Photograph by Noelle Luchino
FISH IN A BASIN: Ahi tuna at Saratoga fixture the Basin
Plenty to like at the Basin in Saratoga—and lots of it
By Stett Holbrook
AM I THE LAST person to discover what a sweet little spot the Basin is? People have been telling me to check out the restaurant for years, but I was skeptical and never stopped in until recently. Now I understand.
Over the years, I've seen the corner space occupied by the Basin flip from one restaurant to another, each one folding like the one before it. Heck, I even worked as a line cook and waiter at one of the doomed incarnations in the early 1990s, the horribly named Café CEO. Anyone remember that dud? But as the crowds of regulars that pack the Basin will tell you, the jinx has been broken. The Basin has been going strong for 11 years now.
The restaurant serves a mix of American and Mediterranean–inspired food in big portions with a generous, good-times vibe on the side. It's a sharp-looking place done up in wood and dark earthy colors that give it a clubby, masculine feel. The patio under a giant, 200-year-old oak tree makes for great outdoor dining. There's also a well-provisioned bar that's packed before the sun goes down. The Basin is downtown Saratoga's go-to restaurant for a casual meal and a drink. But this is Saratoga, so while it is an unpretentious, friendly place, it doesn't come cheap. Most entrees go for about $25.
The menu is a bit too long for me. There are more than a dozen starters and just as many entrees. I'd trim the list a bit, but deciding what to omit would be tricky. Most of what I tried were keepers.
Starters are particularly strong, and you could fashion a satisfying meal from these dishes alone. The menu leans strongly toward Spain, and if you're a fan of anchovies, anchoas Andreas ($8) is for you. A mix of Spanish white and oil-cured anchovies are tossed with a bit of honey, parsley, ancho chiles, shallots and olive oil and served with toasted bread to create a big, rugged appetizer that will fire up your appetite. The generous bowl of oven-baked clams ($16) is a winner, too, especially with its highly dunkable white-wine-shallot-garlic broth. Cheese lovers will want to head straight to the burrata appetizer ($10), a luxurious dollop of cream-filled mozzarella cheese that's generally only available in the summer. It's served with fruity extra-virgin olive oil and basil, but a few sliced tomatoes or something else acidic would have set off the creamy goodness of the cheese even more.
The ice "burger" salad ($10), the Basin's take on a wedge salad, is a solid choice, too. The generous sprinkling of sharp blue d'Auvergne cheese and fried pancetta creates a savory, salty counterpoint to the crisp and crunchy iceberg lettuce.
One of the most memorable things I ate was the soup special one night, a white gazpacho ($8). Made with almonds, garlic and cucumber, the creamy chilled soup topped with melon and enlivened with a hit of champagne wine vinegar was refreshing and unique.
On to the entrees: don't miss the lamb chops, four supremely tender and juicy chops topped with a tangy black olive tapenade ($29). The quinoa and sautéed spinach were great accompaniments. I was skeptical about the pork loin ($28) because I've had so many dried out, boring versions elsewhere, but here it's wonderfully juicy and rubbed with cumin and coriander that give it a distinct personality. The spiced sweetness of the apple chutney on the side was the perfect foil for the robust pork.
The two disappointments were the skirt steak ($24) and fishermen's stew ($29). The steak was just fine, but it's nothing you couldn't do as well or better at home on your Weber, for a lot less money. Served with just a mound of french fries, it's a letdown. The fish stew, a brothy blend of California cod, shrimp and vegetables, was muted and watery. I would have preferred a thicker, bouillabaisse-like dish with a little more assertiveness.
Along with the food, the Basin's other strength is its service. The affable servers are well-versed in the eclectic wine list, the menu and the provenance of the many organic and sustainably raised meats and vegetables. They appear to be genuinely enthusiastic about the food, and that goes a long way for me. And when I dropped my fork one night our waiter made a game effort to catch it before it hit the ground.
On paper, the desserts sound boring, the same old molten chocolate cake/apple pie usuals, but I loved the ethereal bread pudding ($9) and the lightness of the ice cream–filled pastry in the profiteroles ($11). In keeping with the Basin's Iberian inclinations, the "Spanish finish" ($8), a slice of creamy sheep's milk cheese, a dab of California honey and roasted Marcona almonds is a more restrained but no less delicious end to a meal I should have had a long time ago.
Address: 14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga.
Hours: Open nightly at 5pm
Cuisine: American and Mediterranean
Price Range: $16–$31
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