Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Milpitas, CA - Banana Leaf

Just as there are those special homes in which you feel utterly warmed and charmed by, there exists a similar rare breed of restaurant that inspires similar feelings within me. These places include a cozy nook of a quality ice creamery (which no longer exists), a French patisserie no bigger than my living room and complete with a radiant fireplace, and a Vietnamese-French cafe run by a sparkly-eyed, chic, grandmotherly chef-owner who inspired me as a child to eventually create the impressive but simple pastry ├ęclair sculpture that is croque em bouche.

In that same vein of quality food and vivacious warmth is
Banana Leaf, a soothing goldenrod and dark wood-hued, bustling Malaysian (with a dash of Singaporean) restaurant in the heart of Milpitas, CA. If you catch it in a rare off-hour, it is an impeccably clean, calm oasis of silky smooth curries and flaky breads, with an open kitchen in which you can watch the making of roti prata. However, it is more likely to be a vigorously boiling melting-pot of culinary scents, assorted languages, and friendly energy. The manager, Oliver, is ebullient, energetic, and utterly charming. He also has an incredible memory for faces and details.

From the unending variety of bay area Asian dining, I am most eager to introduce friends, both local and out-of-town, to this place. It's unpretentious, well-seasoned and experienced at dealing with large numbers of customers, friendly, consistent, and delicious. And the food bears the closest resemblance to the laksa, nasi goreng, and Hainanese chicken rice that I remember from my trip to SE Asia a year ago.

I've been tasting my way through the menu items, but I have my favorites; if you'd like suggestions, I'd be more than happy to offer my own. Here are a few items I enjoyed one lazy weekend afternoon with my parents.

We started out with the tofu salad, a ring of lightly-fried tofu triangles hollowed out and piled with bean sprouts, lettuce, and cucumber, and topped off with a generous mound of mildly sweet and substantial-yet-refreshing seasoning of chunky peanut sauce. It was good, but I'd encourage trying the gado-gado, which has a slightly wider range of textures and flavors.

Next up was the quintessential breakfast item of Malaysia, nasi lemak, termed 'Banana Leaf rice' here. When I had it in Malaysia, the $.25 serving size was only a fraction of this, and adorably wrapped in a banana leaf pyramid. This is considerably more glorified, with the addition of tender curried meat, and enough food to make 4-5 of the breakfasts that I had. The coconut rice is beautifully tinged with light notes of coconut milk, the roasted peanuts are perfectly crisp, the anchovies in balachan (shrimp paste)/chili oil add a medium-spicy richness, and the egg and cucumber keep it all light and creamy. The presentation here is for looks only; when you eat the dish, everything gets mixed together on individual plates in fried-rice style to meld the flavors.

This was new to me, and instantly became one of my favorites. It's called 'Ying yong noodles', and it features my beloved chow fun (thick rice) noodles and deep-fried sai fun (rice noodles) bathed with a wonderfully soupy, luscious gravy with suspended egg 'cloud' threads, and studded with perfectly cooked seafood and chicken. There's enough to share with a fair number of people, even when one person (me) would be utterly happy to hog it all to him/herself. :o)

I had a love affair in Singapore. It was with one of their national dishes (another being the chili crab at Red House), Hainanese chicken rice. I posted the recipe once; it's a bit time-consuming, although the end result is a beautiful simplicity of flavors that tastes heavenly. Simply put, it is boiled (although I cringe to say boiled, when it's more of a series of blanchings and warm-water coddling than rough-and-tough boiling) chicken smoothed over with sesame oil, sitting in a soy-based sauce, and served with chicken-stock flavored rice and a chili (sometimes perked up with ginger) sauce. Singaporean natives told me that the rice went on the plate first, then the chili sauce, then the chicken and some crispy cucumbers, then topped with the cilantro and drizzled with the soy-sesame sauce. Wow. It's amazing. When done correctly, the chicken is soft, silky lusciousness. I've tried my fair share of bay area restaurant renderings, and Banana Leaf's comes the closest. The rice is a vibrant yellow, which differs from the ivory Singaporean version, but I think that's because it's given the Malaysian addition of turmeric powder. Not having had the dish in Malaysia, I'm not sure if that's how it's usually cooked there.

The last bit of crispy, creamy, hot, cold, sweet delectability to reach our tummies were deep-fried bananas cuddled with mango ice cream. I'm sure it's more fusion than authentic, ;) but it's a lovely way to end a meal that never fails to disappoint. Since last year, Southeast Asian food has won over my heart, and I highly recommend this place if a twenty hour (or so) plane ride isn't an option.

Terimakasi, Banana Leaf~ :)


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