fold in chunks of pastry, and they retain a hint of crispness before succumbing to the richness of the soup. Puff pastry excepted, there's nothing elaborate about the dish, but it's hard to imagine tomato soup being better. The point is that such classics do have a place, especially when they're prepared under the watch of a master like Jeanty.

Few locales could be finer for enjoying such a magnificent soup than Jeanty at Jack's. From down the street, this squat brick building is reminiscent of something you'd find in an industrial district in Chicago. Step inside, though, and you realize that they just don't make brasseries like this anymore. The cafe-style first floor exudes a casual grandeur, with high ceilings adorned with elaborate molding, gleaming black-and-white tile floors, lace curtains, and a secluded mezzanine framed by wrought-iron railings. Servers in long aprons and black vests move with practiced grace, bearing trays of cocktails onto an elevator that may take them to the private dining rooms on the second floor, or perhaps to the main dining room on the third floor, a gorgeous space set under an enormous atrium. The kitchen hasn't yet hit full stride under chef de cuisine Sean Canavan, but at its best Jeanty at Jack's serves stunningly good versions of the classic bistro fare with which Jeanty made his name up in the Napa Valley.

Given the opulence of our surroundings, Elsbeth and I decided to order a grand meal. We began with aperitifs -- a tangy Papirusa manzanilla sherry and a barely sweet Lillet blanc over ice. The aperitifs occupy the first page of an extensive French-American wine list ($21-575), followed by page after page of white burgundies, chenins, syrahs, and Alsatian varietals. If you can't find something you like here, you've gotten too fancy for your own good. Among more than a dozen by-the-glass selections are a sharp, crisp Domaine des Vieux Pruniers sauvignon blanc, a softer, sweeter Château la Roque Coteaux du Languedoc blend, and an earthy, smooth La Cabotte Côtes du Rhône.

You may find it impossible to walk out of Jeanty at Jack's with your appetite intact. Our meal began with slices of crusty white bread that we dabbed with a mustard so hellfire hot it could clear a person's sinuses. We had tomato soup, of course, and a spectacular terrine de lapin -- a thick, pale slab of chunky rabbit pâté set over a mound of celery root-apple salad touched with a hint of mustard. Tart cornichons helped cut the richness of the pâté, and the plate was finished with a bright, fruity yellow bell pepper purée -- one of those brilliant flourishes that elevate the extraordinary to the divine. The soft-boiled-egg salad could easily have been a meal in itself. Here, a massive bowl of escarole came topped with a quivering oeuf that seemed to melt into the salad when we tossed it, mingling with a bacon vinaigrette so intense it seemed that an entire pig had been reduced to a thimbleful of pure porcine essence. Our least favorite starter was pike dumplings in lobster sauce. The dumplings had a wonderful, light texture, but the sauce was so rich that I found myself craving something to balance it.

Jeanty's entrees were less memorable. Monkfish and clam bouillabaisse engulfed our table with the unmistakable aroma of saffron, but its thin, watery broth tasted far too salty. The monkfish itself -- quickly sautéed, then drizzled with aioli -- was good but not earth-shattering; the bouillabaisse was finished with diced zucchini and adorable, postage stamp-size mini ravioli. We found no fault with the coq au vin, a homey mélange of potatoes, onions, decadent gravy, and chicken so tender it slid off the bones, but once again, it didn't move us as profoundly as the appetizers had. Two side dishes -- luxurious egg noodles with the coq, disappointingly bland haricots verts with the 'baisse -- seemed a tad overpriced at $4.50 a pop.

By that time we'd consumed so many calories that dessert seemed like a chore. Still, we mustered the strength to order a delectable, paper-thin crêpe suzette drizzled with mandarin liqueur and orange butter, and a Domaine de Durban Beaumes-de-Venise muscat, whose delicate apricot fragrance (not to mention its taste) could entrance a person for hours. With that, we decided to take a tour of the new digs. Upstairs, a luminous purple sky burned through the atrium windows as sophisticates sipped aperitifs in the private dining rooms. It was one of those upper-crust crowds, as if pulled from a society scene by Armistead Maupin. Was that DeDe Halcyon Day over by the elevator, sporting the latest in pointy shoes? And who was her husband Beauchamp ogling, the busboy or the waitress? As we headed for the door, a customer laid the straight dope on a hostess.

"Frankly," she said, "the French Laundry just doesn't compare to Bistro Jeanty."

I don't know whether that statement would hold up in court, but I do know that, room for improvement notwithstanding, Jeanty at Jack's is one of the best restaurants to open in the city during the past year. Skip the drive to Napa and cab it.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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