Years ago I ordered a moderately priced bottle of wine to accompany dinner. During the meal I repeatedly raved because this wine was remarkably different from what I usually drank. Turned out I had been mistakenly served a much more expensive bottle from the same winery. Luckily, the restaurant graciously charged me only for the bottle I had ordered, but I learned a valuable lesson: While quality can sometimes cost, it also can be instantly detected. Basa Modern Vietnamese, the latest addition to Louisville’s Vietnamese restaurant lineup, gave me a similar revelation.
The Frankfort Avenueestablishment is the creation of brother co-owners Michael and Steven Ton, nephews of Huong Tran, who owns ZenGardennext door. Originally from Boston — and a Culinary Institute of America-trained French chef — Michael Ton worked in the Boston-New York megalopolis for 13 years before coming to Louisville. He says he’s “always wanted to do an original, upscale-casual Vietnamese concept,” and luckily for us, Louisvilleis where the brothers have chosen to do it.
Thanks to their aunt and others, such as Vietnam Kitchen and even Yang Kee Noodle, Louisvilleisn’t unfamiliar with Vietnamese dishes such as spring rolls and pho. But at Basa, the quality of ingredients and care of preparation make even these “standards” stand out. Take Basa’s pho, for example (offered on the menu as Vietnamese beef noodle soup, $14). This simple concoction of noodles and meat, floating in a broth scented with anise and ginger, is a staple of Vietnamese dining. I’ve had it at several places around town, but my serving at Basa was emphatically better. The delicate broth allowed the flavors of beef, basil and ginger to play out individually and in harmony with every bite. The accompanying garnishes of basil, sprouts and lime were strikingly fresh. Instead of the expected beef top round ingredient, prime tenderloin slices swam alongside delicately spiced balls of pressed beef. The attention to detail and quality transformed street fare into something sublime.
Basa’s version of the venerated Vietnamese dish Shaking Beef uses cubed filet mignon.
Another example of taking the familiar to a higher level was Basa’s classic spring roll ($6). Every ingredient’s fresh taste — the shrimp, the pork, even the rice paper wrapping — stood out and yet stood together, making this often-ordered staple seem fresh and surprising. When I called him later with questions, chef Ton told me, “I’m not losing the authenticity of the Vietnamese tradition, just using better ingredients and putting a twist on it.”
You can see upgrades such as Basa’s excellent Shaking Beef ($20), in which cubed filet mignon appears instead of sirloin steak, as well as “twists” like Basa’s wok-roasted Prince Edward Islandmussels ($11). In the latter dish, a Vietnamese incursion into French cuisine, so to speak, the simple act of steaming mussels in white wine is enhanced by garlic, basil and Thai bird chiles. I enjoyed an enormous portion, further enhanced by an edible flatbread bowl that, I’m only slightly ashamed to say, I used to sop up the sauce after I finished every plump, sweet mollusk. My only regret with this dish was the lack of heat — next time, more chiles would be nice.
While my visits to Basa occurred shortly after the restaurant opened, I was impressed by the polish of the staff and surroundings. The long, narrow space is attractively decorated, with black-and-white prints of Vietnamese and French streetscenes on deep red- and olive-colored walls. The restaurant feels at once relaxed and formal, ready for a serious dinner or just some cocktails and small bites with friends. (I recomm/files/storyimages/the $8 litchi-infused Basa martini with its bright green tapioca garnish, or the pomegranate-enhanced $8 mango martini.) And my servers were very enthusiastic, one providing the excellent suggestion of having my pho served as a separate soup course, making that meal even more pleasant — not that my fried tofu with sauteed spinach and root vegetables ($12) needed much help. Golden, lightly crusted slices of tofu sandwiched the tender spinach, its bitter greens brightened by the blandness of soy and a delicate sauce. Along with sweet and tender baby turnips, Ton turned these humble ingredients into a beautifully arranged plate of subtle yet satisfying flavors.
Presentation was also a plus with my beef salad ($12). Shreds of finely sliced tenderloin glistened amid shallots, sliced limes, basil and roughly chopped peanuts. Sour, salty and sweet, the salad looked lovely and tasted even better. Japanese eggplant with egg noodle, garlic chips and mushroom ragout ($14) was outstanding as well. Thinly sliced, fried crisp yet still juicy, and served with a chili peanut sauce, the delicate eggplant combined with meaty mushrooms and sweet-savory garlic chips in a wonderful array of flavors. Served during a huge crush (as an aside, Basa gets very loud when it’s crowded), it dazzled our table, especially when served next to the slightly uninspired salt and pepper prawns ($20). The shrimp seemed dull, lacking the texture and flavor to stand up to Basa’s better offerings.
For dessert, sour won out over sweet. While a macadamia nut tart ($6) was somewhat successful, the sugar seemed to overpower the buttery macadamias. A lime tart with lemongrass meringue ($6), however, scored with a balanced play of sour and sweet and the different citrus flavors serving as grace notes.
When I spoke to Ton, he told me he planned to change the menu every three to four months to take advantage of in-season local produce. Indeed, the appearance on the menu of ingredients such as spoonfish caviar seems to indicate that Kentuckymay, like the French, be adding its influences to Basa’s Vietnamese cooking. Quality ingredients are in fine hands at this welcome addition to the local dining scene.
If You Go
Basa Modern Vietnamese, 2244 Frankfort Ave., 896-1016. Open Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. Closed Mondays.