Bay Leaf Restaurant – Rare Nuanced, Delicate Meat-Free Asian Cuisine
October 2nd, 2009
I'm not a vegetarian. Give up my bacon? You'd have to pry it from my cold dead hands!
Which is exactly why I limit the amount of animal protein I consume, and the number of meals I eat that contain meat; visions of my loved ones desperately trying to break my coronary-induced death grip on crumbling slices of smoky, crispy heavenly joy!
I'm also not at all comfortable with the level of cruelty and filth involved in the mass-scale factory "ranching" and slaughterhouse industry. It's degrading to animals, it's degrading to people, and it's an insult to those of us us dedicated to the joy of cooking.
I'm hardly alone in this. Many share my reasons for cutting down on meat consumption. Yet, despite this trend by a sizable demographic group, it's pretty damn hard to find decent meatless dishes in the restaurants of most cities-- even towns, like Portland, OR., that boast of being vegan and vegetarian-friendly. Apparently "friendly," in this case, generally means bland, uninspired, an after-thought; like non-alcoholic beer.
Now, I'm well aware that there are exceptional exceptions out there. Look hard enough, and you can find the odd meatless menu item that knocks your socks off, or the vegetarian restaurant manned by a talented taste bud jockey who shines. Bay Leaf is one of those places.
(story continues-- follow the jump below)
The Good: Nuanced delicately prepared meat-free dishes in a serene upscale setting. Friendly service and reasonable (for upscale) prices. Clean enough that it would even make my Mom happy!
The ‘Meh’: Server uninformed about the source of a basic key menu ingredient. This very adept chef may need to Andy-Ricker-ize a bit and take some risks.
Stolen Bay Leaf Interior Pic 2
Stolen Bay Leaf Interior Pic 3
To the first-timer, Bay Leaf looks like just another peaceful, well-appointed upscale Thai restaurant. Their culinary philosophy, though, is a fusion of vegetarian and vegan dishes that are primarily rooted in the Asian cuisines.
On both our visits to the restaurant-- first for dinner, followed by a lunch several days later-- we were made to feel genuinely welcome and appreciated by every employee that came within eyesight. That's always a good sign. The place seemed spotless, and bathrooms were stocked and clean. If an operator is not detail oriented enough (or too cheap) to keep their public areas clean, you gotta wonder what compromises they're making back on the cook line (are you listening Clackamas Sushi Land? I'm talking to you!).
My dining companion for both meals was the lovely, urbane and lightly dangerous, Jetta Lilac. She's drawn to anything vinegary and sour (especially in her dining companions)...
The menu doesn't overwhelm with a deluge of selections-- a rarity among local Asian restaurants. We started with soft salad rolls, a favorite of ours that we usually prefer meatless anyway. A thousand local restaurants do these soft spring rolls justice. Count Bay Leaf among them.
Bay Leaf offers a wonderful tea service. It's not as extensive as, say, Typhoon's, and they don't seem to use loose-leaf. But their sourcing is not generic. Our server gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to a tangy green tea with dried plums. It was so good that on our return visit we ordered a pot before we even sat down.
Entrees during both visits were generally a hit. I have to admit, though, that I loved my sesame tofu so much that I ordered it on my return visit as well. Bad restaurant reviewer, bad! I'm not usually a fan of fried tofu, because I don't like the rubbery outside texture that results or the lack of surface caramelization. Not so with this dish. The large tofu cubes appeared at first to be too lightly fried, but surprised me with a perfect amount of crispness. Bathed in a subtle tangy-sweet citrus-based sauce and ringed with a wall of steamed broccoli, this was a beautiful, simple and delectable dish.
The broccoli was far from mushy, but I would have preferred it a bit more crispy. And while it was tasty when run through the pool of sauce, it was bland on its own. Personally, I think green beans would make a better companion for the sauce. But that's a judgment call, and please don't let that sway you form choosing this wonderful dish.
I loved my sesame tofu so much that I ordered it on my return visit as well. Bathed in a subtle tangy-sweet citrus-based sauce and ringed with a wall of steamed broccoli, this was a beautiful, simple and delectable dish.
One disappointing note here; I asked the server who their tofu supplier was, and she had no idea. It was bad enough that she couldn't answer this basic question. She made it worse by trying to bluff her way through: "It comes from the store. Just the grocery store." Do I blame this otherwise attentive and friendly server for this shortcoming? No, I blame the operator for allowing her to work the floor without requiring that she know such a basic piece of menu knowledge.
Mu Shui vegetable was perfectly executed with tender-crisp fresh veggies. Yes, I now- we made a run-of-the-mill selection. But we couldn't help ourselves. We love those thin "pancakes." And hoisin sauce? I'd happily lap it up off a hairball!
My dining companion for both meals was the lovely, urbane and lightly dangerous, Jetta Lilac. She's drawn to anything vinegary and sour (especially in her dining companions), so she naturally went for the pickled mustard veggie and pine mushrooms. Sautéed mustard greens have never been a favorite of ours. But the pickled preparation in the title intrigued, and the pine mushrooms beckoned. Unfortunately, we were both underwhelmed. It wasn't badly prepared-- just a bit bland for our tastes. Sympathetic neighboring diners gave hearty endorsements to their battered eggplant crisps in Kung Pao sauce, and wild yam delight. They were not empathetic enough, thought to offer up bites.
Overall, Bay Leaf offers delicately nuanced meat-free dishes, adeptly executed in serene surroundings. Its target is the mass-foodie demographic, rather than the generic paint-by-number-tat herds that vegetarian restaurants usually market to. This is a positive sign of the growing acceptance of meat-free cuisine among the general public. Portland restaurant operators: are you paying attention?
Portland, OR 97206
Open 11am-10pm (Monday thru Saturday) 12-9:30pm (Sunday)
Snap Judgments are exactly that: snapshot assessments based on one or two restaurant visits. Restaurant reviewers base their critiques on multiple visits after tasting a variety of menu selections. They know that any establishment can have an "off" day, and they want to present as accurate a portrayal of what the public can expect as possible.
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