What is Date Night Dining?
This column is about the experience of food in Chattanooga. I will take people out for dinner and lunch dates at various restaurants in the Chattanooga region. It is not meant to be a review per se, but an account of a one-time experience at a restaurant. Your mileage may vary depending upon your expectations.
This week, I dined with my friend Monica Hertle at one of my favorite Chattanooga restaurants, Sweet Basil Thai Cuisine at 5845 Brainerd Road. It’s very easy to say that Sweet Basil is the best Thai food in Chattanooga because it is absolutely true and has been forever. None of the other places (Rain, Sawasdee or Thai Smile) even come close to the quality, presentation and flavor. No shade will be thrown on Sweet Basil in this article. (Click here to learn what “shade” means and why all the kids are saying it.)
Monica picked me up downtown, and we drove around for a while trying to figure out where to eat dinner. Nothing at the Hamilton Place/Gunbarrel area piqued our interest, so we eventually ended up driving back downtown via the Brainerd corridor. I was positive I’d done a Date Night Dining at Sweet Basil because it’s easily one of my favorite restaurants. But a quick Google search told me I hadn’t. In a matter of minutes, I was sipping on a Thai tea and a cup of tom kha gai soup.
Monica had never been to Sweet Basil, although she’s heard plenty of positive reviews from others. The outside is a little weird-in the same shopping center as a hardware store and mattress outlet-but once inside, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cleaner, more inviting environment. The music is familiar but without vocals, and the service has always been polite and faultless. The atmosphere is elegant but casual, which is perfect for a romantic dinner or a meeting of friends and family. Of course, the reality is that I love their food so much that I would eat it served to me on a basement floor while somebody whipped and cursed at me.
As is custom, our server placed the precisely folded napkins into our laps and offered to get us drinks. I always order a Thai iced tea (because it’s better here than anywhere else in town) and usually forgo ordering wine or a beer. Sweet Basil’s prices are low for the quality of food you receive, but I prefer to spend my budget on the cuisine. Monica stuck with water but was surprised at how good the Thai tea was. (I was nice and let her have a sip.)
We started with a cup of tom kha gai soup (chicken, mushrooms, coconut milk, galangal root, lemongrass), which I could eat every day and never get enough of. I also ordered some basil rolls with a delicious peanut sauce for dipping. These are slightly spicy, though not intolerably so. Sweet Basil’s version of tom kha gai is creamy rather than spicy.
If the authorities ever let me leave Chattanooga, there are a few meals that I will crave years after my forced extradition. Those items are Mojo Burrito’s mini-Mojo with key lime chicken, Lupi’s “Lillian” pizza and the crispy duck chef’s special at Sweet Basil.
The menu offers everything from curry (all colors) to wonderful dinner-sized portions of pad prik king (red curry chicken, green beans and fish sauce) and spicy whole catfish. For the less adventurous eaters such as Monica, Sweet Basil makes the best-tasting version of pad thai in the region. I was craving the crispy duck, and Monica ordered the pad thai with no “leaves” (which is how they want you to denote levels of desired heat). I ordered “two leaves” for my crispy duck, which made for a delightfully painful yet tolerable eating experience.
The presentation was perfect; so was the flavor. Monica’s pad thai was shrimp-y (that’s a compliment) and savory. I’m not a huge fan of eggs, but I enjoy the occasional pad thai. What can I say about the duck? This simple dish is something you can’t find anywhere else. Like the spicy whole catfish, these dishes are unique signatures that keep customers coming back again and again. Our server placed a scoop of steamed rice on my plate, and I added just a touch of soy sauce (there is nothing wet about this dish) to the mix before adding the crunchy basil leaves and duck. There was enough duck here for three meals, and I’m eating leftovers as I type. The generally accepted truth that food like this is “better the next day” is absolutely true.
Monica and I had no room for dessert, but the final dish we ordered isn’t really dessert. I like to call it a “palate cleanser for the road,” which is a stupid thing to say, but I don’t care. Sweet Basil offers mango with a sweet, sticky rice. The rice is warm and takes away the sour flavor of the mango, leaving just sweetness. It’s perfect and only added $4 to the bill. I’m not sure if Monica liked it or not.
Would I go back?
Sweet Basil is in a weird location. I usually eat casual dinners downtown, and, as is painfully evident, I don’t often think about the restaurant unless I drive by. If I lived within a few miles of Sweet Basil, I’d probably be their biggest customer (in both senses of the word). At $46 before tip, I can’t afford this often. But lunch prices are much cheaper, and there’s always the sushi to keep the price down. It might be a while, but I’ll definitely be back.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.