Sunday, April 24, 2005

Banana Leaf, Downtown

Well, after Kam's Place Singaporean Restaurant, I thought it would be a good idea to visit the other side of the peninsula, culinarily speaking, and try some Malaysian food. Since my dining companion and I were interested in comparing the two restaurants and styles, we wanted an equivalent meal at Banana Leaf to allow for as direct a comparison as possible to the meal at Kam's. So, a shrimp curry with pineapple, and a green bean dish were in order. Yes, I do these things just for you, foodie citizens of Nancyland! I think my eating habits have been altered in many ways for the sake of the blog, in fact.

We arrived after 8 pm on a Monday night, and the little room on Denman St. was still almost full, with two little tables free. It was lovely to just walk right in, though, as there is often a line at the entrance to this restaurant. The tables are tightly packed, and there was quite a bit of energy there, so it's not the type of place to go for a private, quiet dinner. In fact, I almost felt like we were dining with the couple in the table next to us. If you enjoy eavesdropping, then here's your place.

We started with two pieces of their Roti Canai ($3 each), which is a wonderful, flaky, sweet bread served with a weighty and grainy curry sauce, that I absolutely must have any time I go to Banana Leaf. We could have shared one piece (they cut it up), but I really love it, so I wanted to make sure there was enough to go around. We also ordered ice coffees (ais kopis) which have sweetened condensed milk in them. Then we had their Abundance of Seafood in Spicy Gulai Sauce with Pineapple ($17) off their fresh sheet, and the Sambal Okra, Eggplant and Green Bean ($12) which was stir fried vegetables with small shrimps (actually they weren't that small, and there were plenty of them) and tomato in dry shrimp paste "Belecan" (the name for the shrimp paste). We ordered a bowl of rice too.

While I was all geared up for a pungent, rich sauce for the seafood curry, I found that it was actually flavoured quite subtly, with very little coconut milk flavour, and almost a broth-like consistency. This was all totally appropriate to show off the mixture of fresh seafood, and quite pleasant. I must point out that the comparison between the Banana Leaf dishes and Kam's Place dishes is a little unfair, as the Banana Leaf dish is priced at $17, while the Kam's dish is only $12.95. As well, of course a medley of seafood is naturally going to be somewhat more exciting than just prawns. And there's a house seafood combination available at Kam's Place for only $12.95 (with squid, prawns, mussels, and scallops). You can order the sauces on the regular menu at Banana Leaf for any combination of seafood that you would like. If you order just prawns, for example, then the dish is $15. I certainly enjoyed the mix of fresh clams, scallops, mussels, fish, and cuttlefish (and oysters? I don't remember eating one, but maybe my companion did), and I would order the dish again. The lightness of the sauce was quite a contrast to the veggie dish we chose.

Again, our veggie choice included a more varied mix of ingredients than our selection at Kam's. We chose a dish with green beans, eggplant, okra and shrimp. And again, it cost a little more than our long bean beef dish at Kam's ($12 versus $9.95). The okra was a real treat, as I so rarely eat that vegetable here in Vancouver, and because it was cooked just to a tender crisp state, as one might expect in any Asian restaurant. I found the okra to be really tasty that way. This is compared to the soft dishes of okra I've had in the American deep south. This was a really delightful dish, especially since I have developed a deep affection for Japanese eggplant stirfries in the last couple of years. The flavours were robust and spicy. I've decided that it must be the shrimp paste that is the source of the delectable depth of flavour that I am associating with a certain "authenticity" and feels (to me) almost lacking in what I previously refered to as "westernized" flavours or that I might think of as mild-mannered or "safe for western palates." There is, as I've mentioned before in my sweet 'n sour confessions, nothing wrong with enjoying "westernized" cuisine. By the way, when I visited Singapore, the predominant use of English there made the city/country seem a bit western in a way, so it's interesting to me how cuisine can reflect other components of culture. A little bit of history for you - Singapore became independent from Malaysia in 1965. Anyway, back to the food! While the comparisons between the two meals at the two restaurants are a bit unfair, I think what is fair to say is that the Banana Leaf menu is really fun, with a great variety of dishes that have interesting combinations of ingredients. I do find this restaurant provides a little more excitement, and a more memorable dining experience than Kam's (for my taste), but it comes at a price. You're likely to spend a little more money, it may be more crowded, and it's a little more trouble to get a table. I think it's well worth it though. Try the original location too, on Broadway. The specials list is different, and includes a crab special on Mondays and Thursdays that sounds appetizing!

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