The best type of restaurant for me is the kind where you walk in and feel special, not in a VIP way but rather the way in which every single guest feels like a regular, from the actual regulars who have been going there since opening day decades ago to the tourists who will probably never have the occasion to stop by again. At Sweet Basil in Needham last night, while Joel and I did receive some special attention as we were there on an invitation from the PR rep, it was clear that every single person in the restaurant (and it was packed) had either been going there for years or might as well have been; attention was lavished throughout the cozy room by chef/owner Dave Becker, who is without a doubt the warmest, most genuine restaurant owner I've met. While plenty exude friendliness, you can still feel the sales pitch underneath, but as Dave glided around the room chatting with guests and manning the host stand and presenting us with plate after plate of food (on pottery he actually made himself), it was clear that he was there simply because he absolutely loves it and wants every guest to love it just as much as he does.
I had been to Sweet Basil once before, on a lunch expedition during my stint at Tasted Menu last year. The team would occasionally go out to random destinations and order as much of the menu as possible, partly with the intention of seeding the website with some thorough reviews and photos (but mostly because we all genuinely loved to eat). We hungrily ate our way through quite a few of the sandwiches, and I fell in love with the food as well as the quirky/rustic ambiance, from the turquoise walls (with coat hooks by each table!) to the hanging plants threatening to overflow their pots.
But from the location (Needham, a half hour from Somerville if there's absolutely no traffic) to the menu (Italian, not Thai, although the name could go either way), I knew it'd be hard to drag Joel out there for a future visit. He just doesn't get excited by pasta like I do. I figured I'd probably never get the chance to head back out there.
When Sweet Basil's PR rep recently contacted me to see if I'd like to meet Dave and try out dinner, though, I was able to convince Joel that it'd be worth the drive. Now that we're home digesting the epic feast (and with Dave's beautiful cookbook in hand as well, along with plentiful leftovers), I don't think he regrets the trip, despite the painstaking rush hour trek that took an hour.
As the meal began, Joel, as usual, immediately took note of the music. It was a great and eclectic selection - everything from classic jazz to Jane's Addiction - and the level wasn't disruptive but could still be heard even as the restaurant filled up. And a wall in the back was even covered with records, again a great mix: Curtis Mayfield, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Simon & Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. (It pains me to leave out the Oxford commas in two of those, but I looked them up, and that seems to be the standard way of punctuating them. I'm a nerd, and I drive myself crazy.) Aside from the records, the walls were mostly decorated with a beautiful mix of art by Dave's late grandfather.
We soon broke into our half-bottle of wine (Sweet Basil is BYOB), a lovely 2007 Italian Barolo that was given to me by Central Bottle as part of a package promoting their new sister venture, Belly Wine Bar. We figured it'd be the perfect fit for a place like Sweet Basil, and it was.
And then the food began to arrive. So much food. Big portions have become almost a gimmick there, like at Vinny T's, Dave said, admitting that he ate a lot more in the beginning, but even now that he watches his own portions more, regulars probably wouldn't appreciate the restaurant portions shrinking. (Keep in mind when viewing the photographs in this post that some of these portions were merely sample sizes, not the real thing.)
As with most Italian restaurants, Sweet Basil sends out a basket of bread to start the meal, but instead of plain old olive oil, there's pesto for dipping. Really good pesto. Next, we tried the sweet corn agnolotti (with sautéed vegetables in lemony broth, topped with arugula salad and herb aioli), beet risotto, Greek lamb meatballs (simmered in spicy tomato sauce and topped with tzatziki), and steamed mussels (in a garlic and wine broth with tomatoes, olive oil, and crostini). While everything was delicious, it was the meatballs that nearly made me moan inappropriately. It was an unexpected Greek-Italian fusion - tzatziki with tomato sauce?! - but it worked surprisingly well, resulting in a flavor that was bold yet comforting and nearly sinful. They'll soon be replaced with a fall meatball, though - most likely a pork and chicken liver combination, maybe in a preparation including Armagnac, said Dave. The agnolotti will also be gone soon. I asked how often the menu changes, and Dave replied, "Not often enough! It's a constant battle to the keep the regulars happy and the chefs from getting bored."
We continued with the rosemary chicken (with crispy pancetta and asparagus in a creamy parmesan cream sauce with ziti), a bestseller. "Not my favorite," admitted Dave, "and I think it's going to be solely responsible for shortening people's lifespans."
My lifespan, though, is more likely to be threatened by a good bolognese, and Sweet Basil's was no exception. Even the inclusion of mushrooms, typically a mortal enemy of my tastebuds, barely bothered me, and the housemade pappardelle was outstanding. At the end of the evening, we got to see the giant pasta machine in the basement, and Dave told us about the person who makes the pasta, but I got confused because he employs several brothers (and an uncle, I think) whose names all rhyme: Nilson, Admilson, and I think the other two were Jilson and Jailson, although I'm probably butchering the spelling. (I verified the first two in the cookbook but couldn't find mention of the others.) In any case, one of them makes the pasta, and one of them - maybe the same one - is constantly mistaken for being the owner of the restaurant because of the aura he exudes in the dining room, one of authority, pride, and some good-natured grumpiness.
Just as we were about to explode, the final dishes arrived. First, a gigantic hunk of phyllo-wrapped baked gouda, oozing its seductive insides all over a mixed greens salad, which was embellished with slivers of dried apricots and strawberries. Then, a tender slow-cooked lamb shank with roasted vegetables and amazingly fluffy polenta.
This was last night and Yom Kippur is still a day away, but I have a feeling this year will be an easy fast, because I won't really feel like eating for quite some time!
A few details to note: Sweet Basil accepts cash or check only (no credit cards) and does not serve alcohol (but you can BYOB for a $5 corkage fee). And no reservations. You'll likely have to wait during peak times, but there are often snacks coming out of the kitchen for people who are waiting, and we saw at least one party getting into their first bottle of wine before getting seated.
After we ate, Dave enthusiastically swept us down to the basement for a tour of the inner workings, including the aforementioned pasta machine as well as bottles of housemade vinegars. We left with a bag full of leftovers and the gorgeous Sweet Basil cookbook , which I began to skim through as soon as I got home. It's packed full of relatively simple recipes as well as stories and photographs, and I'm looking forward to trying out some of the recipes. Perhaps even more useful than the recipes themselves are the pieces of advice Dave offers in the introduction. My favorite: "Have fun, cook for people you love, and drink lots of wine."
Even though this dinner was a special complimentary tasting and therefore leaves me at least a little biased, I have no hesitation wholeheartedly recommending the restaurant based on the way I saw other patrons treated, as well as based on my very positive lunch experience last year. On our way out, we spoke to a woman who has been going to the restaurant since the very beginning, and from her enthusiasm and that of the other patrons, many of whom talked to Dave as if they'd known each other forever, it's clear that everyone who walks into the door at Sweet Basil gets that special feeling that comes along with exceptional food and service.