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Lots of Luck

Space case: Spicy Basil's decor and food have brightened a black-hole address.
Sean O'Keefe

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.

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.

At that busy lunch, I tried Spicy Basil's spring rolls, which were okay, if a little thick and grassy, and summer rolls in two varieties (butterflied shrimp and tuna) that were both fantastic -- fresh and cool, with shredded lettuce, cucumber and rice noodles stuffed in crystal rice paper. Peanut sauce came on the side of everything, including lamb satay (big, tender chunks of marinated, seasoned and grill-charred lamb on a stick), and although the combinations didn't always work, the peanut sauce on its own was just fine. Thin and sweet, it was like a fingerful of Skippy chased with a shot of condensed milk, and so tempting that after I finished the lamb, I dropped the remainder of my peanut sauce like a shot -- straight, no chaser.

One hot afternoon, struggling to shake free of a coughing, aching, stuffy-head, feverish lung funk I'd managed to pick up despite the ninety-degree heat, I stopped at Spicy Basil between shifts and had the storefront restaurant nearly to myself. Service was casual but attentive, friendly and willing to customize whatever I ordered to suit my needs. What I needed was spicy, and this place knows spicy. I started off by ordering shumai -- one of my dim sum favorites -- and received a plate with a half-dozen perfect, sticky little pillows of the kitchen's own specialty dumpling dough, steamed and dotted with scraps and chunks of shrimp, as well as a side bowl of soy sauce bobbing with scallions. I followed those perfect dumplings with a bowl of tom yum gong -- Thai hot-and-sour soup-- for medicinal purposes, and a hot bowl of green curry with chicken.

Here in the southwest of the world, we think we have the heat market cornered with our chiles, our Tabasco sauce, our cayenne pepper. We think we know a thing or two about how to make food hot. But in truth, we don't know jack. You want hot, you go East. You go to the folks who've been putting chiles on their Wheaties for the last five centuries. Failing that, you go to a restaurant featuring the flavors of the Far East and you say something stupid like, "No, don't worry. You can't make it hot enough for me."

But in fact, Spicy Basil can make it hot enough. Even when the dish it's heating up is something as innocuous as sesame shrimp or a simple curry, there are a hundred ways the kitchen can crank up the heat to levels so dangerous that they should be classified as weapons-grade. The green Thai curry I ordered nearly burned my lips off. From what I could discern through the sizzle of my scorching tastebuds, the curry itself was excellent, slightly thickened and almost sugary, swimming with potatoes, bell peppers and basil leaves that lent a quirky licorice note to the pain. As a bonus, this dish cured my cold by turning my entire body into an environment unsuitable for anything that couldn't survive at the center of a volcano. All germs, viruses and possibly one or two major organs immediately fled and haven't been back since.

On other visits, I was more careful with my orders -- less apt to make it appear that I was presenting the kitchen with a challenge -- and without the heat as a distraction, found many dishes that had an ideal balance of sweet to savory, with the complex, overlapping waves of heat and flavor I've come to expect from Asian cafe cuisine. Then again, other dishes were simply bland. The crispy duck in Chinese five-spice powder, for example, tasted like it was missing three, maybe four of them, and the Thai chicken pocket came dressed in a rainbow of pepper brunoise and basil but tasted only of oil and black pepper. But the Spicy Basil duck -- the crispy duck's fraternal twin on the menu -- was quite good, the thickly flavored meat perfectly grilled and served with basil sauce. And the Penang curry with chicken, potatoes and snow peas in the pod was perfect, weighing sweet coconut milk against the spotty fire of red-chile powder, adding a little nuttiness, a little earthy kick, and still allowing for how much the flavors would be muted when poured over the broken grains of Thai sticky rice.

 

The only major problem I encountered was with the Penang fish. Here, the curry was great, the rice was fine, the veggies were fresh and the potatoes had even been roasted a little before being added to the sauce . But one chunk of the tender white fish bobbing around in the bowl had a taste like sucking the rocks at the bottom of a dirty aquarium, and that absolutely ruined an otherwise excellent dish. Was that bad bit of fish some of 1 Broadway's bad karma resurfacing?

Since I'm now gainfully employed, my radar for sensing doom is not what it used to be. According to Megan Zhang, Spicy Basil's owner, she took the space because it was cheap, available and seemed well-situated, and she says the restaurant is doing fine. Not great, maybe. But at seven months in, she's happy with how business is going. Certainly Spicy Basil's kitchen is doing well, following a path laid down by places like Thai Basil, Moongate Asian Grill and others in the fusion-bistro set. Still, I worry that no amount of skill and sunny optimism will be enough to see this eatery past whatever hex or stink-eye has bedeviled the location's history for so long.

I'm going to do my best to help Spicy Basil fight fate. I'm going to get too much of a good thing as often as I can, stuffing myself with shumai dumplings and Penang curry, shooting peanut sauce when no one is looking, and wishing the place the best of all possible luck whenever I pass by.

Because something tells me it's going to need it.

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