Flavor: Fresh-focused Thai
Ambiance: Somewhat sparse, but comfortable enough
Service: Decent to good
My first foray to Thai Basil, a restaurant in the Grove Arcade promising “fine Thai food cooked in a natural, healthy way,” was shortly after it opened about a year ago. I enjoyed the food, the obvious reverence for fresh ingredients, and the little flavor treats tucked inside the fragrant sauces, like fresh lychees and whole kaffir lime leaf. I loved the appetizer of kanom jeeb – steamed parcels of minced prawn, pork, water chestnuts and herbs served in a charming steamer basket.
However, everything that followed was either too sweet, not spicy enough (though the menu had promised plenty of fire), or a combination of the two. The experience was enjoyable enough, but I dismissed the food as too “Americanized” – that is, made too widely accessible at the expense of taste and authenticity.
During the past year, it seems that the crowds at the restaurant have swelled, then waned for a bit, then returned. A product of the natural ebb and flow of the Asheville restaurant scene? It’s hard to say. But one thing seems clear to me: Thai Basil has, over time, loosened the reins and unleashed the heat.
On a recent cold, stormy evening, my Picky Companion and I returned to Thai Basil and were greeted with the same warmth that we remembered from prior visits. The smell of coconut lightly permeated the air, punctuated by a faint, pungent odor (perhaps of fish sauce).
The décor is dominated by scattered-about treasures of Eastern culture. A large elephant watches over the door, and carved wooden artifacts and hangings dot the imposingly high and bright white walls, helping to break up the dining room’s inherently sparse feel. Statues of deities rest on seemingly precarious perches just over the head-level of seated customers, as though they are there to protect against attack from above. (I couldn’t help but be concerned for the wellbeing of the older couple seated beneath a particular axe-wielding statue with an exceptional amount of sharp-looking edges, especially when a generously proportioned gentleman swayed perilously close to it.)
We took our seat by the large glass doors that front the restaurant and can be swung open during less inclement weather to allow diners to spill out onto the sidewalk. On this particular night, the doors were shut tight against a winter wind that drove the cold, heavy rain into the glass with some force. We ordered a bottle of the Twisted River Guwürtztraminer – an excellent accompaniment, on the lighter side, for spicy foods – and settled in, looking forward to the warmth of the meal to come.
A hot bowl of soup seemed a natural choice, so we ordered the tom kha kung, a spicy coconut soup with prawns. The dish was well executed, with the hint of sweetness from the coconut tempered perfectly by the subtle but creeping heat and light acidity of the pale, translucent broth. With crisp scallions, the floral citrus notes of the lime leaf, and tender prawns, the soup was highly satisfying and warming to the very core. Picky issued a solitary complaint about the slightly overwhelming flavor of the raw red onion, but he was otherwise thoroughly impressed by the balance of the “separate but entirely present” nature of the flavors.
Next to arrive at the table was the yum ped young, roasted duck over fresh baby spinach leaves tossed with a spicy dressing and finished with a scattering of plump, red grape tomatoes, julienned carrots, sliced scallion and fresh cilantro. The presentation was lovely; the colors were deep and vibrant, from the garnet-fuchsia of the edible orchid garnish to the emerald green of the spinach. The portion was plentiful enough – a good thing for a $10 appetizer. The duck was tender and well roasted, though I would have preferred thinner slices. The salad itself was very fresh, and the spicy dressing that coated the vegetables had a well-balanced spiciness and good, savory-sweet flavor.
We selected an entrée from the chef’s specials, a dish of green-lipped mussels served with zucchini, jalapeño, herbs and a spicy-sweet sauce. The mussels provided a gorgeous visual effect; the meat of the little bivalves was nearly orange, the shells themselves displayed tones of green on the exterior, and there was a nearly luminescent mother of pearl sheen on the interior. The vegetables were, once again, quite fresh and crisp, though the onions were perhaps overly so. The sauce was another balanced success, and the fresh strips of jalapeño packed the spicy wallop that I craved. The texture and flavor of the mussels, however, raised questions at our table as to whether they had been previously frozen, pre-cooked, or both, but the result was satisfying enough.
Our final entrée was the gang kaew-wan, a Thai green curry with coconut milk, an assortment of vegetables and herbs. It was on this dish that our opinions sharply diverged. While Picky Companion thought that the vegetables were fresh, he complained of the presence of all-too crispy celery and onion. While he admitted that the sauce had a nice flavor, he thought that it was too thin – weak even. The most credible complaint, in my opinion, was the fact that we had requested noodles instead of rice and did not receive them (though they popped up on our bill later).
I, on the other hand, thought the green curry dish was perfectly prepared. The sauce was indeed thin, but in a way that made for a lighter dish; it certainly evidenced no dearth of flavor. With a deliciously herbaceous undertone, a medium heat that tickled the back of the throat, and a refreshingly subtle coconut flavor, the dish was like a welcome breath of spring on a cold winter night.
After paying, we ventured out into the rain and wind, warmed from the inside by wine and food. Our second experience had far surpassed the first in quality and complexity. Asheville so sorely needs more good ethnic restaurants, and it’s pleasant to see Thai Basil feel confident enough to turn up the heat. Certainly, there are still plenty of dishes there that cater to palates requiring minimal spiciness, but options also abound for those who enjoy a well-balanced, fiery plate of food. Whatever the preference, Thai Basil deserves to be discovered – or, as in our case, re-discovered.