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I have a friend who is obsessed with seasoning her own food. When she sits down at a restaurant, the first thing she'll do is look for the saltshaker. If it's missing, she figures, "Any chef that makes me ask for salt is too full of himself." I shrug whenever she brings it up, mostly because Americans' salt obsession is ruining our ability to taste things properly. But she'll go on to say her food is ostensibly underseasoned and that the chef must be a pompous windbag to insist that he knows how she wants her food better than she does. Mind you, this is before she's tasted a single thing.
I really wish I had brought her along with me to Basilic Vietnamese Grill, where she would've found plenty of opportunity to douse salt-laden condiments on the dishes. That was evident right from the arrival of a dish we ordered called shaking beef ($15). The Vietnamese name for the plate, bò lúc lac, refers to the way the chef vigorously shakes the skillet to cook the slender chunks of marinated tenderloin. The beef is served on a bed of thick wedges of onion and bell pepper and comes with a small mound of coarse ground salt and pepper. To eat it, squeeze a bit of lime in the seasoning and swipe a chunk of beef through the tart mixture, coating the meat in as much or as little salt as you like. Of course, you could also skip it, as one of my dining companions did. "This beef is good enough on its own," he said.
Basilic, a 2-month-old restaurant in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, closely follows the Vietnamese dictum of customizable dishes. Say you don't like sriracha in your beefy, fragrant pho; that's cool — don't add it. But pile in as much basil, plumy hoisin, slivers of jalapeño, and bean sprouts as it takes to make your head swivel in place. The chefs/owners, brothers Chuck, Vince, and John Vu, will not demand that you eat your bún chà Hà Nôi with precisely this much mint or that much fish sauce. There's absolutely no right or wrong way, and it results in some fine, empowered eating.
218 E. Commercial Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308
For many of Broward's eastsiders, the ins and outs of Vietnamese cuisine may be unfamiliar, considering that the joint is perhaps the only restaurant exclusively offering nourriture vietnamienne east of I-95. In fact, the two friends I brought along with me to Basilic were complete strangers to it — Dani, a pescephobe, expected a menu overrun by all things fishy; Kyle is a more adventurous eater and was prepared for anything. But Basilic does its best to make things easy for first-timers to rice noodles, fish sauce, and pho. The menu is printed entirely in English with Vietnamese translations, and while the owners hail from Vietnam by way of California, the wait staff is almost entirely Western. Our waiter, a young guy with a bizarre haircut and a thick, Spanish accent, was happy to recount his favorite choices for us. We took his advice and ordered bánh xèo ($8), a rice flour crepe stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. We slathered complimentary styrofoam-textured shrimp chips with the house sauce — a blend of garlic, lemongrass, and chili — and peeked around the room.
The hull of the restaurant has been overhauled from its previous life as Tedesco's Pizzeria, with the brothers Vu opting for a hip, youthful vibe. The interior is small but not tight, with about ten taupe-colored tables spread throughout and a lacquered bar top sitting center stage. To further the illusion of spaciousness, the entire north side of the restaurant is lined in windows that open up to a calm strip of Commercial Boulevard. "The place just feels comfortable and relaxed," Dani noted, soaking up the surrounding Zen, a high-contrast design that marries creamy white walls with dark bamboo trim and green paper lanterns.
By the time our crepe arrived, the tables around us had filled up with young diners cracking open bottles of wine (many under $20) and downing pints of draft beer along with their wok-tossed noodles. Our waiter gave us each a small bowl and instructed us how to tear a piece of the crispy crepe off and mix it with shreds of mint, cilantro, lettuce, and a drizzle of nuoc cham. The latter is a savory, yellow dipping mixture made with vinegar, chili, and fish sauce. Alone, the crepe was light and bland, but adding the cooling mint and umami-laced nuoc cham ignited the wild flavors of caramelized batter and chewy pork. Across the table, Kyle had managed to impress himself with his own sambal oelek-laced version. "I don't know who's the better cook," he confided between bites of his customized crepe, "the chef or me."
Spring rolls ($5.50) shared a common trait in that the gummy rice wrappers filled with sliced shrimp, slivers of pork, and a whole lot of lettuce were rather plain until rolled through some creamy peanut sauce or dabbed with nuoc cham. Hanoi-style vermicelli ($10.50) provides even more room for experimentation: The cold rice noodles are served platter-style with bean sprouts, pickled carrots, daikon, and pan-fried bits of chicken, pork, and sweet ham lavishing in a dish of that lip-smacking fish sauce. I returned over and over to my bowl, trying different combinations of meat and herbs, adding alternating drops of sambal and spicy lemongrass paste.