After hearing from someone that Sweet Basil makes its own gluten-free pasta in house, fresh from scratch, I knew I had to try it.
To get a better sense of the restaurant before heading over on a Friday night, I checked out the website and was surprised by a few things: they do not take reservations, it’s BYOB, dessert is not on the menu and they do not accept credit cards (they do take checks). While the menu touted some interesting and diverse Italian dishes, it didn’t mention gluten-free pasta, so I wasn’t sure if this was something you had to call ahead for or not (turns out not).
On a Friday or Saturday night the wait can be about an hour and half. If you do end up waiting around outside (there are chairs and plants, its like a patio), Chef Dave is a nice guy and wanders outside with some samples / bites. If you don’t want to wait outside, downtown Needham has enough going on to while away the time getting a drink somewhere else or shopping. When we arrived just before six, the restaurant was filling up quickly.
I asked about the lack of reservations and the owner, Dave explained that he wants to treat all guests the same and ensure the best and most timely service for all. Not having reservations means he doesn’t have to hold tables for late / no shows.
Later in our meal, we noticed that a table of four had just left, but the party coming in was larger, like six or seven. To seat them without delay, Dave and a bus boy put a cloth on the table and a large, round piece of plywood on top and covered it with a tablecloth in just a few minutes. Voila, table for four became table for six. The dining room just kind of adapts to whoever shows up.
That off the cuff relaxed style just pervades the whole restaurant. The space is simple and homey. The decor is simple and plain with artist prints on the walls. Even the plates and bowls are unique. Dave makes most of them himself, so some are a little uneven and not all of them match, but it is unexpected and kind of fun to see the plate arrive and not just wonder what is on it, but what the plate itself looks like.
The kitchen is somewhat open to the dining space, so you can catch glimpses of the activity. The atmosphere was very lively and bustling.
As we perused the menu, the bus boy brought over bread with fresh homemade pesto for Husband and fresh veggies for me. I liked the fresh veggies: it’s easier and cheaper than stocking gluten-free bread and it is so much healthier. I wish more places had this option.
As we looked at the menu and tried to decide what to eat, I did ask why Sweet Basil is BYOB. Dave said it was just fun to see what people bring in. In a given night, someone might bring a super fancy bottle of wine and someone else might bring a few cans of Schlitz.
Before we ordered, I asked about the gluten-free pasta and how Sweet Basil avoids cross contamination.
Sweet Basil decided about three years ago to start making its own pasta in house. While they were experimenting with the pasta maker, Dave decided to challenge his pasta making skills by trying to do something gluten-free. He finally developed gluten-free pasta using chickpea flour.
To avoid cross-contamination, the staff is trained to steam clean the pasta-maker prior to making the gluten-free pasta. Gluten-free pasta is cooked in separate pot from the regular pasta.
When I asked about other gluten-free options, the staff was able to give details on which items were gluten-free and which items could be made gluten-free (turns out almost everything because it is all made fresh). At least 60% of the menu was gluten-free friendly.
We started with a simple Greek salad and a beet risotto. The salad was lightly dressed. I liked the ratio of lettuce to other veggies and the healthy dollop of feta on top. The beet risotto was awesome. Husband is not a huge fan of beets, but he could not stop eating it. The beets were well-cooked, they weren’t tough or slimy. The risotto was perfectly cooked. The dish was really garlicky, but we are both garlic fans, so we liked that. There was a nice balance of fresh herbs and Parmesan.
For entrees, we got the gluten-free pasta with Bolognese sauce and the lamb shank with polenta. The portions are big, not quite Cheesecake Factory, but certainly far from dainty.
Generally, I avoid lamb at pretty much all costs. I find it stringy and tough. This lamb was a revelation. I was surprised by how much I liked the dish. It was served on the bone and was juicy and tender. The polenta was not the standard reconstituted polenta grits. This polenta was made that day from fresh corn and cream. The pasta sauce was really rustic, with fresh chunks of carrot, eggplant and other veggies. There was a nice balance between the creaminess of the polenta, the earthiness of the lamb and the fresh vegetables. It was probably one the best dishes I have had in a long time.
The gluten-free pasta with Bolognese sauce was also really great.
The Bolognese was not like the spaghetti Bolognese I was raised on. My frame of reference has been ground beef floating around in tomato sauce (think sloppy joe without the peppers). I googled what Bolognese really is and Sweet Basil’s recipe certainly seems within the bounds of Bolognese, it’s just a different variation. The Sweet Basil version was tomato sauce with chunks of fresh tomato, mushroom, beef and sausage. There was some milk in the sauce, but it wasn’t creamy. It was a little spicy.
The shape of the pasta was definitely not slick and uniform. It was like two strips of spaghetti tied together and cut down. Gluten-free pasta dough is like other gluten-free dough: super sticky and not as pliable as its glutenous counterpart. Don’t go expecting gluten-free spaghetti that twirls around your fork. However, the taste and texture of this pasta works. It’s rich and kind of buttery. It totally reminded me of egg noodles.
We didn’t feel rushed out the door despite the diners waiting outside. The bill was very reasonable. If we had brought some wine, there would have been a five-dollar corking fee.
Overall it was a fantastic experience. We will definitely be going back. This is one of the best restaurants in the area, period. The best part is that people with gluten allergies can go and enjoy safely.