Even if you don’t normally eat the kind of food served at Basic Kitchen, you’re almost certainly familiar with it.
Put aside whether you subscribe to glossy magazines with full-color features parsing yoga mat brands and the healing powers of activated charcoal. For argument’s sake, let’s just say you flipped through a copy of such a publication while getting a muffler change or waiting for the allergist. Do you recall coming across a column detailing some rosy-cheeked lifestyle guru’s daily rituals, accompanied by a sunlit photo of her looking natural and happy? There may have been a puggle in the picture.
And perhaps there was a handcrafted ceramic bowl, teeming with the Swiss chard she presses for her morning juice, savored with a toasted slice of coconut flour bread, dappled with sunflower butter. Later in the day, our willowy hero will stir tahini into brown rice for lunch, and contemplate whether to roast beets or sweet potatoes for dinner.
Does anybody really eat this way? At Basic Kitchen, we all do — and I’d wager most of us are better off for it.
The first Charleston venture from Ben Towill, a former New York City restaurateur who’s starred in his own share of aspirational magazine spreads, Basic Kitchen is easy to mock for its millennial wholesomeness (see above.) But the downtown restaurant deftly sidesteps twee traps, showing more spine than an Instagram post can capture. Towill, chef Air Casebier and general manager Kellie Holmes are clear on what they want to accomplish: In other words, for a restaurant that places such a high priority on how people feel, Basic Kitchen is awfully well-thought out.
As the restaurant’s name implies, Basic Kitchen is at its best by day. Despite a handsome bar putting out relatively nourishing drinks — rather than uncapping a bottle of triple sec to make a margarita, the bartender has to squeeze a beet — nighttime vibes don’t emanate from the restaurant’s whitewashed walls or sky-blue cooler, stocked with meals earmarked for people participating in a Basic Kitchen cleanse. And honestly, eaters who are virtuous enough to take pleasure in an evening turkey burger are probably too disciplined for dinner out on a Tuesday anyhow.
But at breakfast, brunch and lunch, Basic Kitchen feels 100 percent correct. Or maybe that’s too judgy of a descriptor for a restaurant that boasts you can eat amongst plants, and leave with “tons of energy to pursue the things you love.” Let’s just say the place is impressively self-actualized.
There is the slightest hint of Palm Springs to the look of Basic Kitchen, with its rounded mirrors and rattan chandeliers. I once had to temporarily take leave of my syrup-saturated nine-grain pancakes because another patron was so struck by the stylish interplay of street-facing windows, bleached-top bistro tables and cushions printed with pastel fronds that she needed to snap a picture. She’d been seated elsewhere in the breezy dining room, which doubles as a spacious tiled corridor to the lush patio out back.
All of the California connotations are on point, since the core of the menu is indebted to the eating habits forged there over the past century. As chronicled in Jonathan Kauffman’s new "Hippie Food: How Back-To-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat," visionaries have long flocked to California to try out new and improved ways of living. Kauffman concludes “The revolution failed. The revolution succeeded.” Meaning, war and capitalism persist — but so do brown rice, soy sauce and the belief that food doesn’t have to be white and fluffy.
That’s clear from Basic Kitchen’s signature Basic Bowl, one of four vegan dishes on the lunch menu (which is almost exactly the same as the dinner menu.)
The shallow bowl is roughly divided into ingredient quadrants, with each section dedicated to a major vegan food group: Root vegetables, brassicas and pulses are ably represented by a charred and split sweet potato, grilled Brussels sprouts, sauteed kale and a heap of cooked-down beans. There’s tender brown rice below and two sauce ramekins alongside. Part of the fun of the setup is figuring out which vegetables perk up with a touch of carroty ginger, and which call for the more dogged zing of garlicky cilantro.
Eaters get another chance to exercise their design skills on the equally excellent Rainbow Bowl. Built on a foundation of chewy sweet potato cellophane noodles, which soak up a mildly spiced peanut sauce, the bowl is always seeded with slivers of carrots, zucchini and other fresh vegetables. But the question of a crowning avocado or salmon slab is left to the customer’s discretion (I’d ask for an egg, and leave it at that.)
Assembling a meal at Basic Kitchen sometimes feels more like painting than ordering, so colorful are the choices. That’s especially true of the maniacally magenta beet dip, a chunky hazelnut spread that hippies would probably have served brown and plain. Instead, it’s transformed by beet puree and nubbins of linen-white feta cheese. Crudites in bright stoplight hues are provided for scooping up the dip, embroidered with savory za’atar spices.
At times, Casebeir’s impulse to produce dishes that visually radiate is at odds with the restaurant’s stated commitment to local, seasonal sourcing. Those fleecy brunch pancakes would probably have been just as terrific with only almond butter and whipped cream, but they’re adorned with kiwis, bananas and blueberries too. I’m also perplexed by the apple-caramel cheesecake offered for dessert at dinnertime, since it doesn’t even pretend to be healthy. The course seems like a prime opportunity to whip out granola or chia pudding.
In other instances, the opposite problem is true: An ingredient that’s emblematic of Basic Kitchen’s message is given too much airtime, at least from a flavor perspective. My turkey burger was so ridden with coconut oil that it tasted as though it had just finished a lifeguard shift. And the distinctive qualities of cauliflower disappeared in a fry treatment that stressed ranch dressing made from cashew nuts.
Generally, though, Basic Kitchen excels at dishes that are classified as “clean,” which is the current lingo for lightly processed ingredients treated with care, as opposed to copious amounts of salt, butter and cream. A crisp-skinned snapper served one night was a textbook example of fish cookery, and the restaurant’s omnipresent Brussels sprouts always are properly firm. Still, when I think of Basic Kitchen, I think of roasted rainbow carrots, showing their colors atop an aromatic mound of citrus-honeyed feta, scantily coarsened with millet. You bet I took a picture.