When I moved to the Twin Cities, and got my first job, my normally reserved mother gushed, “You’re just like Mary Tyler Moore!” Apparently, the image she had of my life was just an endless parade of my sassing off and tossing hats. However, I didn’t feel much like Mary Tyler Moore. I slogged through those first few years entirely sans hat toss, trying to carve out a very unconventional career indeed.
But my mother’s vision never faltered. She would demand to know, “Did you see the Mary Tyler Moore restaurant? Have you eaten there?” “No,” I flatly would reply. I then would listen to the sounds of her trying to hide her disappointment. She is a persistent woman, so when the Mary Tyler Moore statue was erected on Nicollet, she strongly insisted that I have my picture taken in front of it, with a hat if at all possible. When I did not comply, her MTM fixation finally began to wane.
I had forgotten about the whole Mary Tyler Moore business, as a matter of fact, until a friend of mine began talking about Basil’s Restaurant, and how it needed publicity. I listened with some interest—after all, I have been writing about food for several years now, and it gradually has become more of a focus. While I am sympathetic to an establishment’s seeking the newest headline, it always has struck a chord with me that a restaurant is reviewed when it hasn’t found its footing, but ever after is ignored, despite significant staff, decor, and menu changes.
So, I finally found myself at Basil’s—AKA “The Mary Tyler Moore Restaurant.”
Here’s the history: Basil’s opened in 1972, and its balcony is featured in one of the clips in The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s opening credits. You can find the entire theme song on YouTube nowadays—the Basil’s clip comes just a bit before the famous “You’re Gonna Make it After All” lyric snippet. I should know—I actually looked it up, and watched it. I take my work that seriously.
The Mary Tyler Moore table was taken, but my dining companion—as fate would have it, the same person who started the whole Basil’s topic—and I were ushered to a table in Basil’s interior, which was remodeled in 2006. Now trussed up in dark wood with a muted, natural palate, all is airy yet masculine, contemporary yet comfortable.
I could see the Mary Tyler Moore table from where I was sitting. A few women were seated at it, clearly enjoying their special view of the IDS Crystal Court. The people-watching is particularly good from this vantage point. My friend told me that the IDS management office frequently holds entertaining events there over lunch hours.
While Basil’s no longer has regular dinner hours, it does private dinners and events, so I was shown those rooms as well. A dinner menu is available downstairs at the Marquette Hotel’s bar, the Marq VII, but these days, Basil’s proper primarily is known as a power breakfast and lunch spot. I am not a morning person, so it is amazing to me that anyone would have a “power” anything at that hour.
After sampling Basil’s breakfast menu, I understand it a little better. Quite simply, the Southwestern Omelet ($15) is fantastic. With a healthy kick of bold chorizo sausage and garden-fresh salsa, it is perhaps the best Tex-Mex breakfast I ever have had outside of Texas. I almost couldn’t stop eating it, except that I was forewarned the course list for my visit was “adventurous.” The Southwestern Omelet was washed down with the Juice of the Day—pineapple, strawberry, lemon, and apple ($4/$5).
Next was the Marquette Benedict ($15), which layers two poached eggs atop sourdough toast, fresh asparagus, and smoked turkey, topped with hollandaise sauce. The menu neglects to mention the two slices of black olive perched cheerfully atop the dish, and they caught my attention instantly. I was sure to include one in my first forkful, and absolutely was blown away by what it did for the smoked turkey. In that instant, I wished that the Benedict were topped with more, because I then felt the lack in subsequent, oliveless bites. However, if I had had the inclination to ask, I’m sure our server would have been back in an instant with as many olives as I wished.
Good service is like good plastic surgery, if you’ll pardon the comparison. You really shouldn’t notice it unless something has gone wrong. And I, as a food writer, almost have given up on writing about restaurant service, because it is so often wrong. I wouldn’t return to some restaurants in the Twin Cities, despite excellent fare, because I simply will not put up with rude, inconsiderate service. It is not my inclination to name names at this point, but you probably know who you are. Even outside of a few more egregious cases, Twin Cities restaurants by and large do not offer the same degree of service that one may find in New York or Europe, and I let that slide. After all, we Midwesterners are a humble people, and we do not require pomp in every circumstance.
At Basil’s, however, service is the silent star. Many members of the staff—front of house and back—have been there 20-some years, and it shows in their treatment of their guests. No frantic faces, no loud arguments leaking out of the kitchen, no empty water glasses, no missing silverware. Instead, all was Zen calm. I only noticed, because I found myself lost in conversation with my friend, enjoying the food, and it hit me how rare an experience that can be. I wonder now how I ever could have hoped to relax in other restaurants, surrounded by servers who perpetually look like they are late for an appointment with death.
Our lunch options arrived like clockwork: Oriental Chicken Salad ($16), Sea Salt Seared Tuna Sliders ($14), and an assortment of Caesar Salads ($6/$9, plus choice of meat).
With the Caesar, one gets a choice of salmon ($5), shrimp ($6), or chicken ($4). I was surprised it was the shrimp that I most favored. Both the salmon and chicken were moist and flavorful, but the fat, juicy shrimp offered such a lovely bite that I could not help but smile.
However, the ahi sushi-grade Tuna Sliders are what I would return for. These tender twin delights are served on buttery rolls, with wasabi aioli and tempura-battered sweet potato fries. The flavorful but mild aioli is served on the side, as it makes just as good a sandwich spread as it does a dip. Take my advice, and use it liberally as both.
Next, we sampled Toasted Sesame Tempura Prawns ($21), lightly battered, and especially lovely when dipped in their accompanying peanut sauce.
We also tried two soups ($5/$7): Lemongrass Cream with Curry and Shrimp, plus the soup of the day, Wild Rice. The latter was a bit creamy for my taste, to the point where the cream, together with the darker notes of wild rice, almost mimicked the scent of a latte. However, the curry soup was everything a soup should be—comforting, balanced, and smooth. Even if you aren’t a fan of curry, you may like this soup.
The private dinner menu at Basil’s seems conservative: Walleye Almandine ($20, also available for lunch), while tender, tasted heavily of its potato galette base; and “Wild Acres” Chicken Piccata ($17, also available for lunch) was fairly basic.
However, if you’re looking for an upscale restaurant that faithfully will deliver a carefree evening for a large group, Basil’s is an excellent choice. Events such as these typically generate a lot of waste, so I am especially appreciative of Basil’s “Green Food Program,” which donates its leftovers and table scraps for livestock feed.
No private dining event would be complete without dessert. Basil’s offers a sweet and creamy white chocolate-topped New York Cheese Cake with raspberry coulis ($6); an understated Chocolate Truffle Torte with Vanilla Sauce ($6); and—my favorite—a dainty housemade Chocolate Almond Pyramid ($6), which on our visit was served with a petite scoop of coffee ice cream.
As I was sitting there, putting fork to layered confection, I caught an envious glance from a nearby table. Perhaps they wondered just what sort of person so casually could order three different desserts after a 10-course meal—I don’t really know. I simply flashed them a turn-the-world-on kind of smile, and felt, for the first time, a little bit like Mary Tyler Moore. I’ll have to call my mother!
710 Marquette Ave., Mpls.