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Three-Way Thai

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Duck tamarind is served with
tamarind garlic pepper sauce.
Photographs by Thom Thompson
www.thomthompson.com

Today you can find restaurants that feature just about every distinct culinary culture, from Latin American to east Asian—with plenty of Indian in between—without leaving Delaware.

Indeed, you wouldn’t even have to leave Elsmere. It’s practically a little United Nations, with every kind of food, from Mexican and Peruvian to Korean and Japanese, represented on the main drag.

Yet amid this culinary diversity, the cuisine of one country is nearly absent. Though Thai restaurants abound in most American cities, the cuisine is hard to find in Delaware.

It’s not that Thai is utterly absent. If all you crave is pad Thai or a basic curry, you often can find it at the pan-Asian restaurants scattered around New Castle County. But for many years the only true Thai restaurant in northern Delaware is Bangkok House on

Union Street

in Wilmington.

Sweet Basil isn’t in Delaware, strictly speaking, but it is on U.S. 202 south of U.S. 1, which places it close enough to count. It’s situated in a modest strip mall called Concord Plaza. It’s easy to miss—if you drive past the beer distributorship where the lanes divide, you’ve gone too far.

The undistinguished digs are right in line with the ethnic restaurant ethos, but take one step inside the door and you’ll see that Sweet Basil’s class quotient far exceeds the norm.

Though the background is dominated by bare tabletops, charcoal black in striking contrast with the aqua and light earth tones of the rug and room, the eye is drawn to a single orchid at the maitre d’s station, where it produces an air of Japanese-influenced reserve that announces the strip-mall site will not intrude on the atmosphere inside.


Chocolate lava cake is served with vanilla ice cream
and a chocolate basil leaf.

For an ethnic restaurant, these are uncommonly sophisticated surroundings. Let’s face it: Avid taste-bud travelers, in search of the most exotic dollops, overlook—occasionally even embrace—the basest surroundings. For some explorers, it seems the more meager the decor, the more authentic the experience.

Sweet Basil turns that idea on its head. The 75-seat restaurant has an eye-catching dining area—and the cooking shines. The offerings are mostly basics, but the attentive preparations are elevated by the kitchen’s eye for presentation. Combined with the atmosphere and the moderate prices—only special entrées top $16—this is a perfect spot for a weeknight meal or a weekend date.

None of this would matter, of course, if the food didn’t deliver on the promise of the setting. If you’re a recent transplant from a larger city, I don’t want you to be misled. The menu at Sweet Basil is pretty close to Thai 101. But the food we tasted got a lot more care and attention than it would at most eateries of any type.

Even in a market where Thai food is nearly unknown, Sweet Basil is non-threatening. Many dishes are not so much Thai as pan-Asian, which should appeal to the Delaware diners who frequent restaurants such as Jasmine, Pan Tai and Potstickers.

Anyone who enjoys Vietnamese cooking will feel at home with the lemongrass soup, which delivered a red-tinged broth brimming with shrimp and packing a medium-firm red-pepper kick. Salads featuring minced pork or chicken with minty herbs, or sliced beef with sesame oil, displayed a Thai touch in the mix of seasonings, along with the typically feather-light rice vinegar dressing that make Thai salads feel weightless on the tongue.


Waiter Somsak Ketchat is better known to regulars as Guy.

Sweet Basil’s spring rolls were unique. Though they were as thick as any heavy-armored egg roll from a Chinese takeout, they were cooked perfectly all the way through. The skins were thin and lightly browned, and the vegetables inside were vibrantly fresh and just as crisp as the wrapper. The same was true of steamed dumplings. The skins were thinner than most, with just the right degree of chewy to offset the snappy veggies. Satay, made with either chicken or beef, should please the more timid customers. Fish cakes, seductively mild and aromatic, might be criticized by the pickiest for a texture that was just a touch rubbery.

The best dishes were those such as the coconut milk soup, which registered as a rich, sweet, hot, just barely tart concoction—a foreshadowing of the complexity we found in the green curry and tamarind curry.

Should none of these attributes entice you, Sweet Basil has an ace in the hole: anything on the menu that says crispy duck. I had it with a tamarind-flavored Panang curry sauce, which got supporting billing on the menu, but it faded into the background against the thrill of finding a kitchen that actually achieves crispness with a bird that in too many restaurants comes ensconced in soggy, flabby skin with a rubbery underside. Most chefs don’t seem to want to fool with the fine balance of heat and proximity required to render the fat without scorching the skin. They should taste this magnificent fowl to learn what they—and we—are missing.

The service at Sweet Basil might unsettle you. Waiters tend to disappear, only to materialize suddenly. If you’re bringing your own libations, you might want to tote along your own means of breaking into the bottles.


Executive chef Nantana Ovathasarn (left)
and owner Paul Lauprasert.

Yes, like so many new Pennsylvania restaurants, Sweet Basil is BYO. That represents a significant savings for customers, but in this case it also raises the age-old question of what wine to drink with Thai food, which can feature mild sweetness and intense saltiness, in addition to varying levels of hot-pepper spiciness. The answers come in two categories: arguments about which wine best spans the cuisine’s wide range, and suggestions that beer is actually a better choice.

Those who prefer wine agree that something tart but fruity with a touch of sweetness is the best bet, with consensus falling on German Reisling. Opinion is split over Gewurtztraminer, but I’ve always found the Alsatian version, with its bold fruit and spicy overtones, a good match, provided the heat of the food doesn’t get out of hand. Reds are dicey—anything tannic will taste dull and sour—but chilled dry roses are not a bad option.

If you’re apt to order fiery dishes, beer might be the best match, but many Thai seasonings are as aromatic as they are fiery. The same light lager that helps tame the heat of curry sauces won’t do justice to anything much subtler. Some swear that wheat beer, with its sharply bitter edge, is the best way to go.

I can’t swear by any of them—yet. I’ll get back to you once I try each one with the crispy duck. Twice.

Sweet Basil

275 Wilminton-West Chester Pike (U.S. 202) C
hadds Ford, Pa.
(610) 358-4015
Prices:
Entrées $11.95 to $25.95
appetizers and salads $4.95 to $14.95
desserts $4.95 to $7


Recommended dishes Sliced beef salad, minced chicken salad, coconut milk soup, anything that says “crispy duck”

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