Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ring molds and steamed spring rolls at Holy Basil

On a humid and stormy Saturday night, I met my friends S and B for dinner at Holy Basil Thai restaurant on 2nd avenue and 9th street in the East Village. We ducked under the awning shielding us from the rain, climbed a flight of stairs and entered the festively decorated restaurant. There's definitely a "cool" factor in play here-- the hostesses wear I'm-in-line-at-Marquee dresses-- but the Thai decor and low lighting make the restaurant fun and inviting.

Ohhh, the humidity

We were led to a small table in a separate porch-like room by the windows. Our table was tiny, clearly a table for two with an extra place setting (that extra would be me). Regardless, we settled in and looked over the drink menu. S and B ordered a "pitcher" (note: in Holy Basil parlance, pitcher = bottle) of sparkling apple cider, one of the drinks on special for the spring. The waitress brought over the bottle and a pair of champagne flutes. I took a small sip, and it was bubbly, appley, and somewhat beery. Interesting.

The "vegetable" menu. Good for you!

We then began our agonizing quest to decide what to order. MAJOR props to Holy Basil: they have a separate vegetarian menu, with both appetizer and entree selections. There were several dishes I was considering, including a noodle soup, but I decided against ordering soup on a hot and sticky day and went with the standard Thai salad. When the waitress came to take our orders, all went smoothly until she reached S, at which point the following exchange ensued:

S: ...and can I get a side of sticky rice?
Waitress: Your dish comes with white rice.
S: Can I get sticky rice instead?
Waitress: No, you have to order that separately.
S: You can't replace the white rice with sticky rice?
Waitress: No, it costs extra.
S: Okay, I'd like a side of sticky rice.

Right. Anyway, the order was placed and our appetizer course arrived shortly. (The chopsticks arrived shortly after that... we had to ask for them specially. Hmm.) We had chosen the steamed vegetable spring rolls to share, mostly because they puzzled us. Steamed spring rolls? I assumed they were going to be like dumplings, but we asked the waitress and she confirmed that they were, indeed, simply steamed spring rolls. We thought they'd be gross. So we ordered them.

Awesome garnish-- check that baby out!

Well, the steamed spring rolls were exactly what they purported to be. The filling was delicious, but they would certainly have been better with a dumpling skin rather than the slightly spongy steamed spring roll exterior. But the plating was beautiful, and even though the dish was pretty damn small (two bites per person, really), it was a tasty appetizer.

We paused after the appetizer course while our entrees were prepared. When the runners arrived with the food, the plates of rice arrived first: one plate of sticky, one plate of plain. While the sticky rice arrived garnished with a lettuce leaf, the dish of white rice was entirely unadorned, thus creating the most hilarious food picture I have yet taken:

That is all.

In contrast, the sticky rice

S's dish arrived next. It was some sort of meat (I think duck but I'm not actually entirely sure...) with string beans. The interesting part of this plate was the garnish. It looked like hair. Not sure what it was (S guessed it was some sort of fish thing). But it was funny.

Meat 'n' beans

A culinary toupee

B had ordered a beef dish with basil leaves. It arrived in a meticulously arranged cylinder, and frankly it looked paltry. But once he went at it with his chopsticks, it actually revealed itself to be a decent-sized plate of food. Cool.

Compact food

The full reveal

And then my salad arrived. After the disappointing size of the appetizer, which I had been counting on to be a good part of my meal, I was visibly (and audibly) distressed when the salad arrived and was TINY. It had a similar presentation to B's entree (ring molds, anyone?), and it just

Beautiful--but small.

But once I started deconstructing it, there was actually a decent amount of salad in there. The greens, bean sprouts, tomato pieces, and bits of chopped tofu were all held in place but a ring of cucumber. The yummy peanut dressing was actually on the bottom, anchoring the salad to the plate, which is creative but it means that until you mess all the stuff around, you're basically eating undressed veggies. In any case, it was a yummy salad, but let's just say that I was so far from full after this dinner was done that B and I made a beeline for Ben & Jerry's to top off my stomach.

Holy Basil has good food and beautiful presentations, but I think it's a wee bit overpriced. There are so many decent and cheap Thai places in the city, I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to dine at Holy Basil, although if you're in the East Village and want something a bit more upscale than your local Thai dive, HB will fit the bill. I'll let the overall level of fun we had at this dinner eclipse the price point and the minor service glitches and award HB a solid four out of five Offset Spatulas.
Updated: Thanks to a correction by B, I can now say with certainty that his meat was actually duck, and S's was pork. Enjoy!

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