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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).
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.
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.
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