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[whitespace] Oliver Chen
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Top Banana: A steaming dish of mango prawns in a silken sweet-and-sour sauce exemplifies the tropical flair of Banana Leaf, as served by waiter Oliver Chen.

Malaysian Equation

Milpitas' Banana Leaf strikes the perfect balance in Southeast Asian cuisine

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

I MUST CONFESS THAT, until a few days ago, I'd never been to a Malaysian restaurant. I had sampled dishes from that part of the world, but never in a place that labeled its food Malaysian above all else.

When I first heard about the opening of Banana Leaf--over a year ago now--I was immediately excited about trying something special, something ethnic--spicy hot and minty cool--with lots of tropical fruit and big flavors. I made tentative plans to go with friends but, as often happens, things fell through and we never made it.

So when my editor mentioned Banana Leaf restaurant recently, I didn't hesitate. Perhaps it was a bad night on the freeway, but it turned out to be a bit of an ordeal traveling there. The place was hard to get to and once in the vicinity, even harder to find. We fought knots of unruly traffic along the way and got lost once, forcing us to backtrack. Finally, we found this little restaurant amid a sprawling shopping center located on the property known as McCarthy Ranch, in Milpitas. Once inside, the world behind us melted away and all preconceived notions of big-mall dining were inexorably reconfigured.

A charming, exotic interior unfolds, in which diners can almost feel the balmy Malaysian air and smell the moist earth after monsoon rains. Tropical plants, gently rotating fans and a display of beautiful handmade pottery further help to create a Southeast Asian environment. Tables are elegantly appointed and placed to create a sense of luxurious comfort below deep blue warehouse ceilings, surrounded by golden yellow walls dotted with fetching Malaysian watercolors.

The kitchen, too, is a compelling space--a wide-open affair that connects to the dining room like a theater for the senses. It was a pleasure watching the cooks at work, creating dishes and turning them out along a wide counter that runs nearly the length of the dining room. At one point, I actually stood up to watch one of the chefs make our dessert crepe, as he spread the dough and plied it skillfully over the hot oiled griddle.

But frankly, after tasting the food at Banana Leaf, everything else seemed beside the point. Quite simply: It is some of the best I've had in a Southeast Asian restaurant. Each dish held its place as a work of culinary art, bursting with color and flavor, aroma and spice, with sauces that were masterfully crafted and reduced to glossy consistencies. For those of you who like Thai and Vietnamese food, you will find many similarities in Malaysian cooking. Especially in the way that improbable amalgams of hot and cold are effortlessly achieved. Indian and Chinese influences are also evident in just about everything on the menu.

We opened with a plate of Gado-Gado ($5.95) that included a delicious fried prawn cake, crispy tofu chunks and symmetrically cut vegetables all drizzled with a spicy peanut sauce that brought conflicting flavors into unity.

Quickly thereafter came a round of hot and sour oxtail soup ($6.95 small; $9.95 large) ladled into bowls by our waiter. In a clean, simple broth were pieces of alternately meaty and gristly oxtail, tomatoes, straw mushrooms and lemon grass, and of course, hot chile pepper, which crept upon the palate not with fury--as some can do--but with the stealth of a panther. A cold bottle of Tiger Beer from Singapore quelled the subtle stinging that eventually spread across my lips.

Before the third wisp of steam could rise from our soup bowls, Rendang Beef ($8.50) hit the table in a cloud of fragrance that pulled our heads in yet another direction. In this Malay specialty, nuggets of beef are simmered to tenderness in a pungent gravy full of curry, hot pepper and coconut milk and served on a bed of the restautant's namesake, banana leaves.

After that, all hell broke loose. The other dishes we'd ordered began to arrive, not one by one as we had hoped, but in quick, merciless succession. Before we had a chance to slow things down, all our dishes had arrived--the Singaporean hot pepper crab ($23.95 each), Mango Chicken ($8.95), Chili Prawns ($10.95), Asam Asparagus ($8.95) and bowls of coconut rice.

At one point, the table was so cluttered with bowls and plates, arms and elbows, we felt like the Marx Brothers at their wackiest. If leisure pacing is what you want, make sure you tell your waiter in advance.

In spite of this everything was delicious, especially the whole Dungeness crab full of sweet succulent meat smothered with a peppery sauce--so good we licked the shells and our fingers over and over again. The most beautiful presentation was the mango chicken, which combined morsels of breast meat, red and green peppers, coriander and mango in a spicy sweet and sour that was so smooth it reminded me of silk.

By the time we got to dessert there was room on the table--thank God--for a warm bowl of black rice with coconut milk and a made-to-order crepe filled with chopped peanuts and topped with heavy cream--both native specialties and both very good.

Whatever you do, don't pass this place up. As our waiter pointed out, you can find plenty of Malaysian restaurants in Manhattan, but they're not too common in these parts. So get there; there's no excuse not to. Banana Leaf is a gem.

Banana Leaf
Address: 182 Ranch Dr., Milpitas
Phone: 408.719.9811
Hours: Lunch 11am-3pm, Mon-Thu; dinner 5-9:30pm, Mon-Thu, until 10:30pm Fri-Sat
Prices: $5.95-$23.95
Cuisine: Malaysian

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From the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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