The allure and timelessness of Charleston is primary in the psyche of Charlotte. That CH city oozes history and charm while ts grand and old (that's 10 years in hospitality-industry speak) restaurants are dependent on tourist dollars to turn a profit year after year. Charleston is often the envy of Charlotte's restaurant community, which in large part, especially those located in the far-flung suburban communities, is dependent on Charlotteans, not tourists or business expense accounts. Yes, Charleston, whose historic district, beaches and nearby islands have become a second home to many Charlotteans, has always been a draw.
Apparently, those sidelong glances go both ways. Charleston restaurateurs and brothers Chai and Henry Eang knew that many of their regular customers at Basil Thai Restaurant were from Charlotte. "We had a fan base here and knew Charlotte was prosperous and filled with young professionals," notes Chai Eang. They also had personal experience here, having lived in Rock Hill growing up, and in Charlotte from 1995 to 1998. Even though their restaurants are Thai, the Eangs are ethnically Chinese and native to Cambodia. However, the Executive Chef Suntorn (Sunny) Cherdchoongarm is Thai and trained in Bangkok and Phuket.
The 100-seat Basil Thai Cuisine, which opened a few months ago in Center City, is done in gray Blade Runner tones highlighted by a red wall hanging, and is L-shaped with a fanciful bar to the left and the dining area flanked by banquettes with a few booths, straight back. The best seats in the house are the "chef counters," a set of two marble counters facing the glassed-in kitchen. Separating the counters is the pickup window where servers breeze in and out retrieving dishes. If you enjoy people-watching on city streets, these bar-high seats will give you an eyeful of voyeurism and culinary instruction. On the left side, you can watch the line cook manning the wok station produce so many Pad Thai orders that I'm convinced even a novice could replicate the procedure.
Basil's menu doesn't attempt to cover any ground not found elsewhere in Charlotte's many Thai restaurants, nor is it extensive. On it are a handful of starter and salads -- including a well-crafted Som Tom with papaya and shrimp -- curries, rice dishes, and house specialties. Pad Thai, which Eang tries to convince his customers to forgo for other items on his menu, is the national dish of Thailand and the most popular dish here. In too many Thai establishments, this dish is prepared for what it is: Thai street food -- the equivalent to hot dogs, funnel cakes and salted pretzels in the States. Yet somewhere in the recipe's crossing to this country, its presentation is often oily and reddish. But the Pad Thai here is prepared with a restrained hand and is abundantly flavorful.
On the other hand, the starters miss their mark. The spring rolls tasted like they had been prepared much earlier in the day and the rice paper had toughened. The larb, the traditional dish to enjoy with a papaya salad, was missing the notes of lime and cilantro.
Thus, the entrées are the kitchen strengths. The red curry boneless duck, another house specialty, is deep fried with fat intact and strides a pool of relatively mild curry (the asterisk denotes heat, but while this dish had some kick, it is not enough to impede the taste of a sauvignon blanc). Heat seekers can order hotter. Desserts are predictable: sticky rice with sliced mango, fried green tea ice cream, and Americanized chocolate-covered pastries.
Basil's prices are higher than its Charleston sibling. "We have higher overhead here," Eang says. Entrée prices range from $14 for a stir-fried veggie dish to $25, with many of the dishes priced at $16. Lunch entrées range from $10 to $23.
Understandably, Basil -- with its pleasures and faults -- has created quite a buzz here: Another high-end ethnic joint is woven into the culinary tapestry of Center City. But for those, like me, who are members of the food-loving sodality, an ethnic place doesn't need to have marble counters nor comfortable banquettes to be good. And I'm a bit resistant to paying a steep price for dishes that actually pay for the ambiance, since I'm as comfortable in the places where the owners have saved money by doing their own design work as I am in mega dollar upfits -- especially in these times when my credit cards need life support. I'm there for the food. But then, Basil's Pad Thai does cast a seductive lure.
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