Needham is not a place I normally pass through, but I'd been hearing and reading little bits here and there about a restaurant called Sweet Basil. And then I was invited in to try the restaurant and meet chef Dave Becker.
Jeff and I headed over one evening after work. The restaurant is right on the street, and we easily found street parking. We got out of the car and went to feed the meter and were delighted to discover that one quarter gets you an hour on the meter. (Clearly, we weren't in the city anymore.)
The restaurant was pretty quiet when arrived around 5:30. We were led through the first dining room to a second room decorated with some of Dave's grandfather's artwork. (The restaurant was originally one room but they expanded.)
Shortly after we were seated, Dave came over and introduced himself and then pulled up a chair and chatted with us for a bit. Talking with him was like catching up with an old friend. The conversation just flowed naturally and we learned so much about him and the restaurant. He wanted to find out our food likes and dislikes, and I let Jeff go on about all the vegetables he didn't like. And then I watched Dave's eyes light up when he announced to us that he was taking those dislikes as a challenge. I liked him already.
Sweet Basil is BYOB but Dave had a bottle of wine ready for us just in case we weren't aware of that. He happily poured me a glass and later offered the bottle to a nearby table. I think it's a nice gesture for people who have never been there before and might not realize that they won't be able to order a glass of wine with their dinner. If you bring your own wine, they can re-cork it for you so you can take home any leftovers.
We kicked off dinner with some bread and pesto. The pesto had such intense flavor and was a welcome change from a dish of olive oil. I was tempted to eat too much bread because the pesto was so good.
After we nibbled on the bread and before our food started to arrive, Dave came over and said he had something to show us. He brought us downstairs, stopping by the open kitchen on the way so we could say hi to everyone making the food that night. When we got downstairs, we were in another kitchen, where we saw lamb shanks resting (they were mouthwatering!) and fresh pasta being made. As a souvenir from our visit downstairs, Dave packed us up some of the pasta (strozzapreti) that had just fallen from the machine.
We settled back in at our table, and the food began to arrive. A cool, crisp watermelon gazpacho was first and came in a beautiful bowl crafted by Dave, himself. (He doesn't have enough to use solely his own bowls in the restaurant, but that's the plan. I think it adds a really personal, thoughtful touch.) The gazpacho, which was definitely more savory than sweet (I know some people fear fruit soups), featured crunchy veggies in a flavorful broth and a dollop of creme fraiche.
In Dave's quest to get Jeff to try beets, he sent out a mixed greens salad with beets, goat cheese, and dried apricots. Jeff ate around the beets (and the apricots and goat cheese); I ate everything and loved the combination. Dried apricots are something I need to add to my salads at home.
The Greek lamb meatballs came simmered in a spicy tomato sauce and topped with tzatziki sauce. The meatballs tasted of Mediterranean spices and had a little bit of a kick. I appreciated the cool, creamy tzatziki for contrast.
Dave told us the rosemary chicken is a customer favorite, and we could definitely see why once we tasted the mixture of fresh ziti, crispy pancetta, asparagus, and, of course, rosemary chicken in Parmesan cream sauce. Jeff and I may have fought over the crispy pancetta bits.
We tried a sampling of the veal marsala (it's normally a bigger portion and comes with a side of pasta), which has a rich, savory port and marsala sauce, lots of mushrooms, figs, and a topping of wilted spinach. Dave explained that he'd asked the kitchen to put a "bark" on the mushrooms, in hopes of changing the texture enough to get Jeff to enjoy them. It was a really good effort and the first time I've ever seen Jeff eat a mushroom, but I don't think he's a convert yet. The veal was moist and the fruity figs helped balance the velvety sauce.
When I knew we were heading to Sweet Basil, I studied the menu, and one of the things that really jumped out at me was the corn agnolotti, so I was so happy we got to try it. The agnolotti is kind of a cross between pasta and an empanada; it gets a nice, crisp outside. It's stuffed with a corn filling and served in a flavorful broth with an arugula salad and vegetables. It's a dish that screams summer, and it was great to have it before the summer ends.
A hearty dish, perfect for welcoming fall weather, is the braised chicken, which is Sweet Basil's version of chicken cacciatore. The chicken thighs were fall-apart tender and tossed with fresh pasta and a tomato-based sauce with port wine and balsamic vinegar.
We managed to make our way through much of the menu before we got too full. Dave happily packed up all of our leftovers for us and threw in some extra meatballs, a whole loaf of bread, and a tub of pesto. Then he gave me his cookbook and even signed it for me (expect a cookbook review at some point). I couldn't believe his generosity.
Then again, after spending the evening chatting with him, seeing how many of his customers came by our table to say hi, bye, or thank you to him, I could.
He even makes some bruschetta-like snacks for anyone stuck waiting in line outside (Sweet Basil doesn't take reservations and there's often a wait.) He does it just to make people happy. If they're happy standing out there, then when they get inside, they're less likely to be cranky. I thought it was a good strategy because waiting in line (especially to eat) can definitely put me in a bad mood sometimes, and a great little snack would help take the edge off.
On top of hanging his grandfather's artwork on the walls and making his own dishes, Dave had one more crafty thing to show us: the checkholders. They're all made from old album covers. He told us that some people get really excited over them -- if they get a band they really like or really don't. Some people can't believe he's done this to album covers and would never think of doing it to their own. At any rate, they're fun and a great conversation piece. (Note that Sweet Basil is cash/check only.)
Sweet Basil doesn't serve desserts, but Abbott's is right next door, so you could always get some frozen custard after dinner. That was my plan when we walked into Sweet Basil, but when we walked out, my stomach said no thank you. I was full.
My post doesn't even begin to do Dave or Sweet Basil justice. Jeff and I had an incredibly fun evening dining at the little restaurant, getting to know Dave, and trying all sorts of items on the menu. I was so impressed at how everyone seemed to know Dave. We even stood outside chatting with him and a couple of elderly couples who had been going there for years. They couldn't believe it was our first time there and that we didn't know Dave already. A huge thank you to Dave for making this such a memorable evening!
Our dinner was complimentary (we just paid the tip), but as always my opinions are my own.
I have to give Jeff credit for most of these pictures. He took the seat with the sun behind him, so he had the better lighting and I passed him the camera.
Have you tried any restaurants outside of your normal dining area lately?