Henry and Chai Eang opened their latest Basil Thai Restaurant in the Shoppes at Seaside Farms last summer, outdoing themselves with the design of the Mt. Pleasant version of downtown’s popular spot. The new two-story brick building has a sleek, modern exterior with lots of tall windows, and at night the word Basil beckons in vertical, green-lit letters. Inside there’s a big entry area with a curved wall and bamboo plants and beyond that a large dining room with exposed arcing rafters, dark brown wood booths, and cream and blond wood accents. The kitchen is on full display behind glass walls, through which you can watch a line of cooks toss vegetables, meats, and noodles in woks above lapping flames. The second-story bar is the most impressive room: a slick space with a big rectangle of a bar with bottles suspended over it on a slatted two-level rack, plus tall tan-capped stools and the same brown-and-cream motif as downstairs.
This expansion is part of the recent trend of Charleston restaurateurs broadening their footprint within the local market. For almost a decade now, the original Basil has been a fixture on King Street, packing them in night after night. They opened a second location up in Charlotte, N.C., and with this third one, the Eangs are on their way to building a regional Thai empire. The menu at the Mt. Pleasant location is the same as at the one downtown, focusing on Thai classics with a few Chinese standards thrown in for good measure.
The tastiest appetizers are, hands down, the basil rolls ($5.95), and they are the most beautiful, too. There’s a pair of them, with two carefully placed leaves of basil showing through the translucent rice paper wrapper. As you bite that taut wrapper, you hit a great burst of basil, followed by the pleasing crunch of lettuce and the chewiness of rice noodles. The ramekin of sweet and sour sauce that comes alongside is sprinkled with minced peanuts so that, when you dip a roll in, you get a little extra nutty crunch first, then the citrusy sweetness of the sauce, and finally a lingering chili heat. It’s an orchestrated eating experience where one flavor and texture follows another, finishing with a rich morsel of cold shrimp down at the end of the roll.
The rest of the appetizers, unfortunately, don’t rise to the same level. There’s not much you can say about the egg rolls ($4.95) except that they are egg rolls, two of them, and they’re nice and crispy and not at all interesting. The larb ($6.95), a classic northeastern Thai meat salad, is a little more intriguing. The shreds of ground chicken have a nice sharp bite from fish sauce and lemon juice that’s offset with pops of basil and onion, though underneath there’s a bit of an unpleasantly flat note from the chicken itself.
The entrée selection looks big at first, but as you study it, you realize it’s more an exercise of permutations and combinations from a basic slate of ingredients. You choose beef, chicken, pork, tofu, or — for two bucks extra — shrimp, and then one of nine preparations ($9-$11 each) in which the protein is tossed in a wok with vegetables and one of several sauces: Thai chili, Prik King curry, black pepper garlic, or soy.
The fried rice dishes (chicken, beef, or shrimp for $9, $10, and $11, respectively) are pretty pedestrian, little different than what you would take home in a styrofoam box from any corner Chinese joint. Rice tossed with eggs, onions, scallions, carrots, and green peas plus thin strips of your selected meat — there’s nothing wrong with it, but nothing special, either.
The big mound of thinly shredded carrots and cabbage that adorns most of the appetizer and entrée plates reinforces a by-the-numbers sameness to the dishes. Those cooks behind the big glass window may be using flame-heated woks, but it’s line cooking all the same.
The house specialties, at least, add some drama. The crispy red curry duck ($22) is Basil’s signature dish, and you can see why. Half a deboned duck is deep fried until the skin is brown and crisp, and it’s served on a platter over a red curry sauce that’s subtly spicy and rich with coconut milk. The slices of tomato and green pepper strewn over the top seem unwelcome interlopers, but when you hit one of the chunks of pineapple tucked away inside the coconut sauce it’s almost sublime.
The three-flavor fish (market price, which was a steep $27 when I tried it) came highly recommended by the server. The fish itself — a whole, deep-fried flounder — couldn’t be better. Thick and flavorful, the white flesh has a great firm texture and slips from the bones in big, tasty chunks. Then there’s the three-flavor sauce in which it is covered. The flavors are sour, salty, and — more than anything — sweet, and it’s ladled on with a heavy hand. If it were possible to drown a fish, this sauce would do it, and I found myself employing the big serving spoon to push it aside to get at the succulent white fish it obscured.
The specialty dishes get the same mound of slivered carrot and cabbage as garnish, with the extra addition of a bright purple orchid that seems a little tired.
When the original Basil opened downtown in 2002 in a former Huddle House on the corner of King and Ann, it created huge excitement. The city was ready for something new, and Basil’s classic Thai cuisine (and its no reservations policy, which continues at the Mt. Pleasant location) created long lines out on the sidewalk. That popularity remains almost as strong today, but one wonders how much the food itself has to do with it. Perhaps it’s just a reflection of how much Charleston’s culinary breadth has expanded in a decade that something that was once so exotic and exciting can now seem a little dull and run of the mill. Basil, lemongrass, coconut milk, and lime: These once-fascinating flavor combinations are commonplace now. Almost a dozen restaurants in the area specialize in the dishes of Thailand, and at many others the cuisine’s flavors liven up a fusion-driven menu.
That said, the new Mt. Pleasant Basil does have a few things going for it that the other places don’t, like a really cool bar and a flashy, sophisticated setting where — provided you don’t mind a little noise and possibly a long weekend wait — you can enjoy some well-executed standard Thai dishes in a high-energy atmosphere. It seems likely Basil will keep packing them in for quite some time to come.