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October 21, 2009 > Restaurant Review: Banana Leaf

Restaurant Review: Banana Leaf

By Denny Stein

Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between Thai and Malaysian cooking. Malaysia shares some of the same land mass as Thailand, so similarities are natural. On the other hand, Malay cuisine is different; it has distinctive nuances all its own. Kay Yim, owner and executive chef of the Banana Leaf Restaurant explained it to me this way: "Malaysian food is more intense, and not as sweet, as Thai food." You can order familiar Thai dishes like Chicken Satay, Curry, or even Pad Thai at the Banana Leaf, but they are probably made with different herbs and spices, or different combinations of the traditional flavors: lemongrass, kefir lime leaves, galangal, turmeric, and star anise, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, fresh curry eaves and coconut.

It is these dichotomies that make the cuisine at the Banana Leaf Restaurant delicious and interesting. It is delicious because the flavors are varied and yes, intense. Interesting because your tongue and brain are totally occupied with trying to decipher what exactly that flavor is, savoring it's depth and almost, but not quite, too spicy bite. The menu is multi-faceted. There are Small Plates & Appetizers, Soup, Poultry, Beef & Lamb dishes, Vegetable entrees, Noodles, Seafood and Rice. If you have trouble with choices, take a look at the fixed price Gourmet dinners, six or more courses for two or more people. Dessert is the stuff of dreams, but more on that later.

When you have been seated at a white clothed table, your server will greet you with a cup of Tom Yam Soup, and a glass of lemon garnished cold water. Fire and ice. The soup is a deep, clear red hot and sour broth, with tiny bits of mushroom, vegetables and lemon grass. A hint of lime juice cuts the heat, and aromatic oil floats on top intensifying the flavors when they hit the palate. Variations of red and brown shift like a kaleidoscope in the broth. After each sip, the tongue says "enough," but the brain says "more."

Be sure to order the Roti with its curry dipping sauce. Roti is a Malaysian staple, like naan in India and Pakistan. However, Roti is bread that hankers to be a cloud - crispy and almost transparent, it breaks into pieces that want to melt or crumble as they move from the sauce to your mouth. Watching it being made was mesmerizing, as the dough is stretched thinner and thinner into a rectangle that puffs up on the grill ready to float skyward at any moment.

Kay Yim brought us back down to earth and helped us make a few choices. She started us off with a drink called Ice Chendol, and, in the interests of full disclosure, it has a homemade coconut syrup base, I am a coconut fanatic, ergo I loved it. Shaved ice with bits of green tea jello and red bean, sweet coconut flavors and at that point I didn't care what else. The Chicken Satay appetizer came with a deep red-brown peanut sauce that was not as sweet as the ubiquitous Thai version, but heartier, and again, more intense.

Then came two entrŽes, Malaka Shrimp and Banana Leaf Rice. The Malaka Shrimp is pleasing; it's lemon-grass sauce, a sweet and sour version, more Thai-like, and includes strips of green and red pepper and pineapple. But the dish that captured my imagination was the Banana Leaf Rice. Picture a dark green, ribbed rectangular plate, half covered with a dark green ribbed banana leaf. On the banana leaf sits a perfect mesa shaped mound of rice, and nestled up against the mesa are chunks of Rendang beef (or chicken), the consistency of pot roast, in a pool of red sauce. Again, I can only describe the sauce as intense and light, spicy-warm and comforting at the same time.

At the other end of the green plate there are hard-boiled egg quarters, cucumber nuggets, and a spicier garnish of peanuts, anchovy and onion. The rice is sweet and holds its own with the piquant beef, mollifying the heat. Grains of rice are not sticky yet do not fall about separately, requiring one to chase them across the plate. This is a dish that captures, in the simplest of ingredients, cool, crunchy, warm, smooth, spicy, and basic tastes and textures.

Dessert was extraordinary. Fresh mango ice cream, wrapped in a taro blanket, dipped in tempura batter and deep fried. Exotic? Yes. Fantastically delicious? Absolutely. It is enough for two and comes with a half a deep fried banana on either side, a bit of chocolate syrup lacing it together.

I asked Ms. Yim why she chose a McCarthy Ranch location in the middle of chain stores and fast food restaurants. Her search sounded like a fairy tale, with a happy ending: one place was too old, another had no parking, a third was too expensive, but this location was just right... they have been here for 10 years. It is her first restaurant enterprise and obviously a success. The Banana Leaf is also the first Malaysian restaurant in the South Bay. She told me that even today people aren't as familiar with Malaysian cuisine as they are with Thai food. Like a golden needle in a haystack, the Banana Leaf is not easy to find, but watch for the sign on Ranch Drive and turn in, keeping an eye out for the umbrella patio tables outside of the front doors.

Inside, the dŽcor echoes the dualities found in the food. Ceilings are high and industrial, with pipes and vents visible, but painted a soft powdery blue. Lattice squares are suspended from the ceiling and from these hang rattan fans. The whole restaurant is full of light, graced by a multitude of windows with sheer curtains. There is a bar area, where one can enjoy a beer and small plate. Even the floor is subtle and attractive with muted gray and brown stone floor tiles laid in an abstract pattern.

The kitchen area is open (feel free to watch the chefs at work, one of whom is Ms. Yim's husband) and is all stainless steel with glass shaded lights hung from the ceiling on chains. The kitchen is crowded and busy but clean and professional. Restrooms are clean and pretty.

Kay Yim is the face and spirit of Banana Leaf. You can find her circulating among the guests and the staff, asking the former how they like the food or instructing the latter to bring a sampling of tastes to a table. Customers all looked happy and lively, and real estate broker Margo Hood said she has "always had good food, good service, and good times there." That has been my experience so far, and I intend to return.

Visited September 14 & October 7, 2009

Banana Leaf Restaurant
McCarthy Ranch
182 Ranch Drive, Milpitas
(408) 719-9811

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