The beef sushi appetizer at Red Basil Thai Fusion Cuisine on Westheimer was topped with medium-rare filet mignon. It was shaped like the usual raw fish and rice sushi roll, only the colors were all wrong. The sticky rice in the middle was purple, and the rectangle on top was shiny and brown. If you like steak, it tasted fabulous.
Our other appetizer, the chicken satay, was served on skewers that stuck up out of a half of an orange like a bunch of Fourth of July bottle rockets waiting to be lit. The marinated and grilled chicken sticks were covered with peanut sauce that dripped down on the orange. The flavor was predictable, but the presentation was wild.
Red Basil's "fusion" cuisine is full of surprises, some pleasant, some not. Most of the cooking here is outstanding. The presentations are eye-catching, though some cross over into the realm of the hokey. The green mango slaw we got on an appetizer sampler plate was served in a hollowed-out yellow bell pepper with a chive flower standing up straight out of the middle. It looked like a Dr. Seuss creation.
Red Basil Thai Fusion Cuisine
11322 Westheimer, 281-293-0426.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Vegetarian lunch special: $6.99
Seafood lunch special: $10.99
Green curry duck: $10.95
Chicken panang curry: $10.95
Salmon spring rolls: $5.95
But the real complaint about Red Basil's fusion dishes is that some of them are short on flavor. The first time I sampled the green papaya slaw here, it tasted like green mango shreds in a vinaigrette. Where were the chiles, the fish sauce and the garlic traditionally found in som tam? They had been left out, the waitress told us, so the salad would appeal to American tastes.
Red Basil's Thai curries are among the best I have ever tasted if you order them right. The first time I ate curry here, I was impressed by the subtlety of the chicken panang served on the lunch special. It wasn't sweet, and it didn't taste like peanut butter. If fact, it had an herbal undertone that I found intriguing. So on my first dinner visit, I asked about the extensive curry menu.
The waitress recommended the slightly unusual combination of duck in green curry. Duck is most often served in red curry, but green curry is good in the summer because it's made with fresh chiles, the waitress told me. When I ordered it, she asked if I wanted it traditional or fusion style.
"What's the difference?" I wondered.
The meat is cooked in the sauce in the traditional curry, she explained. The fusion curry is served with the curry sauce in a bowl and the sliced grilled meat beside it on a plate. I got traditional-style green duck curry extra hot. The fresh green chile curry combined with the rich fatty duck meat and aromatic coconut milk was off-the-chart sensational.
The third time I visited Red Basil, I went for pork in red curry. What came to the table was a portion of pork tenderloin sliced thin on one side of the plate and a bowl of vegetables in red curry in a bowl on the other side. I had forgotten to specify "traditional," and so I got an unwanted chance to sample the fusion curry. I can't think of any good reason to serve Thai curry this way. It's like serving fried chicken beside a bowl of vegetable broth and calling it chicken soup.
It didn't seem like there were very many Thai restaurants in town when I first moved to Houston eight years ago. In the last few years, the category has mushroomed. On the short stretch of Westheimer where Red Basil is located, there are five Thai restaurants, most of them very recent. I sampled several to see how they compared to Red Basil. Each had its own niche.
The most Americanized was Thai Choice, next to Whole Foods at Wilcrest and Westheimer. There was so much peanut and pineapple in the panang curry, it tasted like a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. I didn't try the new Nit Noi location next to the HEB at Kirkwood, but I imagine it runs a close second in the Americanized category.
For straightforward Thai food, there's the beautifully appointed Singha Thai restaurant, just west of Kirkwood. The noodles were good, and the tiger cry was made with a nice piece of beef. The curries weren't as complex as those at Red Basil, but they were quite passable. The heat level was very tame.
For authentically spicy Thai, there's V's Thai Restaurant and Bar, a Thai hole-in-the-wall at the corner of Westheimer and Dairy Ashford. Their spectacular pad thai is tossed with tamarind, and their fiery panang curry is balanced between the coconut, chile and peanut flavors, with only the faintest hint of sweetness. Their green papaya salad, which is made with aromatic dried shrimp, is downright excruciating if you order it spicy.
In the midst of all these choices, Red Basil is trying to occupy the upscale Thai niche, but there are several factors working against them. First, they are located in a run-down shopping center next to Style Furniture, which is where they purchased some of their slightly tacky "modern" furnishings. And then there's the sign out front, proudly proclaiming that they are part of the New York Group of restaurants.
The head chef of the New York Group is Veera Premon, a New York Thai restaurant owner who cooks for the Thai royal family when they visit the embassy in New York. It's good marketing to make a big deal of the fact that the famous Premon designed Red Basil's menu, and bad marketing to keep harping on the fact that the restaurant and its chefs are from New York.
In fact, Red Basil's chefs, Pirom Pinitpan and Surari Yimmonkol, both trained in New York under Premon, but they are Thai. Somebody needs to tell these folks that nobody around here is impressed with Thai chefs from New York. We like bagel bakers from New York, but we like our Thai chefs from Bangkok.
When Red Basil's chefs actually do Thai fusion, as in the steak sushi, the results are fascinating. But much of what they call fusion cuisine, like the papaya salad, is just dumbed-down Thai developed for people who don't like it spicy (New Yorkers, for instance).
My lunch special came on an hourglass-shaped white plate. On the left, there was an "NYC dumpling," a fairly standard Chinese-style wonton stuffed with ground chicken and drizzled with hot and sour soy sauce. On the right, there was a weird-shaped bowl full of drunken noodles with pork.
The remarkable drunken noodles at Red Basil are made with uncut sheets of mung bean pasta that resemble lasagna noodles. They're seasoned with an exhilarating combination of garlic, chiles, oyster sauce, Thai basil, onions and peppers. Along with the pork, there's also creamy eggplant slices, tomato and bell pepper. It's by far the most innovative take on drunken noodles I've ever tasted.
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Lunch is the best deal at Red Basil Thai Fusion Restaurant. The prices range from $6.99 for the silver (tofu) column, $8.99 for gold (beef, pork or chicken) and $10.99 for platinum (shrimp or salmon) selections. Each includes soup or salad and your choice of three appetizers. Then you pick one of 13 entrée possibilities including rice, noodles, curries and stir-fried dishes, to go with your tofu, meat or seafood.
The salmon spring roll appetizer, which is an option on the seafood lunch special, is outstanding. It's a fried rice-paper wrapper roll stuffed with salmon, jicama and cilantro and served with a lime chile basil sauce. It's even better at dinner time, when the fried rice-paper roll is stuffed with salmon and cheese and served in a pool of lobster bisque.
Red Basil recently expanded the menu and dropped their prices, a sign that things aren't going very well. Unfortunately, what works in New York isn't working in Houston. It's too bad, because much of their Thai food is astonishingly good. The traditional curries may be the best in the city. If you love Thai food, the place is worth a visit.
But if Red Basil is to survive, the New York Group will have to come up with a version of Thai fusion cuisine better suited to Houston tastes.