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The Thai of Your Life 

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
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It took a while to realize just how deeply Basil had screwed me. I was having dinner with a friend at another Thai restaurant. Not a fabulous one, such as Marnee Thai, but a good one, or at least an adequate one, featuring your standard curries, lemongrass dishes, Singha beer, and coconut milk soup. The atmosphere was pleasant, the company not lacking, and the food -- well, I was eating it, which is always a good sign.

But it seemed as though something were... missing, I suppose. Perhaps it was that intangible essence that separates mere nourishment from more splendidly executed culinary art. Or maybe the place was having an off night. Or maybe, it occurred to me, just maybe, it was Basil, where I had dined a number of times over the past six months. With their sassy, innovative food and stylish, up-tempo vibe, the folks at Basil, I suddenly realized, had ruined me for your average Thai restaurant.

And I like average Thai restaurants, dammit.

Those bastards.

Since I've always enjoyed a good vendetta, I wasn't about to take this assault lying down, and figured I should do something. Such as have dinner at Basil again. Okay, maybe that wouldn't teach anyone a lesson, but it would at least confirm that Basil had spoiled me. And what's more, my friends Barrie and Sarah probably wouldn't have agreed to my other plan, which was to stand out in front of the restaurant wearing nothing but a Ronald Reagan mask, driving away customers by announcing that, yes, mayoral hopeful Frank Jordan's fund-raiser would be held here tonight.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering Basil is that it doesn't look like your average Thai restaurant. Well-placed lighting reflects off a floor-to-ceiling glass-brick wall. Hardwood floors seem to stretch to infinity. House tracks play just loud enough to get you nodding to the beat, but not so loud that, say, you find anyone shimmy-hopping between courses. Just being there makes you feel chic.

One thing I've always loved about the place is its full bar, which offers far more choices than the standard sake, beer, and wine. Though Sarah stuck with the soft stuff, ordering a very mellow glass of Francis Coppola Blue Label merlot ($6), Barrie opted for an absolutely magnificent Absolut Mandrin and tonic ($5), which tasted like a light orange soda. I, on the other hand, selected a margarita ($5), which, as far as I'm concerned, is the ultimate test of a bartender, given its multiple ingredients and reliance on the always-tricky sweet and sour (too much makes your face wrinkle with displeasure, too little results in table dancing, random smooching, and other episodes you'd just as soon forget). At Basil, they do it juuuuusst right -- a light ring of salt, a perfect splash of lime juice -- providing an ideal launching point into the great gallery of Thai-inspired wizardry that is Basil's dinner menu.

Though Basil offers a number of Thai standards, the place makes its name on taking chances. The risks don't always pay off, but when they do, one is tempted to leap up and proclaim to the world that, indeed, this is how Thai food should be. One example is the plamuk yang (grilled squid on bamboo skewers, $6) -- impossibly large sheets of calamari, so kissed by flame that they possess a perfect hint of smokiness, and served with shredded carrots and a zesty tamarind vinaigrette. We were also quite taken with Basil's panstickers ($6) -- traditional dumplings filled with ground shrimp and pork, pan-fried to that special place somewhere between crisp and chewy, and served with a luxurious ginger soy sauce.

The som tum salad ($6), however, left us a bit cold -- shredded green papaya (which lacks the sweetness of the ripe fruit), carrots and tomatoes, tossed with ground peanuts, lime, and garlic. Served in a half-leaf of lettuce, the salad was a bit coleslawish, we felt, though it did provide a nice bit of jaw exercise, and if nothing else cleansed our palates in preparation for the next course, that steaming bowl of liquid divinity known at Basil as po taak ($7).

If indeed there is a heaven in which the very best of human behaviors -- compassion, kindness, tolerance, love, and not calling a tow truck even if someone is slightly blocking your driveway -- are rewarded, I imagine that place as a vast, tranquil ocean of po taak. I would swim toward a horizon where the sun was perpetually setting, the sky vivid with streaks of purple and red as tiny flakes of chili caressed my skin. A cunning lime-lemongrass broth would infuse me with citric happiness as I dove deeper, deeper into that marvelous, opaque warmth, my body weightless as I nibbled at tender chunks of salmon or jumbo shrimp and discovered perfect tubes of calamari. Other bits of squid, the legs attached, would spring to life, touching that secret place where... my, this is getting intimate. But then again, dining is a pleasure of the senses, and mere words can never describe how deeply satisfying, how utterly moving Basil's po taak can be.

After stepping outside for a much-needed cigarette -- and yes, I was smiling that special smile -- I returned just in time to order another margarita (still $5) during a break in the well-paced service. Entrees at Basil range from good to spectacular. Two examples of the former would be the param rongsong ($11.50), a grilled, marinated skirt steak smothered in a heavy peanut/coconut milk sauce, and the pad yod pak ($8) -- snow pea shoots and shiitake mushrooms wok-fried with ginger and garlic, which, though tasty (the shiitake in particular proved quite bold), did seem a little bitter.

As for the spectacular, Sarah was charmed by Basil's lamb curry ($10.50), ample sheets of thin-sliced, grilled lamb, bathed in a sneaky curry-kaffir lime sauce and accompanied by crisp long beans and carrots. Sneaky, because the sauce lacked the spiciness of many curries and the kaffir was likewise subtle -- and because Sarah was so beguiled by the dish she may have given it her phone number, but, to my knowledge, has yet to receive a call.

Barrie and I, on the other hand, were more enamored of the hoi ka-ta ($11.50) -- jumbo scallops and tempura long beans wok-fried with black bean chili and wine. The scallops were huge, tender, and juicy, while the long beans possessed the delicate crispness only tempura can provide. Though we didn't order it, I would also recommend a side of pak kratiem (sauteed garlic spinach, $4.75) as a relatively inexpensive addition to any meal.

Unfortunately, we didn't have an opportunity to sample Basil's small but promising dessert menu (fried banana with coconut ice cream, tapioca pudding, coconut crème brûlée), since our meal had proceeded in such a leisurely fashion that the kitchen was closed by the time we finished. But no matter -- as the house music faded into a sleepy ambient mix, we headed out the door to partake in that great Bay Area-wide migration known as South of Market on a Saturday night.

Forgoing the standard round of nightclubbing, we ventured instead to Julie's Supper Club, where the tunes leaned decidedly toward old-school and a professional-looking woman jumped up and boogied atop her chair during a '70s tune (not enough sweet and sour for her). As for the drinks: Sarah stuck with the red wine, Barrie with a mandarin and tonic, while I, of course, ordered a margarita. Which was satisfactory, or at least decent, or -- well, I'd had better. In fact, quite recently. Which is when I realized...

Dammit, Basil, you screwed me again.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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