[Sidebar] December 16 - 23, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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A haute holdout

by Bill Rodriguez

22 Kingstown Road, Narragansett, 789-3743
Open Wed-Sun, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Plus ça change, plus c'est meme chose. When it comes to Basil's, in Narragansett, food fads can come and go, passions for the latest fungus or gourmet-anointed root can flare and fade, but the pole star has remained unwavering -- smack dab above the continent that gave the adjective "continental" such chic-chic charm, with a decided list toward Paris.

When chef-proprietor Vasilios Kourakis and his wife Kathleen opened Basil's in 1984, fine dining in most minds and appetites meant haute cuisine, as in rich, rich, rich, with all but beef and dairy council seals of approval on the menu. Nouvelle cuisine with its elegant, tiny portions and light, if any, sauces, made little impression on Crete-born chef Vasilios, who knew what he liked, taught himself how to prepare it, and has kept his menu a living, savory homage to the classics.

No, the oil lamps on the tables do not burn butter, since the customers do so very well on their own, thank you. The small dining room, above a lounge down entryway steps, seats only 30. But the feeling is of intimacy rather than of being crowded. The wallpaper is deep green, adorned with rosy flowers, populated by tasteful Francophile reproductions in ornate gilded frames, from still lifes to Renoirs. As if to not overwhelm us with the real flowers on the table, these are tiny statice and marguerites.

The bread basket contains sesame sticks and hot, freshly baked French rolls that melt in your mouth. The wine list is six pages, so your choices are many and not overwhelmingly French. Since Basil's offers quite a few wines by the half-bottle, only three reds and three whites are available by the glass.

If you don't come on a weekend, your waiter will be Brett, who is quite knowledgeable about the wines, in case you'd like to consult. He's been there for 15 of the restaurant's 16 years, so when I joked about my travesty of requesting olive oil in lieu of butter for the bread, he was quick to retort that Basil's calls itself continental these days.

The place opened as French provincial but soon went eclectic. Nevertheless, the standards of old European restaurants fill the menu. You may begin with escargots Bourguignonne ($8) and end with baked Alaska ($6 per portion, with a minimum of two; order it that morning). There is beef stroganoff ($18) and wiener schnitzel ($19), steak Diane ($24) and the restaurant's specialty, duck a l'orange ($19). Brett informed us that no less than two separate regulars who had the dish at Paris's La Tour D'Argent, which is famous for it, declared Vasilios's superior. My own memory of having the dish at Basil's some years ago is vague, but an enjoyable little dance of crispness and succulence does come to mind.

As an appetizer, I was tempted to order a favorite of mine, onion soup gratinée ($5); there's something about the baked cheese and bread topping that tantalizes as it hides the sweet treat beneath. Instead, I chose to indulge in frog legs ($9), which I'd never had before. The three fat pairs, nicely breaded and sautéed were tender and tasty, mostly from the butter and garlic. Johnnie, whose visions of green McKermit arches kept her from taking more than a tiny bite, pronounced the texture as "somewhere between chicken and fish."

For her entrée, she had the Atlantic salmon ($20), ordering it grilled rather than poached. Of course, it was cooked to perfection -- although not rare, as is the current mode -- and accompanied by a sliced red bliss potato, crisp green beans and coins of fresh carrots. My vegetables were the same, alongside veal a la Basil's ($19). Atop the sautéed medallions, the light cream sauce was made with the flavorful veal stock that the chef prepares for use in soups and other specialties. Both of us were pleased with our choices, which came after equally pleasant house salads, with mildly pickled red cabbage providing an unusual touch.

Desserts are mandatory after such indulgence, so we weren't about to settle for the lemon sorbet among the possibilities. Instead, the "Coup Basil" ($7) provided just the needed touch of excess -- vanilla ice cream, topped with strawberry sauce, bananas, apricot and coconut flakes alongside a Pirouette stick. Luscious.

Yes, in these days of heart healthy menus and modest portions, splurging on buttery, decadent dining can remain one of life's valued, if less frequent, treats. Even if you just eat to live rather than live to eat, Basil's remains the kind of place that gives us reason for living.

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