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Fusion Confusion: Thai Basil

by Brian Freedman
Thai Basil
655 Haddon Ave., Collingswood
(856) 833-0098
3 forks For a long time, “fusion” was a byword of sorts for ambitious chefs in the country’s more urbane regions. Young cooks, enamored with the ways of their more famous and established counterparts, packed their menus with wide-ranging food references that attempted to reconcile the space between various national cuisines. But that love affair ended years ago. These days, the rallying cry is for conscientiously authentic preparations that mine the culinary traditions of specific regions. Collingswood’s Thai Basil attempts to hedge its bets, simultaneously pursuing both those culinary trends: the menu promises both “authentic Thai” and “Asian fusion cuisine.” It’s an admirable effort, but the restaurant’s lack of focus seems to result in any number of problems. The space is cheerful and thoughtfully designed, with recipes as decorative elements lining one wall. And the kind, attentive service is exactly where it needs to be. But the size and range of the menu—encompassing more than 70 recipes native to Thailand, Singapore, China and Japan—would challenge even the best chef in New Jersey, or anywhere else. Thai Basil’s kitchen staff sometimes, but not always, rose to that challenge. We started with Bangkok shu mai, which, though pleasant, lacked much to interest. The steamed wrapper, a touch gummy, was filled with a forgettable mixture of chicken, crab and shrimp, and was easily dominated by the chili-soy dipping sauce. I had high hopes for the som tum, a spicy papaya salad, to brighten things up. The bracingly sour green papaya is typically one of the highlights of a solid Thai meal, contributing a flavor component that is too often missing from the Western tradition. But there was a lack of conviction in the clarity of flavors, the sour note of green papaya overwhelmed by a sugary sweetness in the chili-lime dressing. Moreover, the shrimp accompanying it were unappealingly overcooked. Vegetable tom yum was a reprieve: Here, finally, was a balanced and complex dish, the perfume of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, the bright tang of acid, the easy funkiness of tofu and the more profound earthiness of fish sauce, all framed the still-crisp vegetables nicely. Kang ped phed yang also showed how well this kitchen could do if it simply played to its strengths. This crispy half duck, in texture at least, would have been just as at home hanging in a window in Philadelphia’s Chinatown as it was here in Collingswood. The skin, wafer-thin, Jersey Shore-tan and deep-fried to a delicate crisp, shattered with each bite; the meat it protected possessed the density and earthiness that are the hallmarks of well-prepared duck. It arrived showered with bell peppers, sweet diced pineapple, slippery lychee, tomato and basil, all of it luxuriating in a well-crafted Thai red curry sauce. But for every hit there seemed to be a miss. Pad thai, for example, which of all things should be flawless at a Thai-focused restaurant, fell short. It was overly sweet, doused in too much sauce, and devoid of the tamarind-tart complexity that one expects. The fruity, non-alcoholic drinks were also too sweet. All in all, I left wishing the kitchen staff would get back to basics and prepare this food as they would for Thai guests in their homes. That means less sweetness, more balance and greater concern for preserving the flavors of each ingredient. Forget the fusion: focus on what makes Thai cuisine great. E-mail us Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 7 (October, 2010).
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