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Jack's back

By Paul Reidinger

THE DISCREET CHARM of the bourgeoisie is nowhere more attractively displayed in the Bay Area than at Bistro Jeanty, the Yountville restaurant opened a few years ago by longtime Domaine Chandon chef Philippe Jeanty. The rural-village setting helps to soften the moneyed edges of the clientele; the mood is relaxed, casual; the food hearty and unforced, but subtly full of style – a dream of French cooking.

It would be a real coup to translate Bistro Jeanty's bewitching aura to a city setting, and Jeanty's new venture, Jeanty at Jack's, attempts to do just that. The menu is, like that of the Yountville sibling, replete with the dishes of la France profonde: steak frites, coq au vin, rillettes, mussels, bouillabaise. And the setting is, in its metropolitan way, just as elegantly restrained, though the vertiginous (and, of late, frequently reincarnated) old Jack's space, with its multiple floors, staircases, and mezzanines, does offer quite a lot of visual spectacle (you can sit directly above the bar and peer down at the tops of the heads of your fellow patrons) as well as a kind of aerobic-conditioning course for service staff, who are forever dashing up and down with Olympic determination, balancing glasses, goblets, and platters of various shapes and sizes (some quite dramatically oblong) as they do so.

So, yes, the stress level is higher, for customers and employees alike. You might, if you were feeling generous, describe the restaurant's temper as "bustling," at least at lunch – because that's when the action is. Jeanty at Jack's is in fact two restaurants: a crowded, slightly insane, extremely expensive noontime spot for upper-echelon downtowners and, in the evening, something much closer to its leisurely cousin in the country. It is a starkly schizophrenic juxtaposition, Jekyll and Hyde curiously inverted so that the restaurant's more appealing face shows itself after dark.

If you've ever eaten at one of the innumerable bistros that are the glory of dining in Paris, you will immediately feel at home with Jeanty's dinner menu. Perhaps, as I did on my first trip to Paris, you managed to confuse poireaux with poivrons when ordering and were served, instead of the grilled peppers you thought you'd asked for, a plate of grilled leeks. You'll make no such mistake at Jeanty at Jack's, since the menu is in English, and you won't be disappointed in the dish itself ($7.50), a green-and-white stalk of leek grilled to tenderness (and handsomely marked with golden-brown crisscrossings), split lengthwise like a log, and dressed with a mustard vinaigrette and crumblings of hard-boiled egg.

If that doesn't appeal, there's Jeanty's signature tomato soup ($6.50), served in a steep-sided crock topped with a swelling pastry cap that resembles a round-cone volcano about to blow. It's a simple, elegant, and fascinatingly involving dish to eat – and the soup, creamy with bits of tomato, is a triumphant exercise in straightforwardness.

In fact, that can be said for most of the menu, from an excellent, if very rich, steak frites ($24) – the delicately crunchy potatoes served in a paper cup beside the rib eye – to a classic sole meunière, perched on a reef of mashed potato and so rich in capers that it looks as if someone has sprayed the plate with buckshot. The desserts, too, are confident executions of French classics: crepe suzette ($9), sprawlingly open-faced and dusted with powdered sugar over a bed of orange butter, and crème brûlée ($8), an almost cheesecake-like custard topped with a layer of chocolate.

The dinner prices, though not low, are reasonable in light of the setting, the quality of the food and service, and the downtown location. The shock of the lunchtime prices is that they are, for all practical purposes, the same. Bouillabaise, $22.50? That seems a bit steep, though the dish is less an evocation of the classic fish soup/stew of Marseilles than an elaboration of monkfish, with some clams and mussels thrown in for counterpoint and the usual potatoes dumped in favor of tiny ravioli.

The beef stew ($17.50) is, like the bouillabaise, flawless as a matter of cooking: meat that couldn't be more tender and, underneath, carrot coins and mashed potatoes melting together in a pool of reduction gravy. But that would be a stiff price for any lunch, and this plate isn't even especially big.

The staff's attitude was noticeably less cosseting during the lunch rush than it had been at dinner. Everyone was all business, as perhaps was only appropriate, given the businessy flavor of the clientele. There was no slipup in correctness, but all the same, we did not feel entirely welcome, and when we did some stargazing from our perch at the end of the mezzanine – as at Postrio, the open, many-layered setup encourages social surveillance – I did feel a faint whiff of disapproval, as if we were slowing table turnaround and not spending enough money to boot.

We were as relieved to step out of Jeanty at Jack's at lunch as we had been wistful to leave after dinner. And whose were the footfalls we thought we caught behind us – Jekyll's or Hyde's? Hard to be sure; a question most safely pondered over ... dinner.

Jeanty at Jack's. 615 Sacramento (at Montgomery), S.F. (415) 693-0941. Lunch: daily, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner: daily, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Full bar. Tolerable noise level. Wheelchair accessible.