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Hip and Hipper

[whitespace] The Basin
Christopher Gardner

A new star in the restaurant galaxy that continues to expand in downtown Saratoga, The Basin shines brightly with neo-hip culinary attitude

By Christina Waters

HIP. COOL. TASTY. That's the unmistakable signal sent by The Basin, the latest in the wave of fine dining spots to hit Big Basin Way in Saratoga. Hip. Cool. Tasty. That's also the attitude of this self-consciously trendy young corporate meeting spot, from its thinline TVs to its aggressively retro menu filled with crisp pizzas, bold variations on meat loaf and chicken pot pie, and plush homemade desserts.

The establishment sports an excellent setting for a contemporary bar, where one can partner that world-class martini with a homemade corn dog or fresh-baked pretzel. There's an inviting deck wedged between The Basin's noisy front room and its laid-back private playground, hard-wired with electronic toys.

The staff is smartly trained, friendly and helpful, we noticed, as we took a seat outside next to a monumental sycamore around which the deck has been shaped.

From an inventive wine list--all the menu graphics here are edgy and smart--we chose a Sobon Estate "Rocky Top" Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel 1996 ($27) that was distinctive in every possible way. Big stemware, big flatware and big serving dishes match the big dish portions here at The Basin, where everybody has fun and nobody doesn't get full.

Two breads, including a creamy nut-studded loaf, arrived with a tapenade-laced olive oil that we could have filled up on happily. An American cyber pub--that's what we assessed The Basin to be. It comes on as a simple roadhouse with attitude, but the menu and presentation say something much more sophisticated. Our zinfandel was exuding the terroir of the Sierra foothills--you could practically taste the rocky depths in each sip--when our appetizers arrived.

Bouncy Rat Pack tunes played as we savored a square foot of fresh-from-the-oven flatbread ($11.95) slathered with deluxe smoked salmon and a drizzle of wasabi crème fraîche. It was terrific, but way too much for an individual appetizer. Obviously, it's intended for sharing with drinks. Jack's beautiful salad ($7.95) was served in a glazed, handmade stoneware bowl, packed with shredded radicchio and endive (a wonderful change of pace), crisp apples, toasted pine nuts, ripe Gorgonzola and exquisite watercress. A light lemon-tinged vinaigrette set it off perfectly. We loved our starters, even though we took home half the salmon flatbread for a midnight snack.

Soon a table full of the loud and the restless sat down in an opposite corner of the deck, and after much cell-phoning they proceeded to let everybody know that they were immature.

Even these brats couldn't ruin my glorious special of seared sea scallops ($23)--the fat, moist kind that melt upon impact--atop flawless mashed potatoes, everything ringed with a braise of fava beans, yellow cherry tomatoes and infant hens-in-the-woods mushrooms. It was a wildly perfect dish that we both fought over shamelessly.

Less successful was Jack's bold and beefy entree--a Niman Ranch natural New York strip steak ($28), to be precise. It was just plain tough any way we cut it, though the strip steak was never known for tenderness. The accompanying garlic mashed potatoes, mushrooms and flash-fried broccoli rabe were outstanding. Jack adored the broccoli rabe but had to make do by imagining the steak he wanted to go along with the greens. Let's face it, $28 for a steak that is semi-tasty but intensely unchewable takes the fun out of such wonderful presentation--a spritz of crispy onions on top, so saucy. Perhaps a kinder cut might be in order.

The kitchen here is still fine-tuning itself, in the way of all new restaurants, and there was a lengthy wait for our entrees. Desserts arrived swiftly, however. From a flavor-intensive group that included a homemade ice cream sandwich and a Henry Weinhard's root beer float, we chose The Basin Ho-Ho (who could resist Vahlrona chocolate filled with vanilla bean mousse?) and a roast apple bread pudding with Myer's rum sauce (both $5). One dessert was outrageous--the dense chocolate caressing each oval layer of creamy filling, sided by a scoop of the finest vanilla bean ice cream (from Ciao Bella) I'd ever tasted. The other, an icky-sweet bread pudding drowned in syrup, had obviously never been subjected to quality control. It needs to be rethought or dropped. Too many great flavors going on here at The Basin to waste any time on anything but the best.

The Basin
Address: 14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
Phone: 408/867-1906
Hours: Open nightly 5-10pm (Fri.-Sat. until 11pm). Beginning May 22, open for lunch Thu.-Sun. and for breakfast Sat.-Sun.
Entrees: $12-$28
Cuisine: New American bar and grill
Chefs: Eric Tosh; Kajsa Dilger

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From the May 6-12, 1999 issue of Metro.

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