Banana Leaf: A Splash of Malaysia

Banana Leaf is one of those few restaurants that newcomers to Vancouver must hear or know about, once they have settled in the city. My parents were no exception, when they landed here 18 years ago as immigrants. For years, I grew up knowing that Banana Leaf was a great Southeast Asian restaurant with several locations, renowned for its award-winning food and vibrant atmospheres. Visiting the busy restaurant for dinner was a privilege for my family, as was this time. Again, my original intention was to visit another restaurant on Broadway, but since the waiting time was far too long, my mom and I decided to walk a couple blocks down and dine at Banana Leaf instead. After all, the depressing rain really made us crave for some tropical cuisine.

My mom and I took a long time to get to Vancouver by commuting, so it was around 3 PM when we were finally seated. However, despite this usual “down time” for restaurants, Banana Leaf still had a number of customers with tables full of food. Looking back at my entire experience, I am still in shock that the two of us managed to finish so much food – 2 appetizers, 2 entrées, a dessert, and a beverage! Oh and also, a special mention to our waiter, who had incredible memory capacity and required no paper nor pen to take our order.

I can hardly contain my excitement in writing about the mouthwatering Satay Skewers ($7). Described as “Malaysia’s most signature stall food”, Banana Leaf offers a variety of marinated meat, including chicken, lamb, beef, or pork. Note that for this appetizer, there is a minimum quantity of 4 skewers per order. As I mentioned at Café Pacifica that lamb is not usually the preferred type of meat for me, the two of us decided to double up on the chicken skewer instead. Their spicy homemade peanut dip is what completes these perfectly grilled skewers – trust me, if they sold the sauce separately, I would be tempted to purchase a jar for myself. The name of the dip is slightly deceiving for not actually being that spicy, so if you cannot tolerate spiciness, that’s fine. I would definitely recommend this appetizer for being arguably the best I’ve ever had of this sort.

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The next appetizer, also served with a yellowish sauce, was the Roti Canai ($7). Regarded as “one of India’s great culinary contributions to Malaysia”, this flaky layered bread is served folded, in the size of a fist. Again, Banana Leaf managed to create an irreplaceable sauce to accompany their appetizer. The bread alone would have been rather bland, but with the combination of a rich coconut curry sauce, a tropical dish emerges with seemingly satay flavours. 

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The plentiful options the menu offered troubled me, and as a result I chose an entrée that differed from my usual tastes: Sweet Ginger Fish Fillet ($12). I was unaware that the boneless basa fillet would be sautéed; but nonetheless, the white-fleshed fish was very smooth and delicate, breaking apart at the slightest bite. A Malay black sweet sauce was poured over the fillet, along with Chinese wine, caramelized ginger, garlic, and shallots. The presentation, in comparison with other Banana Leaf dishes, were not as applauding, but was still neat in appearance.

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Unlike me, my mom is extremely tolerable of spicy foods, so she chose the Gulai Seafood ($20), featuring a taste of the ocean: scallops, prawns, fish, mussels, clams, and squids simmered in spicy Gulai sauce (housemade with turmeric, tamarind, galangal, coconut milk, ginger, and lemongrass). The menu did use the chili pepper system by placing one beside the Gulai Seafood, but I never would have expected one chili pepper to become intolerable after three bites. My mom saved some of the Roti Canai to use the entrée as a dip, but personally I would have chose to order a separate bowl of rice on the side. The dish turned out to live up to its description, with a variety of fresh seafood and crunchy greens, such as asparagus and beans.

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Of course, a banana dessert was crucial in completing the entire experience at Banana Leaf – so my mom and I ordered the Pisang Goreng ($7), which was essentially crispy fried banana with vanilla ice cream, topped with crushed peanut and gula melaka (palm sugar). Desserts involving fried sweets are always my favourite, so there is no surprise that the Pisang Goreng has become one of my favourite final courses. My mom didn’t seem to appreciate the dessert as much as I did, for being too filling (most likely from the caramel sauce), but I was more than happy to finish her portion as well.

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Our Virgin Lychee Mojito ($5) was perhaps the least favourite out of the entire meal. As much as I loved the fancy straw and embellishments of leaves, lime, and berries, the drink turned out to be far too sour and tasted nothing of lychee. I was hoping that there would be real lychee fruit near the bottom of the virgin mojito, but my straw stirred with no results.

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All in all, I find that Banana Leaf entrée portions are a little smaller than what I would like, but the appetizers and desserts are just the right size. Even if some of the dishes were not fully catered to my tastes, each of them exhibited a variety of specialties and was carefully prepared. There is a reason why Banana Leaf has been in business for 19 years, and just from this one visit, I now understand how the restaurant manages to survive amidst other competitors in the Vancouver food scene.

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