Unlike so many of the restaurants slotted into the strip-mall landscape that is Cool Springs, Basil Asian Bistro is not a chain. But it should be. A simple storefront, with dark gray walls and ceiling, exposed ductwork, stained concrete floors and an unusual bar—lit blue from within—the restaurant has a streamlined format that could easily be replicated.
Two sleek black benches and a soothing koi pond with waterfall flank the entryway. A handful of simple but dramatic oversize canvases punctuate the dark walls. Tables wear white cloths topped by butcher paper—and that’s about it. Throw in a step-by-step franchiser’s handbook, and you could pop a Basil into every upscale strip mall in America. Restaurant industry analysts would salivate at the growth potential. But not Mae Charles. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, obsessed with details, she’s more focused on making Basil exactly what she wants it to be: an affordable restaurant with good food and good service. Born in Laos, Charles, 32, moved to the U.S. as a small child with her mother, Onesy Manivong. During 30 years in Nashville, her mother worked in many eateries, even places of her own that served cafeteria-style food. But Manivong always hoped to open a restaurant where she could showcase her preferred Asian cooking. Two years ago, Charles decided to help her mother pursue the dream. Now the petite Charles, in all-black serverwear, efficiently patrols the dining room, delivering steaming bowls of gorgeous food that her mother churns out of the kitchen. Basil’s concise one-page menu is a compendium of familiar Asian-style foods—wontons, curry, panang and Asian pancakes—often marketed under the rubrics of Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese food. When asked why her Laotian mother doesn’t serve more specifically Laotian food, Charles laughs.
“Laotian food…you couldn’t sell it on the market here,” Charles says. She describes the unusual ingredients, such as fish pastes and sticky rice, that go into everyday Laotian cuisine, much of which is eaten without utensils. “It would really make it stink,” she adds. So the Laotian influence is confined to less challenging items such as papaya salad.
Thai basil and chili paste are common ingredients on the Basil menu, which denotes hot items with a delicate green leaf icon plucked from the company’s logo. (Like everything else at Basil, the logo practically brands itself upon impact.) One of these spicy dishes, Basil’s signature noodles, typifies everything that is good about the restaurant. While many Asian restaurants serve similar dishes—wide noodles stir-fried with basil, vegetables, eggs and chili pepper—Basil’s version stood out for several simple reasons. The noodles weren’t greasy or oversauced, the broccoli was crisp and green, and the shrimp were large, deveined and lightly cooked, yielding sweet, succulent butterflies rather than gnarled, flavorless commas.
Another dish, Basil’s shrimp, was similarly fresh, with bright-colored peppers and carrots stir-fried to retain their crispness. A brown broth with oyster sauce and soy flavored the dish with a rich, salty finish, a welcome respite from the sickly-sweet glaze that smothers so much cornstarch-thickened Chinese food.
Among the more exotic-looking dishes were Basil’s banana-leaf wraps. The large leaves encased a gently grilled salmon with basil and lemongrass, infusing the fish with a palate-clearing sweetness. Equally successful was the duck with sweet-and-sour sauce, which came to the table crisp from the pan with its meat both medium-rare and flavorful. Happily, the waterfowl wasn’t served with sauce enough to paddle.
The green curry, with its sweet coconut milk-based sauce, offset tender, thinly sliced sheets of beef with vibrant green pepper and zucchini. All the variations of panang, curry and coconut milk-based soups that we tried were unusually delicious, with delicate flavors, fresh vegetables and high-quality meats. The tom ka kai (coconut chicken soup) balanced stock with coconut milk perfectly, avoiding the overly thick consistency of so many versions of the Thai staple.
For dessert, we skipped the incongruously non-Asian chocolate and carrot cakes, opting for the banana spring rolls deep-fried and drizzled with honey and sesame seeds. We made the right choice. Note to Charles and her mother, who are constantly seeking ways to improve the restaurant: please put your heads together and dream up a couple more delicious, unusual signature desserts like this one.
By no means does the Basil menu deviate from what fans of Asian food have come to expect in Nashville. Spring rolls, lettuce wraps, dumplings, pad Thai and the other usual suspects are all present and accounted for. But the atmosphere of this snappy loft-like space is a world apart from so many “(fill in the blank) dragon” restaurants trapped lifelessly in strip malls—the ones with the standard-issue red-and-gold décor, the pan-Asian Muzak and the nervous hush of couples fumbling lumps of sweet-and-sour pork with chopsticks. Instead, with its sleek lighting, luminous bar and regular Thursday-night jazz, Basil has the sexy flair of a place in, say, San Diego.
From the striking green company logo to the glossy printed menu and flashy website, the Basil image is as professional as a corporate conglomerate yet as fresh as the scent of lemongrass and lime. More importantly, the food, so consistently delicious and fresh, lives up to the promises of the visual branding. Charles could easily sell the idea, cash in her chips and never serve another wonton again. But she recognizes the difference between herself and other entrepreneurs from the East.
“I do business differently from traditional Asians,” she says. “They don’t want to reinvest money back into the restaurant. Being brought up here gives me an advantage: I have the Eastern culture and the new way of things.”
As a result, two years into the business, Charles is still fine-tuning the restaurant. She still trains her servers about the menu, still rolls out new salads for the lunch crowd; she is still refining the layout of the room to disguise the kitchen and servers’ stations. She’s always on the lookout for new details, such as the graceful white bowls, plates and sake cups that give the restaurant a simple yet crafted appeal. So far, Charles has doubled her business over last year, and she is plowing the proceeds back in.
But she’s not ready to expand the concept yet. “I’m trying to get Basil to be what I need it to be,” Charles says. “I don’t want to think of a chain until I make this one restaurant what I want it to be.”
Basil serves lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with live jazz on Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. Beer, wine and sake available.
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