Carla Meyer

Dining review: Fresh, seasonal fare makes Sacramento’s Thai Basil special

Chicken satay.
Chicken satay. Bee staff

Thai Basil is a very progressive restaurant that manages to hold onto all of the old-fashioned values that matter. This combination makes this midtown restaurant, open since 2002, one of the most compelling eateries of its kind in Sacramento.

It sources ingredients from local farms and makes all of its sauces and curries from scratch. These days, some call that “slow food,” meaning a return to practices that were commonplace in decades – and centuries – past.

Thai Basil also has a grounding in 21st-century environmental awareness. Its vegetable waste is diverted into a cooperative compost container via the Green Restaurant Alliance of Sacramento (GRAS). It is the only Thai restaurant I can think of that has bicycle delivery. And even more unusual, it has a seasonal menu that changes according to what’s fresh right here, right now.

The owner, Suleka Sun-Lindley, has a degree in environmental design from UC Davis and incorporated much of that ethos into the design of the restaurant, including the use of green building materials.

This is what the next generation of ethnic restaurants in the Sacramento area could look like, though this kind of thinking and doing has yet to become commonplace. Thai Basil is leading the way by embracing what’s good about the past and being mindful about what’s important for the future.

This has resulted in a “Snail of Approval” designation by Slow Food Sacramento, which recognizes restaurants “that best exemplify the Slow Food principles of good, clean, fair food.” It was one of 12 local businesses to be recognized for its sustainable business practices by Sacramento County.

All those visionary elements might make you feel good about spending your money at a restaurant like this. But what about the food? Can you see and smell and taste the difference? Sacramento is home to many Thai restaurants that range from pretty good to very good, but the homogeneity of the menus and overall approach has often been a source of frustration to me.

Where are the restaurants willing to try something different? To elevate the cooking? To incorporate elements of Thai street food? To bring new and different Thai dishes here?

Would Thai Basil be a revelation? Would it be the kind of restaurant where the flavors really pop and the food doesn’t feel so westernized and watered down?

Yes and no.

My first visit of several recent visits proved to be something of a mixed bag. The lunches we ordered were full of fresh ingredients, and the cooking showed a command of the cuisine. The pompano fish was perfectly prepared, topped with a sweet and sour sauce made with ginger, onions, tomatoes, carrots, pineapple and snow peas. A lovely dish.

The lamb shank was an ample portion of tender, braised meat with plenty of flavor, thanks to the five-spice seasoning and a creamy mussamun curry that had a lingering sweetness. This hearty dish is served with sweet yams, onions and carrots, and the lamb is topped with fried shallots.

Both of these dishes were of high quality, but our overall impression was that the kitchen was holding back – the seasoning wasn’t as assertive as we would have liked.

It went that way with several other dishes, too, including ones that are generally considered to be a fiery and dynamic eating experience, like a red curry dish called Gang-ped that features Thai basil, bell peppers and bamboo shoots simmered in the curry, along with a choice of chicken, pork, beef, tofu or mixed vegetables.

At its best, Thai cuisine excites the senses, carefully balancing heat and flavor so that it awakens and inspires the palate without overwhelming – or obliterating – it. This can be a tough mark for a Thai chef in Sacramento to hit. Plates would routinely be sent back if customers got the real “Thai hot” cooking of Thailand. But erring on the side of caution can lose something in the translation.

Thai Basil has a direct connection to the culinary traditions of the mother country, so the low-key spice profile was not from lack of authentic experience. The owner’s mother and aunt have a restaurant in Thailand that has operated for close to 50 years.

After three visits to Thai Basil, I asked Sun-Lindley if there’s a difference between the food at her mother and aunt’s restaurant in Thailand and hers in midtown. I already knew the answer. Of course there is. The typical American would be overwhelmed by the heat in some Thai dishes featuring spicy curries or an abundance of chili peppers.

“In Thailand, when the chef cooks really spicy and it’s good, people will come to that restaurant expecting the food to be that way,” she said. “They’re not going to complain about it.”

