(Published by South Bay Accent in November, 2013.)
The high turnover rate among new restaurants could easily be avoided if more restaurateurs were like Andrew Welch. You’ll find no slapdash service, sketchy cuisine concept or edgy vibe at his popular dinner spot, The Basin, in downtown Saratoga. For 14 years, this popular eatery has had a singular focus: delivering what pleases guests rather than trying to cram some restaurateur’s personal vision down their throats.
Overseeing his cozy boîte most evenings as maitre d’, Welch makes sure service is friendly and attentive. In fact, young co-chef Steven Vu delivers food and charms guests as needed along with the pleasant wait staff. He told us how he used to dine at The Basin before attending culinary school and how he still loves some of the dishes he used to order back then. The decor in the small main room might be a tad dated but this is quickly forgotten in the face of such congenial treatment and tasty cuisine.
The latter evades strict categorization and instead seems crafted to please. Loosely modern American with various European influences, the menu starts with a sizeable line-up of small plates — several in a Spanish tapas vein — then segues into a handful of interesting salads, followed by a dozen entrees. It’s telling that there are many favorite dishes at The Basin rather than the few that seem to reign at other places.
One of the must-order choices among starters is paella pequeña, which gets a final stirring tableside and features generous amounts of shrimp, spicy bites of chorizo and terrific texture. Or treat yourself with some incomparable slices of Spanish ham paired with fruity olive oil and bread. This Jamón Ibérico is the real deal from the famous black-hoofed hogs that feed on wild acorns.
Then there’s the house-cured wild salmon with horseradish cream, or the smoked albacore cakes with cucumber relish, or the remarkable wild shrimp sauteed with wine, lemon, cream and a touch of arbole chile.
Naturally, there’s caesar salad on the menu, since people everywhere love this dish. The most unusual choice is ice “burger,” which is a semi-circle of iceberg lettuce draped with dressing and crumbled, cooked pancetta, with tiny mounds of blue cheese surrounding the lettuce.
As good as the starters are, it’s the main courses that carve food memories into the brain. The Basin’s famous, pink-fleshed McFarland trout is miraculous, its moist meat contrasting with super-thin, crisp skin. This sustainably farmed trout is grown in the far northeast of our state in super-cold waters and handily beats other trout varieties from a taste and health perspective.
“Exotic” mushroom rigatoni is everything pasta should be, with a riot of ‘shrooms, al dente pasta and deeply flavorful, buttery sauce. Breast and leg of duck is the stuff of dreams. The Canadian bird is brined for a day then roasted in the rendered fat from that exceptional Spanish ham on the starter list, with the result being luxurious, tender meat.
There’s nothing more satisfying during fall’s cool weather than stick-to-the-ribs proteins such as brined, grilled, thick pork chops in an assertive dry rub or a killer New York steak grilled with manchego-thyme butter that is huge — clocking in at more than a pound — juicy and pleasurable.
There are several more faves on the menu, with the deliciousness of the preparations coming with a dose of political correctness via a focus on organic produce, hormone-free meats and sustainable fresh seafood. However, The Basin doesn’t make a fuss about the provenance of its ingredients, preferring to let the food do the talking on the plate.
The people-pleasing theme continues into dessert, with too many pleasures calling out to diners who have likely over-indulged at this point. Molten-center chocolate cake may be ubiquitous but who doesn’t love it?
Absolutely superb is warm bread pudding with rum, pecans and apricots that comes with ice cream. Or order a mini apple pie for two topped with whipped cream. A particular treat is chef Vu’s house-made ice creams in season flavors like maple with pancetta, a sweet-savory delight.
Located on a quiet corner in the Saratoga village, The Basin has been perfectly crafted for this upscale community that contains some foodies as well as many residents who just want an enjoyable night out — ideally, without kids, which is one group the restaurant doesn’t cater to. Romance seekers head to the patio in the back that surrounds a huge old oak tree. With such attention to local needs, it’s no surprise that The Basin has long since become the dining mainstay in this restaurant-rich South Bay town.
The Basin, 14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; (408) 867-1906; http://www.thebasin.com
HOURS: Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m. Reservations suggested.
PRICES: Small plates: $6-25; soups & salads: $11; entrees: $16-36; desserts: $9-10.