Isn’t it lovely, sometimes, to have a scheme go awry? I wasn’t planning to be anywhere near the Adelphi the day I stumbled upon Sweet Basil; the plan was to head to the Esplanade and get my tickets for an upcoming concert (Hélène Grimaud! Playing Ravel! I will review it). But as it happened, there was something else going on and the Esplanade was cordoned off – something about men driving about in funny-shaped cars at high speed while lots of people watch on. I still am not sure what it was.
(Now, I jest of course. I know it was the Formula 1 races, seeing as it’s been screamed at everyone in City Hall station for a whole month. Whither subtlety, modern civilisation?)
I would like to say it was pure serendipity and Formula 1 that brought me to Sweet Basil, but it was in fact aroma – the sweetish, avian aroma of chicken fat rendering, to be precise, as they prepare their takeaway classic, chicken cracklings. The scent lays down a trail past the rare coins and audio equipment stores, leading to a place that doesn’t look like it just celebrated its first birthday earlier this year. Instead, with its wall menu and drinks in a fridge and general austerity, it is more like a meticulously clean version of the eateries serving meals in old-school shopping malls like Sim Lim Square.
Well, except for the crucial detail of being fully, unabashedly Thai. The staff, who are all Thai, have come up with a menu that is a line up of classic Thai street food. At the helm is Tara, who has arrived in the CBD via Bangkok, but whose heritage – she’s from the north of Thailand – shows in the dishes. Many of the offerings, like green curry and tom yum, are central Thai, long familiar to Singaporeans; others, though, are harder to find here – Sukhothai noodles and ‘spicy minced pork salad’. The staff nod and grin when I ask if that’s larb moo, that bewitching Isan staple, and of course I choose it.
And what a good choice, if I may say so. Larb moo is a simple picture – a pile of pork mince and julienned onions, topped with chili flakes and mint leaves – but is a whirl of jostling, vivacious flavours to open a meal with – basal saltiness from its fish sauce, the occasional crunch of sugar crystals, gusts of palate-cleansing mint floating above the spiciness. The mince itself is springy, with just a little gristle – and plenty of those piquant onions – to add interest.
In keeping with the Thai style, each table has condiments – oil, chili flakes, white sugar – for customers to fine-tune their soup. But the Sukhothai noodle soup hardly needs such treatment in my opinion – vastly flavoured, a hint of the sea hidden below the cheerful fruitiness of lime and more of that relentless chili heat, it is the main star of the dish, alongside thin rice noodles – sen lek, a cousin to Vietnamese pho and our own kuay teow – which require a little stirring to loosen them up and finish cooking in its broth. Against this broad backdrop the toppings – a golden, folded triangle of fried wonton skin, tender egg with powdery yolk, slices of mildly savoury roast pork among others – are small contrasting notes, including granules of roasted peanuts and chopped long beans.
On a second visit, I go for something a little more conventional and order the seafood tom yum, a blushing red under which is the murky stew. The soup again keeps to Thai practice, where a good tom yum is an ambush – first a whiff of kaffir lime to lure in the unwary, before opening up with a fiery, acidic barrage. Yet somehow, even through the fog of the heat that makes sweat drip into my eyes, there is space for the gentler elements, the crunch and squeak of straw mushrooms and squid and the sweetness of lemongrass. On both visits I ended up having two cups of the Thai milk tea, redolent of herbal tea – notes of liquorice, cinnamon, grass jelly without any of the jelly, all mingled with the smoothness of evaporated milk. It helps a lot with the spice, and is good on its own merits.
Is there something ‘special’ or ‘unique’ about Sweet Basil? Well, admittedly no, not if what you’re looking for are ‘new takes’ or ‘twists’. Straightforwardness is the key here. Not that they lack sophistication in the food or in their marketing – even during the afternoon lull, with their semi-reclusive location, they attract a steady flow of customers, and at least part of the reason is probably their activity on social media. They even have a Youtube channel, featuring their chef synthesising the complex flavours of her native fare with graceful ease.
Nonetheless Sweet Basil’s brief is authenticity and cheerfulness, and that’s what you get from visiting. Sounds cliche, maybe. But the staff are smiling, the soundtrack is extraction fans and the clanging of ladles on woks, the food pulls no punches and dispels the tropical afternoon ennui like a gale scatters leaves – and all this happens for prices that will make you grin, too. It’s not every day that one finds a hiding hole this deep into the city, not to mention one which wakes palates the way Sweet Basil does.
1 Coleman Street
#02-07, The Adelphi
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9am – 5pm