Taste in colors

Busaba in Louisville is vibrant Thai

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Susan France

Each new plate arrived to the table as a twist of a kaleidoscope. When we drained the color from one, another arrived, swirling colors into a different combination and pattern. We remembered the food by its color, not by each dish, when we left Busaba in Louisville.

Like, for instance, the cymbal smash of sliced red pepper and chili flakes in the drunken noodles. The pepper was juicy like a tomato and the chili’s heat worked its way from the inside out. The noodles were flat and golden, dressed lightly in a garlic and basil paste. It was all a deep foundation for the pink and red whisps of grilled shrimp. The shrimp, about the size of a curled index finer, were tender with a crunchy exterior, the product of a high-heat char that also imparted smoke and fire to the dish.

Beside the mosaic of plates was a sweating glass of coconut Thai iced tea. Dark, rich Ceylon tea turned burnt orange midway through the cup, ceding eventually to white coconut milk. I’ve always thought Thai iced tea was the most beautiful man-made foodstuff; simple and evocative in flavor, color and texture. Busaba’s was floral, fresh and nutty.

That drink was the first on the table, but it so much mirrored the last dish we had. Bua Loy was a revelation at dessert. It was a bowl of hot coconut milk with quarter-sized, bright orange pumpkin and brown rice balls floating beside black and white sesame seeds. The pumpkin and rice balls were firm but fleshy like tapioca, and flavored modestly. The whole dish was so elegantly simple, in presentation, taste and color. I don’t want to offend it by such a low-brow comparison, but just to contextualize it, it was a bit like eating the best bowl of Cap’n Crunch in your life.

Moving back, the understated sweetness of Bua Loy was also reflected in the first course chicken satay with chili peanut butter sauce. The skewered chicken, rubbed in yellow spices and grilled, was as juicy and tender as you can get a piece of chicken that thin. The peanut butter sauce was the apex of a salty, sweet and savory pyramid —that is, it was so damn good, I ate spoonfuls of it until it was gone.

Later added to the table was a bowl of yellow curry. Sauteed striplets of peppered pork and potato found equilibrium in a coconut creamy, rich yellow curry. It was ordered at the hottest of the three heat options, despite the courteous but definitive head shake from the waitress, and it unsurprisingly came really spicy. It was certainly within reason for any spice lover, and within the context of the greater meal, it added a new layer that most diners would enjoy.

Splashes of green appeared now and then — diced and pickled cucumbers came alongside the satay; scallion and cilantro garnished most dishes. The occasional leaf lettuce. But the flavor of green was most concentrated in the vegetable potstickers — broccoli, cilantro and basil alongside potato and carrot stuffed and steamed in a thin and expertly browned pocket and accompanied by a glassy black soy chili sauce.

One notable exception from the color spectrum on the table was blue. That is until you look up. The giant glass windows are tinted just so to refract the evening light into that tiny band of color waves. It’s odd, you feel like you’re on some airy cliff in Busaba, not next to a dry cleaner and across from a frumpy CVS pharmacy.

Getting darker, indigo cabbage and effortless webs of shredded beets balanced the aesthetic of the drunken noodles and a wonderfully bright fruit salad, Som Tum. Shredded papaya was interwoven with tomatoes, carrots, green beans and peanuts into a juicy bird’s nest. In a bowl nearby, violet shells of onion floated between three different types of mushrooms in a punchy and lemony Tom Yum.

Busaba, we’re told at the beginning of the meal, means flower in Thai, and so it’s no wonder there is such attention to flavor and color in its dishes. Leaving, a dark purple sky blends us back into the real world and yet again I’m reminded how much else food can be.