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Lunch review: Sweet Basil/La Filipiniana

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 6:40 a.m.

Pittsburgh is a city full of secret places. Whether that's part of its charm -- or just a source of aggravation -- is really up to the individual. It's fun to find an unusual bar or cafe or something to do that even the locals don't know about.

For years, La Filipiniana seemed like one of those places. It was a slim, blink-and-you'll-miss-it storefront in a crumbling stretch of Butler Street in Lawrenceville -- not the kind of place you'd expect to find a culinary treasure, exactly. The owner, Teadora Gaite Schipper, grew her own herbs in a little garden. You could dine there quietly, sequestered by arbors and greenery from the urban blight outside.

La Filipiniana got occasional coverage in the local papers, but that didn't make it any easier to find. The restaurant's constantly-shifting hours -- open only for dinner on weekends at one point -- surely didn't help.

I'm not sure when the changes took place -- but now it's got a new name, "Sweet Basil," a professional Web site, a complete Thai menu in addition to the Filipino menu, predictable hours (including lunch!) and herds of new customers.

Thai cuisine is now their focus, and Pittsburghers can't seem to get enough of that. But it's encouraging that they kept the unique Filipino menu intact.

If it's warm and dry enough, I advise lunching al fresco -- but it was a gray day, so we got the window table inside. Sweet Basil has a tiny dining room, with dark maroon walls and a creamy yellow-painted tin ceiling. The decor is tilted toward the Thai side of things -- wooden statuary and tapestries -- though there is a picture of Gen. Douglas MacArthur striding manfully into Filipino waters in the back room.

We got a pot of strong Ginger Tea ($2) to begin, to set the taste buds buzzing. The Galangal Soup ($2.95) is deliciously sweet, with just the right amount of spicy Thai ginger, and heavy on the coconut milk. We got it with mushroom, but it's probably just as good with chicken or shrimp.

Crispy Curry Puffs ($3.95) seemed like the most unusual appetizer from the Thai menu. It's kind of funny how every culture seems to have their own version of the pierogie -- if you can stretch your old-school Pittsburgh palate enough to deal with mild yellow curry, you'll love this. They're covered in a sweet, almost pie crust-like pastry.

Taste of La Filipiniana ($14.95) is a combination dish that gives you a taste of a number of Filipino flavors. Served with the soup of the day, you get sticky rice and small portions of three distinctive dishes. Chicken Adobo is a thigh marinated and covered in a heavy brown soy sauce, spiced with garlic, bay leaf and palm vinegar. It's probably the most popular dish in Filipino cooking and probably wouldn't frighten your old-school meat-and-potatoes uncle if he gave it a shot. There's also beef calderata, a Spanish dish in a dark tomato sauce, served with olives, potatoes and olives. You also get three pieces of shrimp curry -- also very mild, with a hint of lemongrass, ginger and coconut milk.

Like with most Asian cuisines, there are plenty of vegetarian options. Banana Heart Curry ($9.95) looks quite peculiar, but the banana hearts aren't too far removed from artichokes in consistency, and the curry is very mild and flavorful. Make sure you get enough sticky rice to go with it.

Additional Information:

Details

Sweet Basil/La Filipiniana

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; and 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays

Address: 5321 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Phone: 412-781-8724

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