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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.
Yountville, CA 94599
Jeanty at Jack's
Petit salé $12
Lamb tongue-and-potato salad $9.50
Quenelles de brochet $12
Cote de porc $18.50
Bistro Jeanty, 6510 Washington (at Mulberry), Yountville, (707) 944-0103. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: moderate.
Jeanty at Jack's, 615 Sacramento (at Montgomery), 693-0941. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 1, 10, 15. Noise level: moderate.
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.
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