Dining out: Asian spices accentuate Banana Leaf
Provo • The Banana Leaf is a hop, skip and a jump from the Brigham Young University campus.
This family-owned and -operated restaurant opened in October, aiming to bring the exotic flavors of Sri Lanka and Singapore to Utah County.
If first impressions are everything, Banana Leaf starts on the right foot with a surprisingly grand setting. The restaurant is in a restored historic home, retaining much of the original features such as moldings and windows. The space is dominated by swathes of dark, rich wood, a grand fireplace, Asian ornamentation, sturdy ornate tabletops, and it all comes together to make a genuinely pleasant dining space.
On my first visit, I was informed menu selections change every three months, with the next big change coming in March. Signature dishes remain, but much of the menu changes with the seasons. Menu selections cross many borders, with Singapore serving as a multicultural meeting point. In my visits, I spied dishes from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India, Singapore and China.
Despite the variety of choices, choosing a place to start was simple. From our server's excited recommendation, we selected the Singapore chile crab ($18.99), which we were warned would be messy. The crab is Dungeness, which is marinated in the restaurant's Singaporean chile sauce and served alongside curry-inflected Singapore style-fried rice. I was quickly covered in sweet chile sauce, crab meat and shell, plus flecks of punchy red pepper flakes. For the price, I would have liked to have seen more than half a crab, and maybe even a few more notches of heat, too.
As with several dishes on the menu, the crab arrived in a long, banana leaf-shaped metal boat of sorts. While I'm sure someone thought the serviceware eye-catching, in practical terms the odd-shaped platters only served to complicate dining and impede table space.
I found a similarly tasting sweet sauce in the Singapore-style garlic shrimp ($12.99). While they didn't taste overly garlicky, they also weren't too exciting. The dish was served with Singapore style fried rice, which like with the crab, came to the table a touch cold.
Ceylon chicken tikka masala ($12.99) was more appetizing. Unlike many excessively creamy preparations around the valley, this was a satisfyingly rich and deeply flavored sauce, accented by coconut milk. It was especially enjoyable when scooped up with the accompanying garlic pa'an like an Indian roti flatbread but with garlic and parmesan mixed in. The resulting bread is thin, crispy, flaky and soft, and completely addictive.
A chicken coconut curry ($10.99) came with more pa'an and a generous amount of chicken too. The green-hued curry tasted reminiscent of Thai and Indian cuisines, but the thin gravy ultimately left me longing for richer and more assertive flavors.
Chopzy with dhal ($10.49) was my least favorite dish during my visits, again making me yearn for bolder flavors. The vegetarian dish was served as three components, none of which tasted memorable. The plate of bell peppers, broccoli and onions was sautÃ©ed to a smoky finish in soy sauce, a vegetable broth with a strange murky taste, and a side of lentils spiced with cumin, turmeric and coriander powder.
The Sri Lankan aspect of the menu is currently represented solely by kothu, with both a shrimp ($12.99) and beef option ($12.25). Banana Leaf's kothu comes as a tangle of shredded roti bread coated in egg, parmesan, coconut curry sauce and with a cheddar cheese topping. The beef variation I sampled offered up a generous serving of thin strips of beef cooked in a sweet onion sauce, and the result was an enjoyably chewy, gooey mess.
The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol but does offer a selection of imported teas ($3.99), unique fruit juices ($3.99) and soda products ($1.99). Notable was the avocado juice ($3.99), which I eagerly enjoyed on all visits. This smoothie-esque concoction was akin to a creamy Indian lassi if you can imagine an avocado-inflected version and just as good at cooling the palate if you indulge in too much hot sauce (varieties of which come with most dishes on the side).
Service was universally friendly and eager to please. With the many unusual dishes on offer, I had plenty of questions, which our servers skillfully handled. For example, I was surprised to find cheese in some dishes and our server explained that Western influences were starting to find their way into the cuisine. All of our servers talked with such an abundance of passion and detail, that it made me really want to root for the restaurant's success, despite the tweaking some dishes require.
On my final visit, the server informed our table that a Singapore dish I love (vermicelli noodles seasoned with curry) had been nixed from the menu, apparently because patrons confused it with an Italian noodle dish. Sadly, that confusion might stem from the menu's gleeful attitude in approaching such diverse multiculturalism. As good as the chicken tikka masala was, there are plenty of fine Indian and Pakistani restaurants already serving that dish.
To set itself apart, Banana Leaf should seek to define itself with truly unique dishes, helping diners explore a more concise array of dishes specific to the region. That way the restaurant could really hone in on bringing robust flavors to the streets of Provo.
Reviewer Stuart Melling blogs at gastronomicslc.com. Send comments about this review to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Banana Leaf
Food • Hhj
Mood • HHhj
Service • HHhj
Noise • bb
On Banana Leaf's eclectic, seasonally changing menu, you'll find dishes from Indonesia, China, Singapore, India and Malaysia. Try the Sri Lankan beef kothu, garlic flatbread pa'an and Singapore chile crab.
Location • 409 N. University Ave., Provo; 801-636-0596
Hours • Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4-10 p.m.
Children's menu • No
Prices • $
Liquor • No
Reservations • No
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • No
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • No
Credit cards • All major