The lore is that it takes 10 years of constant practice to master a craft. If that's true, then Chef Corey Basso is a master better than twice over, as he's been refining his French and Italian specialties at Le Bistro in Petaluma for the past 26 years.
His food displays that mastery. Instead of trying all sorts of new dishes, he's polished his staple recipes until you can see — and taste — the perfection. His strategy is to keep things simple, but to make what's on the plate flawless. This not only reveals the chef's art, but it makes the meal wonderfully satisfying.
For example, consider his treatment of a common dish like Fettucini with Prawns ($15.50, 4 stars). At many restaurants, a dish like this simply throws together some cooked, shelled prawns with pasta that may or may not be cooked al dente. A sauce is mixed in, and if you're lucky, a waiter comes by with a block of cheese and a grater and asks if you want some. Not so at Le Bistro. The dish leaves the kitchen in completion.
First, the fettucini defines perfect pasta texture — not mushy, not underdone. Second, the pasta is given a lovely vodka cream sauce with flecks of chopped parsley, an artifact of Chef Basso's training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where he learned his craft. He adds just the right amount of sauce; too much would make the dish gloppy.
The shrimp aren't big Gulf jumbos, either, but rather medium-sized, steamed, peeled, and butterflied. Most places that serve butterflied shrimp simply cut a line down the concave surface of the body and then turn the crustacean inside out. But each of these shrimps is butterflied in the classic way, where the head end is split and pulled apart so it really does resemble butterfly wings. A simple thing, but it all takes work, and it's lovely to see what look like butterflies landing on the pasta. Finally, piquant pecorino romano sheep's milk cheese is shredded to a fine fluff and lightly tossed over the surface of the dish, like snow. If this sounds delicious, it is.
A Grilled Lamb Tenderloin ($21, 4 stars) reminds us that French cooking was long the world's standard of gastronomic excellence. The tender meat is grilled to a perfect medium-rare and served in a port-wine reduction that's more like a lamb jus than a heavy, rich sauce. The faint aroma of rosemary marries with the lamb's flavor. The plate includes shaved asparagus, haricots verts green beans, and roasted potatoes, each vegetable expertly cooked.
The wine list relies heavily on Italian wines, and why not, as they're fine food wines. The rest are local, with a smattering of wines from Washington State, New Zealand, and a couple from France's Loire Valley. Prices are modest, with most bottles in the $20-$30 range.
Dinner started with a creamy and focused Tomato and Red Bell Pepper Soup ($5.50, 3 stars) given a green swirl of pesto. Garden-fresh lettuces and chicories in the Mixed Green Salad ($7.50, 3 stars) were sprinkled with toasted pecans and dressed with a cassis vinaigrette and little lumps of blue cheese. Another appetizer consisted of eight slices of (impossibly ripe for this time of year) Roma Tomatoes ($7.50, 3 stars) topped with bits of fresh chevre and sparked up with olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing with pesto on the side.
Returning to the entrees, our table tried the Grilled Boneless Chicken Breast ($16.75, 4 stars) to see whether this chef had mastered the art of cooking a breast so it is at once cooked through yet succulently juicy. Yes, he has. It's grilled to a light char on the outside and fully cooked and tender inside, with no stringiness. It comes with a creamy Dijon mustard sauce that's so light you could mistake it for a lemon-butter sauce. Accompanying mashed potatoes were so light they nearly floated off the plate, and again the vegetables — asparagus and haricots — were outstanding.
A piece of moist Apple Spice Cake ($6, 3-1/2 stars), redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg, came with whipped cream, vanilla gelato, and fresh strawberries.