There comes a moment in nearly every delicious meal at Banana Leaf in which you put down your chopsticks and ponder a simple question: Why isn't there more Malaysian food in Houston? I know I'm not the first or only person to pose this question, but it bears repeating. Malaysian cuisine represents a fascinating cultural crossroads between India, China, Thailand and Singapore. In a typical Malaysian restaurant, you'll find silky peanut sauces keeping company with spicy curries, and noodles cozying up to tropical fruits. Banana Leaf is no exception.
On my first visit, I found it difficult to choose from the vast menu. Appetizers were easy, though — roti canai is one of the seminal Malaysian dishes, and aside from being an obvious choice, it's just fun to watch the cooks toss the giant white sheet of flatbread into the air, spinning it into a flat disk before cooking it quickly on the hot griddle. The roti canai comes out piping-hot, folded into fluffy quarters, with a side of mild curry sauce. It's best eaten hot if your fingers can stand it, since the doughy flatbread tends to become flaky and shatters easily if left to cool.
Our other appetizer was the temptingly named crispy pork intestine, which also quickly turns unappetizing if left to cool and congeal, but is amazing when eaten hot. The intestines are twirled into tight spirals before being fried, leaving them with a pleasantly crunchy exterior and warm, soft inside. The sweet plum sauce served on the side was integral to eating the bites of intestine, however, as they were somewhat bland on their own.
The inside of Banana Leaf is pleasantly cozy in comparison to many of its neighbors in the Dun Huang plaza just off Bellaire and Beltway 8. Although the strip center itself is new, many of the restaurants tend to be sparse and dingy inside. Banana Leaf has clearly taken steps to distinguish itself from the pack, with flat-screen TVs next to each table that broadcast the many dishes in bright colors and a charming, if slightly hokey, fake-bamboo roof over the server's area and semi-open kitchen. The space is small and the tables can be cramped, but with the cheerful servers and happily chattering customers, it simply feels like you're dining with a roomful of friends instead of strangers.
As my dining companion and I sipped on the Chardonnay we'd brought into the restaurant and eagerly awaited the main courses, we shared a laugh about the kerfuffle that the wine had caused earlier. Banana Leaf has a rarely exploited BYOB policy and no corkage fee, which tends to leave them at a bit of a loss when customers take advantage of the benefit.
The waitress had graciously offered to keep the wine in the refrigerator for us while we waited for our table (a 30- to 45-minute wait outside is not uncommon at peak hours, so take precautions) and had the chilled bottle waiting for us when she eventually took us to our table. She was embarrassed, however, that they only had plastic glasses for the wine (as professional drinkers, we absolutely did not care) and that she couldn't open the bottle for us. Worse, they didn't even have a corkscrew on premises. But she had already sent one of the busboys to borrow one from a neighboring restaurant and apologized profusely for the inconvenience. Far from being stultified by this, my dining partner and I simply sat amazed at her keenness and enthusiastic attitude. Although I didn't bring a bottle on future occasions, I was nevertheless delighted with the gracious service apparent on each visit.
The entrées on the first visit seemed to be on two entirely opposite ends of the spectrum of Banana Leaf's wide menu of options. My banana leaf red snapper with okra was served whole, for a reasonable price of $24.99, and mounded high with not only stewed okra but eggplant, onions and thick pieces of tofu. The food is served family-style for a reason, as I came to find out, and that's because the portions are more than generous. Between the two of us, we were only able to eat one side of the snapper — which is filleted tableside for you — and the excellent curried vegetables. My companion's mango chicken, however, was lacking in real flavor or intensity. Despite our waitress's nodding approval and comment — "Excellent dish! Good choice!" — we were both unimpressed with the bland chicken and the way it was disconnected from the tropical fruits that were heaped on top.
Future visits proved far more successful. A crispy fried tofu appetizer with bean sprouts and cucumbers stacked neatly on top and covered with sweet, nutty satay sauce was an elegant and extraordinary beginning to one meal. The tofu oozed pleasantly in the middle, while the vegetal bite from the cucumbers and the sweet but salty sauce kept it bouncing happily from tastebud to tastebud in my mouth.
A sambal shrimp entrée, made with the typical Malaysian sauce, was amazing despite its rather high-ticket price of $16.95 for only eight shrimp. The depth of flavors was unlike any other Asian dish I'd ever eaten, once again bringing the idea of Malaysian cuisine as the perfect amalgamation of southern Asian cooking to mind. Salty, slightly fishy shrimp paste balanced the sweet punch of ginger, while sautéed slices of bell pepper and onion grounded the sauce with heft. The shrimp were obviously quite fresh and — unlike the shrimp in another less expensive entrée, masak lemak — were quite large.
The masak lemak — again, a more traditional Malaysian and Singaporean dish — was excellent despite the punier shrimp it contained. The dish more than made up for the puniness with copious amounts of vegetables, including enormous oyster and shiitake mushrooms that exploded with an earthy burst in the mouth. My normally taciturn and reserved dining companion couldn't stop talking about the inspired balance of flavors in the dish, which is aptly described on the menu as being enveloped in an "aromatic chili gravy." His exact comment was, "This is really, really, really, really good," an incredible compliment coming from a man of notoriously very few words.
The only complaint about the two dishes was the lack of heat, despite an ominous red flame symbol next to both on the menu. My dining partner felt that the sambal shrimp had a nice, steady, prolonged burn to it, but I felt that both dishes could have benefited slightly from a sharper and bolder kick. All of this was forgotten, of course, as we tore into dessert: Banana leaf pancake, a piece of roti filled with clarified butter and sliced bananas, which seeped gooey banana and sugary butter with every mouthwatering bite.
Perhaps one of the reasons that we don't have more Malaysian restaurants in Houston is the idea that it's still a very "foreign" culture, possessing foods and beverages unfamiliar to the average diner. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. Much like another mysteriously maligned cuisine — Ethiopian food — Malaysian cooking is the same food you know and love, only cooked in a slightly different way (and with a fantastic signature flatbread, to boot). You don't have to be an expert in Malaysian food to enjoy Banana Leaf; you just have to possess a mouth. It's that easy.
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