A Taste of Tuscany
Basil's Classic Italian Fare
Fri., July 26, 1996
900 W. Tenth, 477-5576
Long vulgarized to please North American tastes, Italian cooking has recently gone haute. Many Parisian chefs now betray their beloved butter and serve high-priced Tuscan olive oil with bread. Here in the States, trendy restaurants toss Italian staples like polenta and arborio rice into the culinary blender, treating them in the same cavalier fashion as they do, say, lemongrass or ancho chiles. But these new contexts may strip Italian cuisine of its soul, in the same way as the old spaghetti-and-meatballs-with-cheap-Chianti treatment ruined its divergent flavors.
Anyone who has spent time in Italy will assure you that the true genius of the country's food must be sought not in complicated restaurant preparations, but rather in home fare. For this reason, Austin diners should not forget Basil's, which specializes in homestyle Italian. Its menu will not dazzle you with innovation -- no seared duck breast over sundried tomato-alfredo sauced cracked peppercorn linguine here. Instead, the menu reads a little bit like the index of Marcella Hazan's masterwork, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. This is a virtue, for the Hazan manner, homey as it is, demands of its disciples rigorous care. Basil's delivers.
For my taste, the kitchen performs most strongly with pasta, poultry, and red meat. The Paglia e Fieno ($9.75) places house-made spinach and egg pasta under a cream sauce of prosciutto, mushrooms, and peas. The combination may sound simple, but the light sweetness of cream and peas, offset by salty prosciutto and earthy mushrooms, gives the dish elegance and verve. Even simpler and just as elegant is the Fettucine Allo'uovo ($8.25), which dares dress fresh egg pasta with only a garlicky butter sauce. All of the pastas are offered as half orders; these two make particularly excellent appetizers.
I often find chicken dull in restaurants, but under the tutelage of these cooks, the humble bird soars. The Pollo Saltimbocca ($14.95) places a perfectly cooked, flattened chicken breast under a sauté of prosciutto and mushrooms. What makes it fly is a sublime Chianti-sage butter sauce. Here we find elemental Italian ingredients combined without pretension, and to fine effect. Equally well-prepared are the veal scallopini dishes. I loved the Vitello alla Vertucci ($14.95), tender veal in a tomato-based marsala sauce. Next time, I should like to try the Picatta di Vitello ($13.95), in which veal scallopini is sautéed with garlic, lemon, capers, and white wine.
In addition to its menu, the place also offers an array of nightly specials that allow the cooks to stretch themselves out a bit. They all sounded wonderful, and the one I opted for, Beef Tenderloin in a Port Reduction with Gorgonzola and Portabellas, fulfilled its promise. The beef, a fine cut cooked to a rosy medium rare and perfectly charred on the outside, could almost stand on its own. But the savory sauce underscored without overwhelming its flavor, and the cheese added Italian flair.
This plate, and indeed all the ones described above, practically cry out for wine. Happily, Basil's carries one of the most extensive and informative wine lists in town. Its Italian section is the most impressive, but France, Spain, and California also get proper respect. For a meal that included crab, redfish in gorgonzola sauce, plus the beef tenderloin and pasta dishes described above, our table followed the waitress' advice and ordered Le Volte 1992 ($21), a Tuscan red. This supple wine wrapped itself around all the myriad flavors, clashed with none and mingled beautifully with the gorgonzola.
If there is an objection to be raised with Basil's, it lies in the steamed vegetables that accompany each entrée. These are perfectly well-prepared, but don't render justice to every dish. For example, they work fine as a respite from the rich beef tenderloin, but the chicken and veal preparations call for something more racy and imaginative. The Italian vegetable repertoire brims with ingenious creations; Hazan's aforementioned book devotes nearly 100 loving pages to the topic. Geared to specific entrées, varied vegetable sides could push the Basil's dining experience to an even higher level. Also mildly disappointing are the seafood choices. The special blue crab appetizer tasted fine, but deep frying that fine specimen in corn meal seemed a somewhat coarse treatment. The redfish in gorgonzola sauce, too, finds itself crusted in cornmeal, when a more delicate technique would seem appropriate.
But in view of the entire Basil's experience, these complaints reduce to trifles. Desserts, such as chocolate torte with espresso buttercream on creme anglaise, taste as decadent as they sound. The old-house setting provides a relaxed feel, so different from the high-powered and edgy atmosphere for which too many of our fine-dining establishments strive. And the service is just right for the food. On both of my trips to Basil's I drew the same waitress, who behaved like a calm hostess determined to take care of her guests. She displayed easy knowledge of wine and food alike, and guided us through the menu in expert fashion. For those of us too unlucky to ever dine at the table of some superb Tuscan matron, Basil's surely provides a respectable substitute. n