By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, February 6, 2005
Nongkran Daks has never been far from the pleasures of the table.
When she was only 8, the Thai native was helping her sister-in-law, a caterer, grind spices for parties and, as a university student in Bangkok, she returned home on weekends to cook for friends and family. She continued studying food and feeding others when she married a Peace Corps volunteer, Larry Daks, who later became a Foreign Service officer. Assignments took them to Laos, China and Taiwan. When the couple settled in Northern Virginia in 1996, Nongkran Daks decided to turn all that experience into a business of her own.
"I didn't want my restaurant to look like the others," the 64-year-old chef recently recalled. So Daks decorated her modest space, on the far end of a small shopping strip, with conical hats and bamboo steamers collected from travels through Southeast Asia. She also brightened her tables with handsome cotton and silk cloths representing the four regions of her homeland.
The effect is personal and mostly comfortable (though the generic waiting-room music detracts from some of the charm). For passengers flying into or out of Dulles International Airport, or visitors to the National Air and Space Museum's new outpost nearby, Thai Basil also provides a convenient place to refuel.
Daks hails from Chumphon province in southern Thailand, where fish and seafood are abundant, coconuts are plentiful, and the food tends to be hot with chilies. This last detail is evident on her menu in dishes such as chicken (or pork or beef) in green curry; the tingling gravy -- made with chilies, fish sauce and coconut milk -- is sweet and complex. Crisp green beans and soft bamboo shoots fill out the entree.
Fish cakes are familiar finds on Thai menus, though the tongue-tingling patties served with cucumber relish at Thai Basil are zestier and lighter than much of the local competition. Even more enticing are shrimp cakes, an occasional special, seasoned with little more than soy sauce, and crunchy beneath their coats of Japanese bread crumbs. Whole shrimp bundled with scallions and julienned carrots, then fried to a gentle crisp, are wittily billed as "shrimp in a blanket." They're tasty. Shrimp are featured again in a simple stir-fry with asparagus, cooked so that the vegetable retains its bright hue and gentle crunch, and accented with a delicate garlic sauce.
I'm reminded of India's influence on Thai cooking when I bite into what could pass for samosas: flaky, crescent-shaped pastry snacks filled with soothing potatoes, carrots and peas. They come with a dip of red onion and cucumber that lends each morsel some punch. And I'm reminded of Rice Krispies when I order No. 3, or khao tang na tang, which translates as airy rice cakes whose scooped centers hold pinches of minced pork and shrimp, peppercorns, garlic, chopped nuts and other savory enhancers. Another starch to explore is No. 2, small pastry shells, or "golden cups," filled with ground chicken and vegetables. (Romance alert: On Valentine's Day, this appetizer is made with a heart-shaped mold.)
Daks's soups pulse with flavor -- and keep a diner reaching for his beer (or, better yet, his rice bowl; the starch is better than any liquid for taming the flames). Chicken and coconut milk are jump-started with lemon grass and lime in one heady bowl, while another choice finds tender shrimp bobbing in a brick-red broth that sears the tongue with blazing chilies. Your brain cries, "Stop!" but your taste buds say, "Bring it on, baby." Both soups show off the layering of flavors that make Thai food so appealing.
Meanwhile, salads are truly refreshing. One zippy plate among the lot mixes green beans, corn, grated carrots, bean sprouts, chili flakes and toasted coconut.
Your server will ask how spicy you prefer your food, using a scale that starts with "American Hot," indicated by a single chili pepper, and tops out at "Laos Hot," signaled by four peppers -- and plenty fiery, I should add. When ordered "Thai hot" (three peppers), shaved beef in a creamy red curry is a blowtorch of a dish that still lets you taste ingredients other than its red chilies.
In the course of three meals, I had a few serious disappointments. One was the kitchen's pad Thai, the classic noodle dish, flagged as a signature but heavy on the palm sugar when I sampled it. Indeed, sweeteners are used generously here; even the limeade is not as tart as it should be. And deep-fried fish -- flounder on my visit -- is thin and dry, with too much crunchy skin and too little snowy flesh. Not even generous applications of a dark and fruity "three-flavor sauce" could rescue this entree.
On a housekeeping note, I wish the servers could find something other than window spray to clean the glass tabletops. Meals are not improved when an antiseptic mist wafts your way and settles on your food. Thai Basil is one of many restaurants whose staff pull out a spritzer filled with blue cleaning solution, and I say, please cease and desist.
Fortunately, the long menu holds plenty of pleasures, and clock-watchers will be pleased to know that the food tends to come out quickly. The standing roster of chef's specials includes a dish that tastes like something you might encounter in a Thai home: fried rice mixed with moist ribbons of chicken, chopped tomato and licorice-like Thai basil, and scattered with fried shallots. And the dessert list stretches to eight options, an impressive number for an Asian kitchen. The house-made coconut ice cream with bites of jackfruit, the steamed custard and the fan of mango slices arranged around sticky rice all make simple and satisfying finishes.
Thai Basil would be an asset to its neighborhood -- even in a neighborhood with more restaurants to choose from.