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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Cool Basil
8801 University Ave., Clive, 225-8111
Mon. - Thurs.: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Fri. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Sun.: 5 p.m. - 9 p.m.

Cool Basil

Thai is still “the new Thai” — the ethnic cuisine that more Iowa adults are trying for the first time. Metro Des Moines has been blessed with talented Thai chefs — Somchai “T” Luangaram, Ormsin “Mao” Heineman and Liam Anivat at the top of the list. When Cityview readers recently named Anivat’s Cool Basil in Clive the best Thai restaurant in the metro, that cuisine passed a milestone. Cool Basil’s sister café Thai Flavors on East 14th Street, had won that distinction in the past. That’s expected because research shows that inner city diners are more adventurous than those in well-to-do suburbs. Any cuisine can make it in New York City. If you can make it in Clive, you’ll make it anywhere.

Cool Basil is the most stylish of local Thai cafés with tall ceilings, comfortable Asian Deco furnishings and modern Thai art stating that this place is no cliché. The kitchen lives up to that. Anivat serves a modern pan-Thai menu. Seafood dishes, coconut curries and satays represent southern Thailand. Cool Basil also offers many examples (green papaya salad) of “saab,” a distinctive northern Thai flavor that skates borders between salty and sour, between Laos and Thailand.

Anivat’s prawn cakes with plum sauce are great for Thai beginners, a sweet riff on crab cakes. So are his “angel wings,” de-boned chicken wings stuffed with transparent, mung bean noodles and black mushroom paste before being deep-fried and served with serious hot sauce. Even potstickers were deep-fried to assimilate more familiar foods. Other dumplings were steamed. Old Thai favorites were given stylish presentations, such as vegetable relishes carved into elaborate flowers. Classic Thai soups combined chicken stock with lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger and galangal for a bi-polar episode in hot/cold, sweet/sour, salty/spicy complexity.

Prik khing, a Thai staple that doesn’t often make it to American menus, was a surprise entree. Green beans were stir fried with meat or tofu, plus slivers of caramelized kaffir lime leaves, chilies, sweet peppers that had been soaked in palm sugar for a contrasting flavor. I tried two of five curries offered, both cooled hand-ground chile pastes with coconut milk. Holy basil was available in several dishes but not distinguished by name on the menu. I tried a “basil” stir-fry, which mixed it with kaffir lime leaves, pork, peppers and home made garlic sauce. Substituting holy for sweet basil in other dishes was not a problem.

A personal favorite (duck with lychee salad) was no longer on the salad menu, but I enjoyed a not-too-sour green papaya salad paired well with a crispy shrimp won ton. I passed on a recommended deep fried salmon salad, which I suspected had taken the place of my favorite. I’ve enjoyed Cool Basil’s duck as much as any in town and was consoled to find it offered as a substitute in entrees, even at lunch. Squid, scallops, mussels, shrimp and crabmeat were also available for a small surcharge. For less than $10, I enjoyed superb eggplant dish with all those delights added. A duck pad thai delivered some fatted breast meat in rice sticks’ finest application.

Cool Basil’s desserts elevate it above most Asian restaurants. A new Thai custard was sensational, paired with sticky rice that had been cooked in coconut milk and accented with slivers that looked like matchstick noodles but were actually made from spun sugar and eggs. Mango sticky rice, taro sticky rice and some Asian ice creams also drew raves.

Cool Basil offers six gradations of heat, but I experienced inconsistency. A “4” was mild one day and excruciatingly hot on another. Such surprises were replaced cheerfully when brought to the attention of the staff. There’s a full bar and short, inexpensive wine list.

Side dish
DMACC’s venerable Robert Anderson is one of four finalists for this year’s national Culinary Educator of the Year award. … Midwest Energy is offering rebates on new energy efficient icemakers, refrigerators, etc. Information at CV

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