She said customers can ask for the heat to be customized, but that most dishes at Thai Basil are cooked to a level she calls medium-hot. If you want it hotter all you have to do is ask. Yet, our server on two occasions did not ask our heat preference. Nevertheless, the restaurant’s tables have accoutrements (chili power, jalapeños, etc.) that allow patrons to add more kick.

Many Thai dishes are not necessarily hot but showcase other elements of the cuisine, like the freshness of vegetables and herbs and the balance of sweet and sour, bitter and salty. Thai Basil does this very well. The pad Thai shows plenty of finesse and an understanding of how the thick rice noodles must be chewy yet tender so they work with other elements of the dish, including the sauce (which is sweet yet tangy), egg, tofu, bean sprouts and peanuts.

While it’s the most popular dish at Thai restaurants in the West, pad Thai does not have ancient roots in Thailand. This dish became popular during World War II. Like most noodle dishes, it has Chinese origins. Noodles are generally the only Thai dishes eaten with chopsticks. The rest is usually consumed with a fork and spoon.

Our utensils saw plenty of action at Thai Basil, where we found the cooking to be consistently first-rate. We enjoyed everything from the tender chicken satay appetizer and the veggie spring rolls, to the grilled steak (nuah-yang) marinated in soy sauce garlic and sesame, to the blue-shelled mussels simmered in coconut milk with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro and a bit of roasted curry.

But what truly sets Thai Basil apart from its competitors is its seasonal menu, which at present includes such dishes as a beautifully balanced and delicious spicy lobster salad with pineapple, cucumber and house-made roasted curry; an eggplant salad with tamarind dressing; and a pumpkin custard made with sweet kabocha pumpkin. This is an opportunity to see Thai food change as the produce changes. What’s more, Sun-Lindley says she likes to introduce seasonal ingredients to classic Thai dishes that might not normally have them, allowing for something new and different to emerge.

Also worth mentioning is the amazing “Thai Esaan Dinner,” which is a prix fixe all-inclusive feast for $32. One person at our table ordered it, and it was simply too much food for one person. It’s best to share. It includes a papaya salad; a Thai sausage that is spicy and a touch sweet; a nuanced and creamy-smoothy yellow curry with chicken, potatoes, carrots and onions; steamed sweet rice; and a choice of beer or other beverages.

When you tally all the elements, Thai Basil ranks as one of the most progressive and sophisticated Thai restaurants in the region. In a couple of weeks, Sun-Lindley will be taking an extended vacation to Thailand to visit her mother’s restaurant, in part to shoot footage of her mother preparing food in her restaurant. Here’s to hoping that the trip will further embolden Sun-Lindley and her already excellent cooking, and make her even more of an innovator for Thai dining in the region.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

Thai Basil

2431 J St.

Sacramento

(916) 442-7690

www.thaibasilrestaurant.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Beverage options: Wine and beer license

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Gluten-free options: Yes. The kitchen takes requests.

Noise level: Lively

Ambiance: Close-knit and comfortable, the room has warmth and charm. Nice patio (with heaters) on the building’s side.

Overall

With a combination of old-fashioned and progressive values, Thai Basil is a true leader in its category. The eating experience is lively and often delicious, and the restaurant’s green practices are admirable.

Food

While some of the dishes might have adventurous eaters looking for more fire in the seasonings, the dishes are generally well conceived, balanced and loaded with freshness. The seasonal menu is a game-changer. It shows the restaurant’s commitment to seasonal and sustainable cooking. Recommended dishes include the yellow curry, the veggie spring rolls, chicken satay, the blue-shelled mussels (hoi tom kha), pad Thai, marinated sirloin (nuah-yang) and all of the dishes on the seasonal menu, including the $32 feast that is best shared with a companion. For dessert, the deep-fried bananas with ice cream is outstanding.

Service 1/2

Friendly and attentive. However, knowledge of the specifics of the dishes and wines sometimes fell short.

Value

For the quality of the food and the portions, this is a solid value. Noodle and rice dishes range from $9 to $13, the full steak dinner is $16. The $32 dinner on the seasonal menu might seem pricey, but it is all-inclusive and is plenty of food to share.

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