Originally created 04/10/98

Sweet Basil's spice is in the variety



The Sweet Basil Grille implores, "Please ask if you have any special requests. We will do our best to prepare any special item that does not appear on our menu."

Not that their menu is lacking (it offers 25 entrees), but as Kevin Kilchenstein, the restaurant manager, affirms, Yes: If you don't see it on the menu, the Sweet Basil Grille is more than happy to create your dream of a meal.

This delightfully flexible eatery, owned by Bob and Diane Smith of Pennsylvania, features delectable homemade sauces and imported pastas as mainstays of its Italian cuisine.

Located in Surrey Center on Highland Avenue, the Sweet Basil Grille seats 150. It provides a full bar, accepts reservations for parties of six or more, offers smoking and nonsmoking dining areas and honors Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees range in price from $7.95 to $17.95.

Julie: Being Italian, to say that I'm particular about Italian food is an understatement. Even so, I was delighted with Sweet Basil's "linguine pescatore" - pasta perfectly al dente; the marinara, a refreshing, lively yet subtle blend of sweet herbs and tomato; the calamari, shrimp and mussels cooked until just plump enough to melt in the mouth. My only complaint was that on this busy weeknight, the kitchen had run out of garlic bread.

Tom: Let me back up a bit here -- Julie couldn't wait to get to the entrée. Before we had dinner, we ordered the Sweet Basil Antipasto for two, which I found a marvelous creation, beautifully presented. The best thing about it was that the stuff that was supposed to be hot was hot and the things that were supposed to be cold were cold. Hard feat to pull off.

After we did the best we could with this generous appetizer, we summoned our server, Eleanor, who is a credit to her profession, and ordered dinner. I know I gave her a challenge: I ordered filet mignon, well-charred on the outside and medium on the inside. It came back well-charred and well-done.

Julie: Yes, he did give Eleanor a challenge - for one thing, he mumbled his order. She was very gracious about taking his order back and making sure it was done right.

Tom: Well, I didn't mumble, but the point is that when the steak came back the second time it was cooked perfectly; it's nice to find good beef in a specialty restaurant.

Julie: After dinner, Eleanor recommended that I try the hot chocolate bread pudding. (I'm not the sweet tooth in this duo.) So, with a delicious, piping-hot cup of cappuccino, I dug into this succulent delight, which, in the end, overwhelmed me. I think Tom will agree with me in saying that the portions for every course offered are generous.

Tom: Can't argue with that. The antipasto, my Caesar salad (very authentic, complete with diced anchovies), Julie's pasta and dessert -- all plenteous.

Let me close with the bird's eye view of the Sweet Basil Grille: the atmosphere is comfortable and spacious. If you're looking for a small, intimate place, this may not be for you. But the service is great, and so is the food. As Julie says, if you're a stickler for homemade sauces, as she is, you'll enjoy the marinara, the alfredo, or the marsala sauces.

Tom and Julie's ratings

** Atmosphere

***Food

***1/2 Service

* Poor ** Good *** Excellent **** Superior

Sweet Basil Grille

399 Highland Ave.

Surrey Center

736-6777

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (but you can order pizza until midnight); and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Editor's note: Dining out is a favorite pastime in Augusta and Aiken. Epicurean experiences range from the upscale pleasures of La Maison to the down-home delectables of Damons.

The offerings are so extensive and varied, you need a gourmet guide to sort out the choices. Tom Curran and Julie Gates can help.

The are proprietors of Floyd Manor Inn in Blackville, S.C. Guests determine the menu for their evening meals, so Tom and Julie are knowledgeable of a variety of cuisine.

A native of Kansas City, Tom has worked a variety of jobs in the food-service profession.

Julie is a Florida native and teaches English at Claflin College in Orangeburg, S.C.

Both love food and have strong opinions on its preparation, presentation and what constitutes a great (or not so great) dining experience.

Beginning today, Tom and Julie will share their dining experiences with Applause! readers. They'll take you to some of Augusta and Aiken's finest restaurants and guide you to the best offerings of more modest locales.

Their reviews will run alternate weeks on the Wine and Dine page.

They welcome feedback. Call them at (803) 284-3736.