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July 25-31, 2007

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First Bite

Le Bistro

By Joy Lanzendorfer

I had heard a lot about Le Bistro in Petaluma. After all, the restaurant, sitting unobtrusively on Petaluma Boulevard South a few blocks from downtown, has been there for 19 years. When people talk about Le Bistro, they mention owner and chef Corey Basso. Many call Basso a first-class chef, even a genius, but note that he is particular about how Le Bistro is run. One woman on the reviewing website Yelp compared him to the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. It all sounded a little intimidating, like I was going to a restaurant run by some sort of brilliant culinary dictator.

Imagine my surprise, then, at how pleasant Le Bistro is on the inside. The tiny restaurant has only 10 tables, but it feels far from crowded. In fact, there is enough space that you don't even feel like other diners are eavesdropping on your conversation. The atmosphere is peaceful, with a calming blue-and-white décor and the sounds of soft music and a fan whirring somewhere in the background.

Le Bistro's menu is simple: one soup and a list of salads and entrées. The prices are reasonable--$16 to $19 for a main course--and the portions are big enough to fill you up. I ordered the pork medallions, and my companion ordered the Dijon-crusted halibut. Both dishes came with the same vegetables, green beans, carrots and young asparagus spears fanned out on the plate. Only the potatoes varied; my companion's potatoes were mashed while mine were stacked in a small pile.

My three pork medallions sat in a well-developed red wine sauce. It was rich and clear with flavors of garlic, shallots and meat. The pork, however, was on the dry side. Although the medallions were not inedible, I found myself dipping them in the sauce to add missing moisture as much as flavor.

Without a doubt, my companion had the better dish. The halibut steak came sitting on a bed of mashed potatoes and floating in butter sauce. In the hands of a lesser chef, this dish could have been nauseatingly heavy, but this was beautifully blended, from the butter sauce tinged with the bite of capers to the smooth texture of the fish to the crunch of the mustard crust. I eyed his plate jealously as I dipped my pork in my sauce.

For dessert, I asked the waitress for a recommendation. She suggested the pecan walnut tart, which Basso has been making since the beginning. I was not disappointed. Like the halibut, the tart was perfectly balanced. The nuts retained their nutty flavor without being too raw or too syrupy. Underneath was a bed of sugary goodness and a flaky crust. It was topped with a whip cream almost lighter than air.

My companion tried the chocolate dessert, which was a chocolate port mousse with raspberries. The waitress told us the chef had recently started making the chocolate desserts in-house. Good decision; the mousse was delicious. Although I didn't taste any port, there were entire raspberries at the bottom of the mousse, which was an unexpected and lovely surprise.

Given the excellence of the entire meal, the dryness of my pork may have been an anomaly. In any case, Le Bistro is worth a visit. It offers well-rounded French-style food without a trace of pretension and--a rarity around here these days--a reasonable price.

Le Bistro, 312 Petaluma Blvd.S., Petaluma. Open for dinner,Wednesday-Sunday. 707.762.8292.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.