The Pla Song Kruang Remains the Same: Basil Spice puts the newest Thai twist on South Grand

May 7, 2008 at 4:00 am

As I ate lunch at Basil Spice, a slow, bittersweet melody played over the restaurant's speakers. I hummed along with the climactic passage: hum HUM hum hum hum hum. It was my fourth visit to the two-month-old Thai restaurant, and I had heard this particular tune during each of my previous meals. More precisely, I had heard nothing but this particular tune during each of my previous visits. The song, five minutes long, give or take, plays on a seemingly endless loop.

My lunch was the #35, ba-mee mhoo dang, a big bowl of thin egg noodles topped with grilled pork, cilantro, bean sprouts, green onions and also (not listed on the menu, but in my bowl) fried won tons and Napa cabbage. You can order this with or without chicken broth; my server suggested without.

The pork — "Thai-style BBQ," according to the menu — was tender and sweet, though a tad on the fatty side. It paired well with both the cilantro and green onion, and the won tons and cabbage added a welcome crunch. The noodles soaked up the meat's savory juices but held their form. My only complaint was the spiciness: Though I requested four (of five) stars on the spice-o-meter, my mouth flickered rather than burned.

Basil Spice sits along the main commercial drag of South Grand Boulevard, not very far from St. Louis' original Thai restaurant, King & I. There is a single dining room, its walls painted gold, its high ceiling an attractive dusky blue. The mood is calm: The lights are dim, and the music is soothing.

(On first listen, at least. Now it haunts my dreams.)

Reviewing Thai restaurants can be difficult. Thai recipes are complex, or should be, yet the cuisine's pleasures are often elemental: sweet, sour, savory, hot. You can try to tease out all the flavors in a bowl of Basil Spice's excellent tom kha gai soup — sweet coconut milk, tart tamarind juice and kaffir lime leaves, exotic galangal — or you can simply enjoy how the citric flavors and the chile peppers' heat add zest to the otherwise bland chicken swimming in the broth, and how the meat, mushrooms, lemongrass and galangal counter the coconut milk's sweetness.

Sometimes it's easier to notice what's missing. A cup of tom yum gai offered the soup's trademark blend of heat and, especially, from a double hit of kaffir lime leaves and lime juice, tartness. Yet I could detect no galangal, and while the rhizome's flavor (a much funkier, or more verdant, ginger might be the closest approximation) was present, it was muted.

Most versions of tom yum gai I've tried have tasted more or less the same, but that doesn't hold true for other dishes, in which the variation from one Thai restaurant to another can be remarkable. Consider massaman or, as Basil Spice spells it, mussa-muhn curry. Last October I reviewed Simply Thai in Florissant, in large part because I'd been told its massaman curry wasn't simply meat and potatoes in peanut-butter sauce.

Basil Spice's mussa-muhn curry does include peanuts, but it certainly doesn't taste like peanut butter. Yet it doesn't taste like Simply Thai's richly spiced curry, either. Here chunks of pineapple and tamarind juice provide a wonderfully tart sweetness. (As a bonus, the pineapple chunks burst with flavor when you bite into them. Careful, though: They're scalding hot.) On future visits I'll know to order this curry at four- or five-star heat. The three-star option struck me as closer to "medium" than "hot."

Red curry (gang dang) with pork came with a wide variety of vegetables: peas, carrots, green beans, bamboo shoots and green and red bell peppers. Whole basil leaves added a lovely note, sweet and pungent, to the moderately spicy curry. A small detail I liked very much: The carrots were perfectly turned into a quarter-inch dice.

As at most Thai restaurants, Basil Spice's entrées — curries, stir fries, fried-rice dishes — are available with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or a combination of shrimp, calamari, scallops and fish. There are separate sections for both seafood and vegetarian entrées. (Some of the latter are merely vegetarian versions of dishes from other parts of the menu.)

From the seafood list, I tried pla song kruang, one of four dishes that feature a deep-fried trout fillet. In this instance the trout was smothered with julienned green apple, carrot, red onion, cilantro and peanuts, then garnished with cilantro and lime juice. The trout was excellent, the fish very tender inside its crisp jacket of batter, but the vegetables were outstanding. I loved how the apple and onion contrasted one other as well as the trout, and I was deeply impressed at the dish's boldness: Its tartness pushed right up against the boundary of too tart without crossing over it.

I encountered nothing bad at Basil Spice, though a few dishes relied on their dipping sauces to overcome blandness. An appetizer of summer rolls came packed with rice noodles and fresh, crisp carrots, lettuce, bean sprouts and cilantro, but only the cilantro provided much flavor, and the chicken inside the rolls had an insipid, boiled flavor. Dishes of sweet chile and peanut dipping sauces gave the rolls both savor and heat.

Likewise, an order of steamed chicken dumplings were tasty but simplistic. The accompanying "house sauce," which tasted like a blend of fish and soy sauces, added a welcome depth.

A few beers are available by the bottle, and there is a very perfunctory wine list. I like a cold lager with Thai food, and while the Thai beer Singha might not be a standout brew, it does the trick.

Service is very friendly. The small waitstaff already recognizes and appreciates regulars. And if Basil Spice's menu doesn't distinguish the restaurant much from the area's many other Thai spots, it provides a welcome environment for a familiar experience, with fine ingredients and thoughtful preparations. So, yes, the song is the same, but sometimes that's not such a bad thing.