The Appeal of Banana Leaf

It's been a little over six months since we reviewed Banana Leaf (9889 Bellaire Boulevard, Suite 311) -- the cozy outpost of Malaysian cuisine in New Chinatown -- and it occurred to us over the weekend that we hadn't visited the place since. It just didn't seem right, after all, that we had barely made a dent in its vast and mostly delicious menu on the few times that we visited.

Sad and chagrined, we set out on Saturday afternoon to correct this oversight. It's not as though we hadn't tried to eat at Banana Leaf on other occasions, but as with any other restaurant that gets a write-up in print, the place was jam-packed for months afterwards. We gave up on trying somewhere around the three-month mark, after driving out to Bellaire Boulevard repeatedly only to find an hour to hour-and-a-half wait each time (up from the previous average of 30 to 45 minutes). Surely the crowds would die down somewhat with time, right?

This past Saturday, we arrived at 1:30 p.m. to find a very reasonable 10-minute wait for a table at the busy restaurant. It turns out that this was an excellent time to visit, as the lunch rush had died down and we were able to peruse all of the many dishes on the large menu before finally settling on some new ones that we'd never had before -- at Banana Leaf or anywhere else.

As with previous visits, our afternoon turned into as much of a learning experience as it was a meal.

The exciting yet occasionally frustrating thing about Malaysian food is that it's not easily pigeonholed. Try and describe Malaysian food to someone unfamiliar with the region, and you'll find yourself giving a description very much like this: "It's like all of the best foods from south and southeast Asia all rolled into one." The menu at Banana Leaf dips and twirls and hops between Indian curries, Thai soups, Indonesian flatbreads, Chinese stir-fry dishes, Vietnamese sauces and everything in between.

What makes Banana Leaf such a wonderful destination, then, is that no matter what your level of culinary interest, you can find a good meal there. For the truly adventurous, there are bubbling metal pots of curried fish head casserole, and for the more boring staid among us, there are instantly recognizable dishes like pad thai or shrimp fried rice. You like Indian food and your friend doesn't? You can get your curry fix while they nosh on Thai food. It's the best of a lot of worlds.

On Saturday, we opted for the more adventurous route and ordered what turned out to be far more food than we could eat between the two of us. Taro-wrapped shrimp and mango calamari started us out, along with a strong and mildly sweet glass of Malaysian iced milk tea. While we're more accustomed to eating taro in desserts (for example, the homemade taro ice cream at Lee's Sandwiches just down the street at Wilcrest is outstanding), it made for an intriguing mixture of flavors and textures. The fragrant, almost floral scent of the taro still came through while the fluffy texture reminded us of buttery mashed potatoes, and when wrapped around the shrimp and deep fried, it made us wonder why we'd never tried taro in a savory application before.

The mango calamari turned out to be much stronger than anticipated, with a nice initial burn from the raw onions and the chili paste. The calamari, however, was dried -- and while we like dried fish in some salads (like in yam pla tod, a sweet and spicy Thai salad with anchovies), it was overly tough and didn't work for our American palates.

Our other two dishes proved more successful: stir-fried crispy egg noodle with seafood and the aforementioned curried fish head casserole. While the sweet and smoky egg noodles -- replete with every type of seafood served at the restaurant -- were sufficient for one person (or could easily be split between two), be forewarned that the casserole comes out in a giant cauldron that could have fed a whole wedding party. And at $16.95, it's a damn good deal. The curry was more of the Indian persuasion than the Thai, with plenty of coconut milk in the thick, nutty broth. The fish heads were almost too bony to bother with, so we instead enjoyed the bounty of vegetables: okra, green bell peppers, green beans, onions and tomatoes (as well as hearty chunks of curry-saturated tofu that exploded in your mouth when you bit into them).

And while we had planned on getting the banana roti canai for dessert, it was all we could do to roll ourselves out to the car after all that food. We won't make it as long between visits next time, and we're definitely bringing more people to finish off all that lovely food.

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Katharine Shilcutt