Slow food: How sweet it can be

by Brian Clarey

One of the things I say often – and there are a lot of things I say often – is that Greensboro has trouble handling the concept of a bistro.

I’ll explain.

A bistro is a simple place, often with a funky, bohemian décor, where people gather to relax and celebrate a respite from the day’s stresses. It’s casual, though you could wear a necktie if you wanted and not feel too much like a doofus, and there should exist a small but excellent wine list that acts as an extension of the menu. The food should highlight quality local ingredients; the dishes should be creative, elegant and artfully prepared; and the prices should look like Applebee’s.

Seriously: Bistros are not supposed to be expensive.

But the crew behind Sweet Basil’s (which is sometimes represented with an apostrophe, but sometimes not – I’m going with the apostrophe) understands the paradigm.

The trio of Khan Eakin, a former Charlestonian, and husband and wife Renee and [TK] Schroeder, who brought brought culinary and carpentry expertise to the table, set out early to create not just a restaurant, but a community whose participants understood and savored the goodness of local organic produce, artisan dairy products, carefully raised meats. They share the philosophy of the slow food movement, which stresses the pleasures of dining, the importance of quality ingredients and the need for sustainable agriculture.

They came together in a household kitchen, and plans for a restaurant germinated quickly. When the right location presented itself – the cottage that once housed Café D’Arte – they moved on it.

From there they moved with precision, overseen by Eakin, who has military and law-enforcement experience. They actually hit their opening date, which is rare in this business.

The soft opening began Dec. 1, and on the advice of a friend (whose wife, it should be said, waits tables there) we booked a table this past weekend.

The place looks great; our table in the upstairs dining room sat amid a palette of heavy pastels, washed-out earth tones and dark wood. I’m told there is a special “couples table” somewhere in the building.

And the menu is simple, elegant and earthbound. Salads top out at $10; small plates run $9 to about $15; entrees begin at $14 and hit as high as $35, with lots of choices in between.

There is also a special nightly menu made from ingredients purchased that day at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market. Tonight’s includes French-style steak tartare and an ostrich tenderloin under a bing cherry port reduction.

On this night we stuck to the regular menu, which has about 20 items, and were fortunate enough to try several entrees, which will be the focus of the overview.

My wife gravitated to one of their vegetarian dishes, a portabello Napoleon, with layers of chevre risotto and thin-sliced squash grilled until crispy. It was an excellent example of fine vegetarian cuisine, but I wanted something with some meat to it.

I was torn between the duck confit with raspberry balsamic gastrique and the Angus ribeye with a wild mushroom bordelaise side that held my attention for a good bit. I settled on the duck, which was quite good. A highlight was the artichoke hash, consisting of julienned root vegetables and pieces of artichoke heart which were, thankfully, not marinated. Artichoke hearts do not need marination in order to be delicious.

In perusing the menu, I of course noticed the presence of two dishes that you can get just about anywhere, particularly in the South: crab cakes and shrimp and grits. I see them so often, frankly, that I have become jaded to their presence on a menu. I never, ever order crab cakes. Or shrimp and grits.

But when I come back to Sweet Basil’s, I plan to break policy.

The crab cakes were luscious, loaded with sweet crabmeat, and plated with these black bean mashed potatoes that I’m still trying to figure out (Asian five spice, maybe?).

But the shrimp and grits was one of the best dishes I’ve had this year. The little suckers are bathed in a peppery red sauce with chunks of great sausage. The grits themselves, a starch of which I am normally not a fan, were magnificent – creamy and flavorful and wonderfully capable of holding the sauce.

These two dishes alone make Sweet Basil’s a contender on the Greensboro restaurant scene.

That I will return to Sweet Basil’s is a certainty. By the time I get around to it, I hope I can still get a table.

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