ROGERS — A few weeks ago, I took the greatest risk yet for this column. I invited my mother-in-law out to lunch.
What I had going for me: I have provided her with two grandchildren, who prefer her to me. What I had going against me: she knows a lot about food. She is, in fact, the best cook I know. I have astounded her with my ignorance. She enjoys hearing the story about the time I confused fried scallops for tater tots at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Judy is Old World Swiss. She is as much European sophistication as I am Midwestern cheesy potato casserole. Together, we’re the ultimate odd couple at the dinner table.
That baggage packed, we headed to Basil’s in Rogers. Neither one of us knew the place. In fact, neither of us knew much about Rogers. We motored through a strange corporate canyon with walls colored in safe neutral tones. Reassuring household names hung over doorways.
Basil’s sits among them. I noticed the inside of the building was difficult to distinguish from the outside. The dining room was professionally appointed but colored with beige and olive tones that provided no contrast. It felt more like the lobby of a Marriott than a restaurant. I’ll give them credit for one thing, though: the light fixtures have some flair. They look like massive bird nests; branches loosely woven together and painted white. It looks weird and out of place in the lobby of a Marriott, but at least it’s different.
Fortunately for us, and for Basil’s, the menu was more than interesting enough to make up for the atmosphere. Its “small plate” offerings included shrimp egg rolls, gumbo with duck, the curiously capitalized Southern Fried Oysters ROCK-efeller, lamb ravioli, and even chicken noodle soup! Something for seafood fans AND flu victims! And at prices for everyone – most of the small plates were around $7.
Our waiter hovered though he proved hardly up to the task. We asked about the weird ROCK-efeller thing. No one had asked him that before. He went to go see. Meanwhile we sipped our water. He returned to say that the name existed to emphasize the idea that their oysters ROCK! That was just about all I needed to hear to leave Basil’s, but the waiter insisted, in so many words, that it wasn’t just hyperbole. OK, we ordered the oysters and his other recommendation, the lamb ravioli.
We perused the rest of the menu while waiting. There are some exotic pizzas, such as BLT pizza with vinaigrette and mixed greens. The entrees posed more interesting possibilities, such as salmon sliders; venison tamale with roasted tomatillo chili sauce and white cheddar; a Southern-style Kobe burger with pimento cheese, bacon and fried-green tomatoes; chili-rubbed rib-eye tacos; Razorback risotto; and a “Sexy Grilled Cheese” sandwich.
I tried to read Judy’s expression. How did this measure up? Her face got brighter. “There’s something for everyone here,” she said. “This is exciting,” she said. “Eating is my hobby!” Success!
The waiter returned with our lamb ravioli and the oysters that ROCK! Both were nicely presented and with generous portions. At this point, we still hadn’t been asked what we wanted to drink, but I give the guy credit for knowing his oysters. They were terrific. Served with chips of bacon, they were floured with “excellent seasoning” as Judy pointed out and served on pernod-infused greens. Judy seemed to know what pernod is. The waiter did not and mispronounced it, she said. I was glad it was him and not me.
“One of my tests of good cooking is if I reach for the salt and pepper shaker,” Judy said. “I don’t need them.” That’s good, because there were none on the tables.
The lamb ravioli was good, but couldn’t hold the oysters’ rock strap. It was one giant ravioli that filled a salad plate, garnished with tomatoes and shaved Parmesan. Neither of us thought the combo of lamb and ravioli really worked. Everything about the ravioli tasted Italian, but the lamb flavor was Greek. After some reflection, Judy and I decided that much of the menu was really an attempt at fusion cooking, without it being explicitly stated.
So we decided to go with it. For entrees we ordered the chili-rubbed, rib-eye tacos and the Razorback risotto, served with pulled pork. As we ordered, I asked this unusual question: “Do you have a drink menu?” The waiter was apologetic, sort of. And he brought us a wine menu. It was twice as large as the food menu and offered guests the option of a spending up to $280 for a bottle of Chateau Lascombes. The offerings weighted heavily toward domestics and ranged from $6.50 to $15.50 a glass. I noted there was a short section of the menu titled “Interesting Whites,” which doesn’t speak well for the rest of them. There were no “Interesting Reds.” So much for a glass to go with the rib-eye tacos.
As we waited a very long time for our food, Judy and I listened to the adult contemporary music filling the beige room. All that was missing was a PowerPoint presentation with a bar graph.
The tacos looked great, with steaming strips of steak, cilantro sour cream and colorful roasted tomatillo salsa. Roasted corn looking like gold nuggets dappled the side salad. The Razorback Risotto, in contrast, looked like a mound of risotto with another mound of pork piled on top. “That could really use some garnish,” Judy said. Yep.
Basil’s had another trick up its sleeve, though. The beauty queen tacos were boring inside. The salsa and sour cream didn’t bring much to the flavor of the meat. After a few bites, Judy was looking around for her saltshaker. We did enjoy the homemade corn tortillas.
The modest risotto, however, had our mouths watering. Well, mostly. Judy was dubious at first of the dried cherries in the risotto, but their sweetness eventually won her over.
“It’s highly unusual, but tasty,” she said. She praised its creamy consistency and the good flavor of the mushrooms. This is a big deal from a woman who knows her risotto. But after a few bites of the pulled pork piled atop the risotto, she scraped it off with her fork. “You can have it,” she said.
I happily took it, but I had to agree that it didn’t bring much to the risotto. Just the opposite.
As with the drinks, we had to ask the waiter if there were desserts. Yes, of course. He rattled off some ordinary options like apple tart and key lime pie. He recommended the crème brulee because it came with sliced strawberries underneath the glaze. Judy also asked for an espresso. To her surprise, the restaurant did not have any. She instead got coffee, which she reported was so-so. I would have to take her word on it.
The crème brulee was also so-so. That I verified. The crème was nice – and the serving huge – but we decided that strawberries underneath the sugar glaze was a flop. It altered the flavor of the berries in a bad way, and because the glaze was consumed with the berries, there was nothing left for the crème.
I appreciated Basil’s willingness to try new things, even with the glaze of a crème brulee. I looked at the color. I was happy to see it was a few shades darker than beige.