By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Back when I was hungry and vicious and always questing after dumb-luck fortune in the galleys and basement kitchens of this country, I could smell doom in a restaurant a mile away. It was a survival mechanism then, learned rather than instinctive, though no less hardwired into my autonomic switchboard than the reflex for breathing. Because I had not yet developed anything approximating a career, I had to be careful. If I wanted to pay the rent and keep myself in the (admittedly poor) style to which I was accustomed, I needed to maintain a certain mercenary sensibility. Name chefs brought home the big paychecks, lived in the Hamptons, signed endorsement deals and appeared in the glossy magazines. I was the other sort of chef -- a utility infielder, a mid-season-injury replacement maybe good enough to play in the bigs, but not nearly pretty or well-spoken enough to move a lot of Nikes.
Besides, those major-league openings were rare. So I and others of my ilk drifted through minor-league houses where money was always tight and owners almost universally unprepared for the grim, meat-hook realities of doing business in an industry with an eventual failure rate of close to 90 percent. Before developing my preternatural sixth sense, I was hung out to dry any number of times by the unscrupulous and the dumb: going without pay for weeks while the owner drove home in a brand-new Jag, trying to work out of a half-empty pantry missing even the bare essentials like bulb garlic and flour, negotiating over the phone with produce suppliers who wouldn't load the truck until they had a cashier's check in hand. I once sold off the baker's convection oven to pay the meat man on a Friday afternoon, and rather than firing me for my impertinence, the owner shook my hand and complimented my ingenuity. Desperate times, desperate measures and all that. (And if you think I didn't tuck away a tidy profit from that deal, you have a higher opinion of cooks than you should.)
After a number of years of bouncing around like a greased bearing loose among the wheels of commerce, I came to understand a few things. I could spot a coke sniffle at twenty yards, measure the weight of sadness and desperation in the shoulder-heavy slouch of a veteran busboy, shake the hand of a man offering me a job and know instantly if he was nothing more than a cut-rate pussy hound in business just to have a shot at a steady progression of eighteen-year-old waitresses. From those houses I would flee like my ass was on fire, knowing that no good could come of them and that my checks would bounce like Flubber.
Summer rolls: $3.95
Spring rolls: $2.95
Satay lamb: $5.95
Tom yum gong soup: $2.50
Curry (red, green or otherwise): $5.50 / $7.25
Spicy Basil duck: $11.95
Crispy duck: $10.95
Penang fish: $10.95
Thai chicken: $5.50 / $8.50
But such precautions weren't always enough. Bad business, like bad karma, generates its own sort of poison, and the taint can linger for years in the floorboards and hood vents of a space, sickening and killing new businesses indiscriminately. Realtors, consultants, accountants and other numbers types will point to things like parking, visibility, foot traffic and concept failures to explain why some addresses seem incapable of supporting any restaurant. Cooks know better. We believe in ghosts and know that some places are simply Golgothas of the spirit -- locations that portend nothing but collapse, where every new venture is built on a tricky foundation of bones.
So I was shocked late last year to find yet another new occupant preparing to take over the space at 1 Broadway, one of the most accursed addresses in the entire city, a black hole of karmic retribution that has swallowed more restaurants than I can count. I haven't been in town long enough to know who put the original hoodoo on this spot, but I've followed it through several owners. Before it became Spicy Basil Asian Grill, it was Sweet B.O.B.'s BBQ, and before that, a Middle Eastern place, maybe an espresso joint. All failures, all essentially forgotten.
Standing in the entrance during a bustling weekday lunch, looking out over the heads of diners and admiring how the buffed metal, blond wood, abstract, vaguely piscine wall sculptures and well-appointed tables looked so similar to all the other buffed metal, blond wood, fish sculptures and well-appointed tables in dining rooms across the city, I heard a couple puzzling over what had been in this space before.
"It was an Indian restaurant for about ten minutes," said the man.
"I think I had Chinese food here once," said his companion.
This was a conversation I would hear repeated again and again during my visits to Spicy Basil, differing only in the cuisine being dimly recalled. Sometimes it was baked goods, occasionally barbecue, udon, sashimi, curry, what-have-you. Even Dairy Queen. The only constant was that everyone seemed to remember it being something else once.
Now it's Asian in that all-things-to-all-people mode of joyous, mishmash amalgamation. Not fusion, exactly -- because fusion would imply a blending of disparate ethnic elements on a single plate -- but melting-pot cuisine that combines Thai, Vietnamese and a little non-threatening dim sum with American Chinese, Indonesian and a few tropical flavors for a menu that reads like a whirlwind junket through the Pacific Rim but is also borderless in the most smeary kind of way.