Basil is a part of the “Fourth Avenue Restaurant Row” in the Short North, which includes The Surly Girl Saloon, Barrel 44, and eventually a new Jimmy V’s Grill & Pub. No one has ever referred to those restaurants with that label, but I am. These four restaurants sit practically on top of each other, and each offers a wildly different environment, atmosphere and menu.
Basil is a Thai concept which opened two years ago by Rhome Ruanphae. According to their website, it was modeled after a similar restaurant concept in Chicago operated by his mother. The menu is composed of primarily traditional Thai dishes, with a handful of Chinese staples.
On the flip side, the decor is retro/modern/industrial with exposed brick walls, dark wood tones, and extremely dim (almost too dim) lighting. Despite the contrast between the classic dishes and the modern decor, the restaurant feels intimate and comfortable and makes for a great venue whether you’re bar hopping or grabbing a quick lunch. They have also been hosting monthly Quality dance parties which are on Gallery Hop Saturday and prove to be a great time.
Upon my most recent visit to Basil, I started off with an order of the Egg Rolls ($4.50 for two) which are quite a bit different than your standard pork-and-cabbage Chinese take-out variety. These fried spring roll wrappers are filled with a mixture of ground chicken, thin vermicelli noodles, carrots and sprouts. I found that the ingredient changes make for a nice departure from the norm. They may even be my favorite egg rolls in the city! The sauce is a pretty standard sweet & sour dip, but it gets the job done.
The Cucumber Salad ($5) is a clean and simple veggie medley of cucumber slices, red onions and carrot bits, finished with a vinaigrette-based dressing and topped with cilantro and jalapeno. It’s a light and refreshing salad.
One of my favorite dishes at Basil is their Sweet Potato Fries ($4.50). Traditionally, sweet potatoes are sliced and deep fried just like normal potatoes, but the twist at Basil is to first batter them in tempura prior to frying. This cooking variation gives the yams a softer, almost mushy texture while the tempura adds a half-chewy half-crisp outer shell. Occasionally, I’ve found them to be a little inconsistent in their doneness, but still tasty regardless. They’re served with a sweet and spicy Thai dipping sauce that works quite well.
Basil serves several types of soup, including Tom Ka ($5 cup, $9 bowl). This coconut-based chicken soup contains mushrooms, green onions, cilantro, lemon grass, citrus leaves, lime juice and galingale. Like several of the dishes at Basil, this soup suffers from a slight imbalance of ingredients. The lime juice overpowered the other spices and flavors, making it hard to taste anything beyond the sourness of the citrus. I also thought that the citrus leaves could have been strained out before serving, as they had hardened to the point of disrupting the creaminess and fluidity of the rest of the soup without contributing additional flavor by being there post-cooking. With a few minor adjustments, this could be a much better dish.
The Pad See Ewe ($9.50) is another dish that I wanted to like more if it weren’t for the overpowering nature of a single ingredient. This dish came with chicken by default (also available in a vegetarian tofu version) in addition to sen yai wide rice noodles, egg and Chinese broccoli and a brown sauce… but really all I could taste was the broccoli, which was almost like a brussels sprouts flavor to this dish. Not that it was a bad thing, as I do like brussels sprouts, but when I can hardly make out anything else, it doesn’t quite feel right. The broccoli gave the dish a bit of a mushy texture.
Hands down, the Crispy Noodle Kee Mow ($9.75) is one of the best entrees at Basil. The same type of flat rice noodles are used as with the Pad See Ewe, but first they’re fried to a crisp before being stir-fried with chicken, red bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and sprouts. The fried noodles give this dish a much more interesting texture and the soy-based sauce adds familiarity without being overpowering. Loved it. This will probably be my new staple order from Basil (this plus the aforementioned egg rolls!).
The Basil Chicken ($9.50) is one of several dishes on the menu with the namesake title. This rice dish is served with bits of ground chicken, basil, onion, red bell pepper, garlic and chili. For the most part, it’s a fairly decent stir-fry dish, but it still felt unbalanced. There was no mention of fennel on the menu, but my serving was most certainly doused with a heavy dose of fennel flavoring. I couldn’t help but wonder if the dish shouldn’t be called Fennel Chicken instead.
Overall, there’s both hits and misses to be found at Basil, and it may take some trial and error on the part of the guest to find your favorite dishes on their fairly expansive menu. Upon my next visit, you know I’ll be sticking to the egg rolls and Crispy Kee Mow and will go home extremely happy. But the same might not be said for someone who orders one of the several dishes that wind up with a heavy-handed dose of extra lime or broccoli or fennel.
I can’t help but wonder if there is an issue with continuity in the kitchen at Basil. Either recipes aren’t being followed too closely, or different kitchen staffers take liberty to cook menu items a bit differently on different days. Either way, I’ve found the food at Basil to be an adventure worthy of taking if you don’t mind some slight inconsistency. And if you don’t want to break the bank, there are lunch and happy hour specials that allow you to try a variety of items with lower prices and smaller portions. They currently have a Happy Hour menu from 4-7pm that allows you to try an assortment of dishes at $3.95 each (Special Menu, discount coupons cannot be used for it).
Basil is located at 1124 N High Street in the Short North. Hours, menus and more information can be found online at www.basilshortnorth.com.