There's an off-putting randomness to Spicy Basil.
Signage promises a generic Asian grill, which the menu reflects, while the website calls it "a taifood [sic] restaurant that you should totally check out." Meanwhile, an interior that could easily pass for a nightclub is almost impossible to describe: Large, flat, steel sculpture-things, inset with lights, hang from the ceiling; one wall is mustard yellow, while the others bear planters against large, framed nature scenes backlit with a purple glow, like a modified car's underbody lights. A corner by the kitchen is decorated with tessellated (3D-looking) squares.
The service can be as stress-inducing and jarring as the atmosphere. Servers dropped food and left instantly, meaning one wrongly delivered soup went uncorrected for 10 minutes — your basic under-attentiveness. But at other times, multiple people cycled through, asking one after the other if we needed boxes, water or our bill — your basic over-attentiveness.
As for the food, well, the majority of our samplings also missed the beat.
Two bowls of ribboned egg drop soup — included with order of an entrée — were night and day: one, thin and savory, the other viscous with too much cornstarch. A bowl of hot-and-sour soup was even worse, pouring from the spoon like warm syrup. All were lukewarm and set down on the table with a hurried bang.
Six small nuggets of shrimp dumplings called shumai ($4.25) were inoffensive at best, if you're OK with tacky, cool-to-the-touch wrappers and a side of cold, soy-based sauce for dipping. Unfortunately, the restaurant's owner was out of town when we called to verify if they were made in-house, and the manager didn't know. I do know they arrived minutes after being ordered, joining our finished, but uncollected, large soup bowls on the table.
But if large is good and huge is better, then the portions here are outstanding. Our yellow Tropical Fried Rice ($8.95) could easily have fed three people, packed as it was with large shrimp, slices of tender chicken breast, pineapples, cashews, raisins, peas and carrots. Without any flavors shining particularly brightly, though, the whole thing tasted like curry spices and cinnamon.
The Peanut Sauce Curry ($6.95) was similarly one-dimensional. Despite the restaurant's name flashing a Thai sensibility, we weren't, as is traditional, asked how spicy we'd like the dish; in the end, the thing came incredibly sweet with cream, and a touch of peanut flavor on the front end. Vegetables like broccoli and bell peppers were pretty crunchy, but chicken breast slices that were nicely moist in the previous dish were soggy here.
A second visit brought more likeable food, though — the grilled duck salad ($8.95) was a true highlight. Thinly sliced over spring greens, the poultry tasted both of bold char and subtle sweetness. The thin orange dressing, and its spicy fruit-punch flavors, continued that.
Lastly, after I asked if I could skip the included soup (please), the manager brought out two decent, thumb-thick egg rolls with my Mongolian beef ($6.95). Another large plate for its price, it wasn't a huge success, but it met my flavor needs like others previously hadn't. In a fine brown sauce, it offered loads of grilled red and green onions over large pieces of steak.
It, with the salad, at least helped restore a little balance to the chaos.