If you’re ordering these wraps in simple versions, consider adding the chef’s plate of chutneys (tomato, coconut, tamarind) to garnish them. Lovers of fierce flavors may want to try an order of achar, hot-and-sour green mango and lime pickle, addictive if you develop a taste for it.
The menu offers a half-dozen curries from various southern regions, ranging from Hyderabad (in the state of Andhra Pradesh, just barely in the southern half, with a cuisine more similar to Punjabi than other southern states) on through Bangalore, Chettinad (a region in the state of Tamil Nadu), Goa, and Kerala. Protein choices include tofu, fish, shrimp, lamb, veggies, or the “mock duck” beloved of vegans who miss meat.
Our best choice was the Kerala curry with coconut water, chilies, ginger, and unspecified “spices.” Kerala’s “signature” dish is an incendiary red fish curry, meen mulligattath. At the seaside in Ernakulam are a line of awesome onshore fishing rigs, soaring hand-cranked cranes with huge nets attached to their ends, set on the beach, each manned by about 20 loinclothed men who dip the nets into the water and, a few minutes later, crank them back up filled with wriggling seafood. (A quick boat ride across the water from grungy “Erna” is the enchanting ancient spice-port of Cochin, with its small whitewashed buildings where huge heaps and sacks of cardamom seeds perfume the air near the harbor.) So I chose fish as the protein for the Keralese curry, not caring which species. Happily, it proved a steaky fish, probably sea bass thickly sliced into a smooth pinkish curry, as aromatic with cardamom as I’d hoped, the fish nicely cooked. The spicing was medium, despite our table’s universal request for spicy dishes to be served really hot. (Next night, the leftovers had escalated to semi-hot.) It wasn’t Kerala’s famed fish curry (I think this one is called meen molee), but it was tasty.
It’s hard to believe that, in a veteran chain like the Monsoon Group, the kitchen of its latest offshoot would be thrown off its stride by an order for a mere three curries simultaneously — but both our other curries were disappointing due to overcooking. Hyderabi curry (almonds, mint, yogurt, masala) is a natural for lamb, but the meat slices were dried out and the sauce somewhat congealed. The Chettinad curry (tamarind, curry leaves, garlic, and ginger) was overthickened, too, with shriveled shrimp. Neither was remotely spicy. The default rice (served in lieu of the more exotic one we ordered) was Pullao (basmati, subtly amended with finely diced vegetables and gentle masala spices), and it was tender and buttery.
The service we encountered was sweet but discombobulated: lots of servers (three, plus a busboy) periodically fluttered around us. I think our original waitress could have handled it better without all the help. They were young, pleasant, attractive, but there seemed to be little communication — we had to repeat several requests more than once. Wine and beer arrived quickly, but three tablemates’ booze-free cocktails, ordered early, while we were still working on our food order, required a reminder and didn’t arrive until just before the appetizers. An order for an exotic rice dish with tamarind and peanuts didn’t show up until the end of the meal, right before the table was cleared. (It was removed from our bill without our asking. However, the buser didn’t box it up for take-home, so I barely got to taste it.) And you already know that our request for “spicy” went nowhere, unless you count the occasional raw whole chilies in chutneys. (Young male Texans of my acquaintance chomp raw chilies to prove their machismo. I am none of the above and believe hot peppers should generally be chopped up and cooked into something that will welcome and absorb them into a company of flavors.)
Banana Leaf has one of the most alluring dessert menus of local Indian restaurants. I liked the nutmeg-sprinkled pistachio kulfi (ice milk), with its classic fudgy texture, but my tablemates didn’t (guess it’s a developed taste). The rosewater kulfi had a smoother texture and floral aroma and vanished lickety-split. Faloodi is a dish of Medieval Persian origins, a sort of noodle-rosewater sorbet. Here, it’s supposedly made with noodles, milk, rosewater syrup, and basil seeds, but where were the noodles? Were they puréed into the thick, fragrant sorbet? And carrot halwa (pudding) was a coarse mash that would make a great side dish for Bubbie’s pot roast, rather than dessert. Among the several sweets we didn’t order is a whipped-cream coconut mousse, which I don’t believe you’re likely to encounter anywhere in India except, perhaps, at luxury hotels for foreigners.
Given the unexpected cooking and service glitches, I suspect that Bamboo Leaf hasn’t quite matured. I look forward to trying it again a little further down the road. For one thing, they’ve got an intriguing curry from Goa: its contents are coconut milk, tamarind, cumin, and red chilis. “Vindaloo” was the culinary response of Goan cooks to the Portuguese colonists’ introduction of vinegar, but tamarind fruit is the local sour ingredient of South India. Could this be a pre-Portuguese version of vindaloo? (And would they make it as spicy as an authentic vindaloo if you begged?)
If this report intrigues you, there are two other restaurants serving South Indian food locally that I know of — neither sporting anything like Banana Leaf’s relatively upscale decor. Frequented mainly by local Tamil families, Madras Café on Black Mountain Road serves an all-vegetarian menu emphasizing dosas, utthappam, idli, etc. As a family place, they don’t make their food spicy, but you’ll get several incendiary table sauces if you ask for them. And at the base of Horton Plaza, near the main garage entrance, is Gourmet India, specializing in the food of Mumbai but lightly and adeptly covering all regions, including a very tasty utthappam.
Good News Food Gossip: Foodies living south of I-8 have a couple of causes to rejoice. Carl Schroeder, chef-owner of Market, is opening a city branch, taking over the Banker’s Hill space vacated by Modus — tentatively naming it Banker’s Hill. And at the Loewe’s Coronado Bay Resort on the Silver Strand, famed French chef Marc Ehrler has taken over the food operations, hiring his old colleague Patrick Ponsaty (of BernardO’s and El Bizcocho) to take charge of cooking at the beautiful Mistral. That sounds like a perfect fit. Look to April or so for both dreams to come true.