ST. PETE BEACH
It's easy to forget you're at the beach at Basil Leaf Thai Sushi and Noodles.
No kitschy sun-surf-sand motif here. This is Asian serene, with subdued lighting and dark wood with splashes of red and gold and black. A small fountain bubbles pleasantly to one side, light jazz plays softly over the sound system. It's all very cozy, a nice diversion from busy Gulf Boulevard and a proper setting for extremely fresh sushi and Thai classics.
How fresh? The spicy conch salad ($9) could easily be made ahead of time, but if you sit at the sushi bar you can watch as it is prepared from scratch, the exceedingly tender chunks of conch tossed lightly with sliced cucumber, orange, tomatoes and scallion in a light kimchi sauce. It is such a standout you'll want to order it twice.
The jumping seafood salad ($10) gets similar treatment, but is prepared warm in the kitchen, with scallops, shrimp and mussels. It is a generous portion for the price, similar to the large mound of spicy beef ($8) that emerges on a bed of lettuce, the meat tender and slightly spicy (like most dishes, the heat can be adjusted).
This is the second restaurant for owner Kitty Onphianek, who grew up in family restaurants in Bangkok and spent time working in restaurants in Miami. She opened Banana Leaf Thai and Sushi Bar a couple of miles away in South Pasadena about four years ago. She hopes the new location, in the heart of the St. Pete Beach hotel district, will draw more tourists than their first place, popular among locals but lacking the serene atmosphere of Basil Thai (though the flat screen TVs in the new place can be a distraction, especially during Rays games).
The menu includes Thai favorites such as curry (red, green, panang and massaman), 11 noodle dishes, and rice dishes with myriad sauces. The rice and noodle entrees are $12.95 with chicken, pork, beef or tofu; shrimp is $14.95; and lobster, snapper or duck are $18.95.
A bowl of tom yum goong ($5) is made to order, the reddish-brown broth studded with bits of mushroom, cilantro and lemongrass, kicked up with chili paste. It lives up to the menu boast of being Thai famous (exclamation point!). Since it is not made ahead of time, it can taste slightly different each time — very shrimpy one time, less so on another visit.
Sushi may be Japanese, but here it shares equal billing with the Thai dishes. Easily half the menu is sushi, sashimi, wraps and rolls.
The sushi bar, in the middle of the restaurant, is a great perch to take in the scene. Onphianek's husband, Ed, is the sushi chef and he aims to make each dish a work of art. Even a two-piece white tuna sashimi order gets the full-blown treatment: A bed of ice is formed into a small wave, with an elaborate backdrop of julienned veggies, turning carrots into something akin to origami.
Kitty Onphianek said she and her husband spent three months transforming the space from a British pub.
"I just wanted something unique and contemporary Asian,'' she explains. "You go everywhere and it's beach style. I just want you to be able to open the door and feel relaxed and that you're someplace different.''