Cincinnati hosts an impressive number of Thai restaurants, most of which are passable. The one standout, "Mekong Thai," conveniently located in Kenwood, served great food that was fresh and delicious. Sadly, the owners retired and moved away last year, the space taken over by the folks who brought us Zab Thai in Loveland. They remodeled and renamed the place, "Bangkok St.," offering a decidedly different menu we ultimately found disappointing. We want Mekong, damnit: everything short of that pales in comparison.
Several more Thai restaurants sprung up this year, including Bamboo Kitchen, reportedly co-owned by a niece of Mekong's owner. But again, the experience for us was a letdown, with inconsistent food and an ambiance disrupted by large, CNN-blaring LCD screens. Now comes Basil Thai, located in Blue Ash in the Cornell Place strip mall off Cornell Road. Sporting brand new furniture and a sleek, upscale decor, Basil Thai hopes to assume the mantle Mekong had left behind.
The menu offers a large variety of Thai and Asian favorites: there are noodle soups like the hot-n-sour Tom Yum soup, the Japanese Sukiyaki and the Vietnamese Pho; rice noodle dishes like Pad Thai, Pad See Ewe and Rad-Na; six forms of curry dishes; myriad fried rice, fish and salad offerings; and the obligatory sushi menu.
We were seated in pristine, white leather chairs, admiring the fresh, modern feel of the dining room disrupted by a couple LCD TVs. Resting on each table was a rack with four glass-encased condiments meant to spice up or sweeten dishes: sugar, ground red chili, jalapenos in a vinegar base and a red chili/vinegar sauce. We inferred from this that Basil Thai did not offer a spice scale for their dishes; rather, patrons were encouraged to season their own entrees to taste.
While we were a bit overwhelmed by the menu choices, our eyes naturally gravitated toward the familiar. But there were plenty of options here we'd never seen before on area Thai menus, including the Northern Thai Sausage (Sai Oua) and the Thai Pork Jerky (Moo Dad Deaw), a popular Bangkok street food.
My girlfriend and I readily agreed on the Thai sausage appetizer, followed by Pad See Ewe and Pad Kee Mao (aka Drunken Noodle) entrees. The Thai sausage arrived cut into manageable pieces of seasoned ground pork, served with fresh ginger, peanuts, Thai chilies and cabbage leaves. The idea was to take a bit of everything and build a makeshift cabbage roll. We enjoyed the satisfying snap of sausage casing and cabbage, the pleasing balance of meat and fat and the spicy tinge of green chili.
Our rice noodle entrees each arrived in a deep, white teardrop bowl, which was pleasing to the eye but somewhat cumbersome to eat out of. Each dish was (to our tastes) mildly spiced, so we resorted to using the available four table ingredients for added heat.
The vinegar-based jalapeno sauce worked best with my beef Pad See Ewe entree, but it took several applications before I managed to get the spice just right. My girlfriend also had to experiment with the spices before she was satisfied with her steamed tofu-infused Drunken Noodle dish.
On paper, the idea of giving the customer full control over spice levels is a good one, but in practice, it's a clumsy experience, requiring several unsatisfying bites before reaching a satisfactory one. In our opinion, the onus should be on the chef to get the spicing right and Basil Thai is hurting itself for not offering the familiar 1-to-3 or 1-to-6 spice levels offered at other ethnic restaurants. Still, the flavors were solid and we both enjoyed our dishes.
Basil Thai is off to a very good start. We're pleased there's another Thai option in town. With just a bit of tweaking, the restaurant is poised to become one of the better Thai restaurants in Cincinnati.