Bethesda's Sweet Basil -- a Hidden Gem on Fairmont
Lunch time is Thai time.
Fairmont is an oasis of gratifying restaurants, and yet, the street remains modest and tranquil—a place with no hype, where you’ll never be overwhelmed by crowds. Even the parking is easy. As someone who seeks peaceful hidden gems, I hesitate to share my private haunt, Sweet Basil, but I feel it is my duty as Bethesda Patch’s Best Bites columnist to disclose. So here goes:
Sweet Basil has been open since 2000. The restaurants is known and appreciated by people who work in the offices nearby for their lunch specials. For $8 you’ll have a choice of several entrees and an appetizer, served in generous portions. The specials come with paupia--crispy rolls stuffed with glass noodles, cabbages, celery, shiitake mushrooms and carrots with a homemade sweet & sour sauce.
Specials are for eat-in customers only, but you won’t be sorry you came in. The restaurant is hushed and soothing. A gurgling fish tank provides a serene backdrop against the soft lemon walls and ceiling inset painted with puffy clouds and pale blue sky. These details, along with a forest green carpet, create the sensation of picnicking in an Asian garden. The service is patient and composed. You’re never going to feel rushed or anxious here. It’s like getting a spa treatment at lunch.
And you’re going to eat too. But, there’s no jolt when you’re served one of the luscious entrees prepared with a light hand. There are many worthy dishes here, but a favorite among regular customers is the pad thai served with wide rice noodles, tender slivers of chicken, baby shrimp, tofu, bits of egg, scallions and crisp bean sprouts. This sweet sauce is delicate, and allows the integrity of the ingredients to shine.
I also like the Panang, chicken simmered in red curry sauce with slivers of kaffir leaves, ordered by recommendation of my server. Panang is a safe bet for those who wish to avoid overly-spicy and overly heavy curries. It includes the usual coconut milk, fish sauce, lemon grass, coriander, cumin, cilantro and red chili peppers, but isn’t going to make you sweat or feel bloated. The white meat chicken rests in a broth-like, peppery sauce, with that bite from the limey-ness of the chopped kaffir leaves.
The dishes I tried at Sweet Basil are subtle and have no MSG. The prices are hardly inexpensive, but it’s my impression that they’re using fresh ingredients. The service was solicitous each time I dined there--my jasmine tea was piping hot, my server refilled the waters without asking. It’s never been crowded, and diners seem pleased, usually walking out with leftovers.
I really like Thai flavors and have taken Thai cooking classes. For years, I’ve regularly dined at Tara Thai, which offers spicier, stronger flavors in many dishes. I would say Tara Thai’s cuisine is also heavier, and some may prefer that style to the refined, healthier cuisine at Sweet Basil. Perhaps Patch readers will offer us their insights, but overall, I recommend giving Sweet Basil a try, especially at lunch.