If I didn't like the Basil Leaf Café in Lawrence so much, I'm pretty sure I would hate it.
This creation of 36-year-old chef Brad Walters is a little restaurant tucked inside a corner of a Phillips 66. I don't mind restaurants in gas stations, but the lighting here is harsh even by convenience-store standards. The seating is not only limited but also uncomfortable, and the music is of the get-out-fast ilk, a cringe-inducing Muzak of the leaded-gasoline 1970s.
Not that this unforgiving space — its official name is the Miller Mart — is altogether charmless. Fat koi swim in a big fish tank adjacent to the soda dispenser where Miller Mart customers and Basil Leaf diners rub elbows. (Take note: A sign near the tank advises that "Miller Mart Goldfish are for sale.") Such are the eccentricities when you come to a place ready to sell you a Kansas Lottery ticket, a pack of smokes and an order of Tuscan risotto.
So there's Red Bull but no fine vintages to sip with the spaghettini arrabbiata in this Italian-leaning restaurant. Walters wants a liquor license, but first he'll probably move to a bigger location. He's looking.
Meanwhile, the Miller Mart has been an ideal location for Walters to dive into the restaurant business with very little capital. The kitchen isn't much bigger than a walk-in closet, but this place comes pretested as a successful proving ground. Two previous tenants, Tortas Jalisco and Biemer's BBQ, got their starts in this tiny space and built loyal followings before decamping to bigger venues.
"I didn't have to invest too much money to open it," Walters says. "So many people go into debt opening new restaurants."
Most of Basil Leaf's business, unsurprisingly, is carryout. But some customers do linger in the Miller Mart for a sit-down dining experience. And it is an experience. One orders at a counter that's practically in the middle of the kitchen — it's a show, baby, when the kitchen crew is operating on all cylinders.
The cooks, a broad-shouldered and manly bunch, are happy to tell you when they think you've ordered the wrong thing. But that's more a matter of mood than a failure of Walters' recipes. Most everything here is very good. In fact, Walters is serving some of the most sophisticated dishes that you'll find in any gas station in the Midwest. Practically everything on his menu — OK, not the doughy breadsticks — is made from scratch and often includes herbs and vegetables that he has grown in his own garden.
The Saturday afternoon I stopped in for lunch with Marilyn and Bob, Walters was serving fried green tomatoes from the bounty of 24 tomato vines he tends on his property. And they tasted fresh: slightly tart and gorgeously juicy under a crisp coating of panko breadcrumbs and fresh oregano. Walters also featured his garden's herbs in that day's soup special: a creamy, spicy New Orleans-style clam chowder thick with potatoes, green peppers, corn, chicken and plump clams.
"Before I decided to do what I'm doing, I considered doing a soup restaurant," Walters says. He tries to offer a different soup every day at the Basil Leaf. Likewise, Walters mixes at least two or three specials into the 13 items on his regular menu. That Saturday, one of the specials was a stand-out dish: a curried butternut-squash risotto studded with bits of onion, peppers, bacon, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. It's a complex, exquisitely rich masterpiece that belongs on his daily menu.
It's certainly too good to be eaten from a clunky black Styrofoam box. But that's the downside of a takeout-heavy model such as Walters'. There's no room here for a dishwasher. There's not even a car wash.
"It bothers me to have to serve my food in that," Walters says. "And it annoys some of my customers, too, for ecological reasons. I have regulars who come in with their own Tupperware containers for their leftovers because they won't take the Styrofoam boxes home."
I've already decided that when I go back to the Basil Leaf, I'm taking my own china and glassware. I'll just rinse it off in the bathroom before I leave.
I won't say everything I tasted at the Basil Leaf was stellar — the lobster fettuccine, alas, was divinely rich but heavy and bland. Still, most of the dishes are well worth making the drive from Kansas City. Even the misfires are unlike anything else in the metro. The chewy little spaetzle dumplings, for example, come smothered in a classic espagnole sauce, that creamy, buttery concoction with bacon and Italian sausage, garlic, shallots and hot banana peppers. I wanted to love the discreetly seasoned dish, but I was overpowered by its sheer heft. More seemed to remain in the container the more I ate of it. Many of the dishes here are similarly SUV-sized.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. One can easily stretch one of the modestly priced Basil Leaf entrées into dinner for two (or a second night's meal for one). I'm not so big on leftovers, but I understand Walters' logic: College students make up a big part of his customer base. If the choice is between a box dinner of macaroni and cheese or two-day-old spaetzle, I know which one I want.
Some things at the Basil Leaf are too good not to devour immediately. I managed in one ravenous sitting to finish the fabulous spaghettini mole, with an outstanding house-made mole — sexy and fragrant with coriander, cumin, garlic and cocoa. And it didn't take much time before I craved it again.
One of the best-selling dishes here is a clever spin on chicken cordon bleu that blankets a heap of tortellini in a supple sauce of Chardonnay and blue cheese, dappled with ham, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and a crispy breaded chicken breast. It sounds gimmicky but it really works. The combination is delicious.
The menu had a few dessert options, but I was offered only the cheesecake du jour on both of my visits. Walters bakes a different cheesecake almost every day, and the first I tried was a silky caramel-apple affair that was mind-bogglingly sensuous. It even seemed elegant on a paper plate.
Someday, Walters wants to open a real bistro — with china, cloth napkins and maybe candles. "But I never want to get too upscale," he says. "I always want to offer a casual experience."
At the Basil Leaf, casual is an understatement. But the cuisine is utterly formal and not lessened by the peculiarities of the place. The odd setting is so damn weird that you can hardly help developing a genuine affection for the restaurant and its staff, even if you stop in only to chug a quick bowl of soup. Eat two meals here and you'll fall for the joint.
And if you're somehow immune to its charms and its stellar food, just pump your gas and get the hell out of there. I want your seat.