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Julia’s Kitchen-In Name Only

“There’s Julia’s Kitchen,” a woman visiting the new Copia center for wine, food and the arts trills excitedly to her friend. The two hurry to the reception area as if expecting to glimpse the octogenarian cookbook author and television star at the stoves. “Any chance of a reservation for lunch?” they ask.

“Sorry,” murmurs the approachable maitre d’, explaining that they’re fully booked. It’s dead-on winter in the Napa Valley, but Julia’s Kitchen is a hot ticket in the valley. On a soggy, cold day, the parking lot is packed at Copia, a $55-million museum and cultural center that opened in November. The brainchild of winemaker Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, Copia is named for the goddess of abundance.

From its inception, the project has provoked controversy in the largely blue-collar city that was left behind in the evolution of Napa Valley from grape-growing county to the Shangri-La of wine country lifestyle. That’s why the Julia Child connection is so important. Everybody loves Child, who turns 90 this year. I always have, certainly, and I especially appreciate her verve and great good sense in this era of politically correct cooking shows. Instead of attempting to dazzle the audience with ever more arcane tricks and tips, she simply cooks. Her warmth and unflappable optimism in the face of kitchen disasters cheered on a generation--or two--of fledgling cooks, most of whom had likely never tasted the French country dishes she made so enticing. This was armchair cooking in the very best sense.

Watching an old TV show recently, I caught Child playfully dancing a couple of sawed-off calves’ feet across the kitchen counter. Nobody would dare show anything so graphic these days. The gregarious Child added a big pinch of fun to middle-class Americans’ idea of cooking. With a wave of her wooden spoon, she enchanted an entire country.

That’s why most of us would jump at the chance to eat in Julia’s Kitchen. And that’s exactly what Copia’s management is counting on--a name that conjures up a kitchen redolent of garlic and goose fat. I’d love to taste how closely her cassoulet resembles the one I used to make from her first French cookbook every New Year’s.

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Julia’s Kitchen, however, has little to do with Child, other than that she has lent her name to it. Few can resist that wily charmer Robert Mondavi when he comes calling, and Child is no exception. As the fairy godmother of cooking, she’s for any project that dangles the possibility of bringing more people into the food-and-wine fold.

As much as it was meant as a tribute to Child, Copia’s use of her name is deceptive. Julia’s Kitchen, in fact, is run by a local catering company, Seasoned Elements. Given the Mondavis’ involvement in Copia and the couple’s intense interest in food and wine, it’s puzzling why they didn’t do the logical thing and install an independent restaurant in the space.

That said, executive chef Mark Dommen comes with quite a resume. A graduate of San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, he’s worked at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, Lespinasse in New York and as sous-chef for the late Jean-Louis Palladin in New York. Overall, the 75-seat restaurant is respectable, better than expected, but not brilliant. The designer has struck just the right note with the large, welcoming dining room with open kitchen and counter at one end. With its sleek, contemporary design, it feels a little like a gourmet dining hall, which is not a bad thing. The view is toward Copia’s olive trees and organic garden.

The menu reads like a compendium of everything fashionable in food right now and emphasizes quality ingredients. Copia’s garden supplies some of the herbs and vegetables.

One day at lunch with winemaker Helen Turley--dubbed a “wine goddess” by no less than wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr.--the chef sends out a little tribute: an intriguing sea urchin flan decorated with osetra caviar. There’s a lovely calamari salad special with frisee, blood orange and bouquets of mache that day, too. The calamari must be fresh, it has so much flavor. I was less fond of a messy beet and goat cheese salad.

Appropriately, many of the dishes have a classical underpinning, such as the subtle oxtail broth, its transparency broken with diced oxtail and vegetables, with a bone marrow flan sailing in the broth. Another good choice is the roasted onion and shrimp soup served with the aplomb of a three-star restaurant. Out comes a soup bowl with a few curls of shrimp and pearl onions. A server then pours in the saffron-yellow puree from a pitcher.

The kitchen suffers a bit from gourmet correctness, tending to undercook both risotto and beans. Seared shrimp garnished with deep-fried prosciutto come with beautiful pale green flageolet beans that aren’t cooked through. A sunchoke risotto features rice that’s both chalky-hard and gummy. The combination of nutty Jerusalem artichoke with the rice and herbs is wonderful, though. Both are embellished with sauces whipped to a foam, the latest in culinary pretension.

It makes sense with the delicious seared sea scallops, with yellowfoot chanterelles on a creamy potato puree swathed in a port wine reduction. Foam here might be construed to have something to do with the sea.

A dish I love is the seared foie gras paired with quince. The fruit’s tart component is an ideal foil for the duck liver’s richness, set in high relief by a Madeira sauce.

The service staff seems well-coached in the menu. I like the direct, easy way the waiter asks if we have any questions. No one should feel embarrassed about not knowing what chanterelles or osetra are. Waiters bring appropriate stemware for the wine and are careful not to pour too much in the glass. One even offered to decant the wine.

Main courses tend not to be as polished as first courses. The best dish I tried was steamed black sea bass in mushroom consomme. Encircled with dried baby shiitake and enoki mushrooms, the snowy filet is beautifully complemented by a light, musky consomme. Roasted monkfish, though, is dominated by a vinegary sauce.

Braised veal short ribs with custardy breaded sweetbreads sit in a natural jus splashed attractively around in a contemporary way. My Niman Ranch steak seems more steamed than grilled, but a swatch of parsley persillade makes a brilliant accompaniment. Somehow I don’t think Julia would be smitten with the double chocolate bread pudding topped with marshmallows. She might enjoy the trio of creme brulees better, or the apple consomme with green apple ice cream.

Bottom line: Julia’s Kitchen is a serious effort for a museum restaurant. If it had another name, though, I wouldn’t be left longing for the homey dishes Julia might have cooked.

Julia’s Kitchen

Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts

500 1st St.

Napa

(707) 265-5700

Cuisine: California-French

Rating: **

AMBIENCE: Light-filled contemporary museum restaurant with open kitchen.

SERVICE: Welcoming and thoughtful.

BEST DISHES: Oxtail broth, roasted onion and saffron soup, seared foie gras with quince, seared dayboat scallops, steamed black sea bass. Appetizers, $9 to $16. Main courses, $17 to $27. Corkage, $15.

WINE PICKS: 1998 Robert Mondavi Reserve Fume Blanc, Napa Valley; 1998 Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Petite Syrah, Napa Valley.

FACTS: Lunch Thursday through Monday. Dinner will be added in April. Lot parking.


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